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What If Bookstores Were Less Like Grocery Stores, and More Like Apple Stores?

Many bookstores, particularly the big chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million, design the physical stores like quiet grocers. Quiet as in library quiet, with aisle after aisle of shelves, organized by subject or type of book -- instead of cereals, we've got history; instead of produce, we've got self-help; instead of meat and poultry we've got fiction. Now, to be fair, I should mention that many bookstores learned, at some point twenty or so years ago, that they ought to be, could be, should be, so-called "third places" (the first two being home and work/school) rather than quiet grocers. That meant making them comfortable, inviting customers in to sit, maybe have a cup of Starbucks, and hang out for a while. So yes, that is a difference from being just plain "book grocers." But at the end of the day, what the storekeeper -- whether it's Barnes & Noble or Safeway -- is hoping you'll do is come to the counter with a pile of stuff to buy, and leave the store with heavy bags and a long receipt.

Okay, so you head off to the local third place, say, your local Barnes & Noble. You know what book you want, but you also want to see what other things might be available in the same subject, say, history. You find the aisle of history shelves. The aisle is narrow. There's a pair of customers sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle. Beside each of them are pile of books. They're completely immersed in reading. The shelf with the books you want to browse is blocked because, Murphy's Law being what it is, they're right in front of shelf or shelves you want to get to. How many times has this happened to you? If they're courteous, they'll move, but only so far, and the whole browsing idea suddenly becomes not such a fun idea.

Contrast the experience at an Apple store.

  • You go in, the place is noisy and buzzing with people like a bustling bazaar.
  • Store employees, every single one of them familiar with every product in the store, are everywhere. (Makes me wonder: you know how the best schools have the highest teacher-to-student ratios? Well, perhaps Apple has learned that having high employee-to-customer ratios pays off well too.)
  • They're easy to find: they easily stand out in their trademark black shirts.
  • When you find the stuff you want, you get the attention of any of the nearby Apple employees, and presto, the place you are standing in inside the store becomes the instant point-of-sale: no checkout cashiers at the front of the store, none of that. No, instead, the Apple person is standing where you are, and proceeds to whip out their tricked-out iPhone cash register from their pocket, you hand them your credit card, they scan it right into the side of this special retail iPhone, presto, sale done, your receipt gets emailed to you instantly, and you walk out of the store with your newly bought stuff.
  • Have trouble with your previous purchase? Bring it in to the Genius Bar and they take care of it very efficiently, often being able to diagnose the problem right on the spot with some amazing little gadgets they have.

What if this were the way bookstores worked? Think about it:

  • A high employee-to-customer ratio
  • Store employees out and among the customers at all times
  • The store employees might not have read the top 100 bestselling books in fiction and nonfiction, but they know what they are and can give you a synopsis readily.
  • A noisy, bustling, exciting place where customers are talking with employees and with each other
  • Customers buy books on the spot, the employee just scans the barcode in, slides your credit card, presto, transaction complete, receipt emailed to you or printed out whatever you wish.
  • Don't know what the name of the book is? Go to the book equivalent of the Genius Bar. Get help. Maybe there's an Espresso book machine (or ten of them) behind the counter. Book not in stock? No problem. They'll print it right in front of your eyes. Done.

Okay but what about e-books? Don't the online iTunes/AppStore/Kindle type of stores eliminate the need for a physical bookstore altogether? Maybe yes if you're thinking old-school type stores. But I think there are tons of things you could to do to make physical bookstores viable in this crazy digital age. (If nothing else, not everybody is gaga over e-books. There will be markets for physical books for years to come.) I think it's time to utterly reinvent the physical bookstore. Reinvent the entire concept of what a bricks-and-mortar bookstore is, starting in 2010 and onwards.

Idea: merchandise lots of eBooks in a physical store. Customers bring their ebook readers in, buy the books via wifi in the store. Only way to get special deals that aren't available online. Gotta be in the store. Make the store have value.

Idea: how about Woot-ifying the store: every day, there is a huge sale on ONE specific book. Every day it's different. You have to be there to get it. Maybe it's 50%, 60% off. And they have a limited quantity. Once they're all gone, they're gone. Or maybe not. (That Espresso machine again.) Or maybe not just ONE book, but a small number of books. Or maybe ONE book but a different one in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. Experiment. Figure out what works. But try something new.

Idea: combine Eventful Demand with a bookstore experience and with e-books. Want to meet an author? Demand they come to a physical store. If you're a store employee, ask your customers what authors they would love to meet and get signed copies of books from. When the customers tell you who they like, whip out your little iPhone cash registers, take down their email addresses, and register them for the demands right on the spot. You now have a connection with that customer that you didn't have before. And the customer does too. And the author does too. Everyone wins.

Idea: think about post-2010 bookstores as curation shops, to meet the needs and interests of the browsing customer, the one who's not yet sure what they want to buy. Go wild on curation, the way Amoeba does with music. Each employee becomes an expert, a mini-celebrity in their town: you start following them on twitter, listening to their recommendations, buying things because of what they have found to be great.

There is a future for physical bookstores, but it is a very different future than what we have today. The world is not over because of Amazon. Amazon is not perfect. I still buy books at physical local stores. I buy lots of books from Amazon. I would buy more from physical local stores if prices were better, availability were better -- but especially if the experience were better. So let's make it better!

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