Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Bargains at What Price?

Last week Borders announced they’d be liquidating the stock in their remaining 399 stores nationwide, yet another occasion to discuss the merits of analog versus digital books and games, this time from the perspective of brick-and-mortar purchases versus online sales (something I’ve discussed before). Overall this is disappointing news -- thousands of employees will lose their jobs, 399 storefronts will go vacant, and communities will lose another coffeehouse-type gathering place with free wi-fi access -- and it accelerates the trend away from brick-and-mortar stores toward online media shopping, a major factor that led to Borders’ demise.
Experience or Convenience
In the days before the internet people traveled to physical stores to search for and buy what they wanted; occasionally they ordered from catalogs by phone, but these were usually specialty items from particular retailers renown for certain products. At brick-and-mortar locations they could find what they wanted and browse other options, actually hold and inspect products firsthand, and interact with staff (with varying degrees of knowledge) for questions and advice about items. Today people can find many products online, often at greater discounts (without taking into account widely varying shipping charges) and without spending the time, effort, and gas driving around to different physical retail locations. Going to a brick-and-mortar store offers an experience, though one that doesn’t always result in a satisfying purchase or a larger discount. Online shopping offers greater convenience and often better prices, but the experience remains limited to searching products on a database, reading product details, and maybe perusing some reviews of dubious origin and quality.
Today every business worth its salt has an online presence, either to promote its brick-and-mortar locations, enhance them with online ordering, or serve as wholly online retail entities. But consumers turning to online venues to make book and other media purchases remains one of the major factors in Borders’ demise. It’s a vicious cycle affecting many businesses today. More people turn to the internet for online shopping, draining sales from brick-and-mortar stores which disappear, limiting people’s physical shopping choices and sending them to online venues for satisfaction.
Some kinds of stores by their very nature encourage gathering or interaction of like-minded customers in a community hub; book and game stores remain two prominent ones that offer a more varied experience that most retail outlets. While people certainly engage in social interactions in supermarkets and other stores when they inadvertently run into friends and acquaintances, they don’t specifically go there seeking a social gathering spot for those who share their interests. Granted, online forums and other websites can serve this function to a limited extend, but it’s little more than a shadow of the actual experience of shopping, hanging out, and interacting with others at a game or book store.
A recent visit to my Friendly Local Game Store demonstrates this. I don’t usually go there to hang out (at a 45-minute drive from home it’s a bit too far, and I don’t have lots of time to do much more there than shop), but the clientele and staff is extremely friendly and they have half the store dedicated to gaming space. I was browsing the shelves displaying new releases -- right near the open gaming area -- when I overheard someone setting up for a minis game lamenting that another game store I’d visited in the past had recently and quite suddenly closed (though it maintains another location in the area). This was surprising news, and we talked about it for a few minutes; then I took up the conversation with the friendly fellow behind the counter before continuing with my shopping. Had I not stopped by that day, I’d never know the other store had closed (as of this writing the store’s website still shows it’s open, not that folks are keen on advertising news that they’re out of business).
Although online shopping venues offer more convenience, physical stores can provide a more rewarding experience, a vital element when catering to customers engaged in games, literature, and general fandom pursuits.
A Trip to A Liquidating Borders
I visited a Borders in liquidation this past weekend, not so much to be a scavenging vulture looking for the carrion of good deals on books and other merchandise, but to look for a particular book I wanted to read (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which never captivated me before hearing about the upcoming Disney adaptation, though I loved his Pellucidar books…yes, I know it’s available free online through Project Gutenberg, but I like actual, physical books) and a few other titles for my wife and little one. I was also running errands nearby, including the aforementioned stop at my Friendly Local Game Store.
I really prefer Barnes & Noble stores over Borders, but where I live I have little choice. Although the nearest Borders (30 minutes away) is somewhat smaller than most other Borders, it filled my need to browse the stacks to check out new releases or other titles that spoke to what interested me at the moment. The second-closest Borders is 45 minutes away and slightly larger. The nearest non-Borders bookstores (both Barnes & Noble) are both about an hour away. I like browsing in bookstores because I never quite know what I’ll find, especially among the bargain shelves; I like to keep an open mind about the kinds of subjects I’ll read, both fiction and non-fiction.
When it comes to print or electronic books, I prefer print (though I’m guilty of publishing roleplaying game materials in electronic PDF files more out of financial and business practicality than anything else). I don’t order books or CDs online much, though I’m doing it more out of necessity these days; usually it’s a last resort when I’m seeking something specific that a physical search of brick-and-mortar stores turns up nothing.
My visit to a liquidating Borders was sad. I was disappointed that I didn’t find anything on my list, but that was secondary to the subtle yet pervasive feeling of “schadenfreude,” that wonderful-sounding German term for enjoyment gleaned from other people’s troubles. I arrived shortly after the store opened…within minutes it was swarming with customers, many of whom were simply there to feed like sharks on chum at the discount bins and shelves. Those bargain hunters who wandered into the stacks weren’t shy in voicing their disappointment that most subjects were discounted only 10 percent. Obviously the percentages will increase as time passes and the liquidators seek to move merchandise out of closing stores.
More disheartening was the look of many Borders employees, many of whom I vaguely recognized from previous visits. One struck me quite poignantly: this kind fellow just a few months before, near Easter, had enthusiastically hosted a story time in the children’s section; during the current visit he mechanically checked shelves and answered a customer’s question with weary fatigue in his voice. He’s among thousands of Borders employees soon to lose their jobs, one of life’s most stressful experiences (and one I’ve been forced to struggle through myself as the result of a company’s closing). This is the face of the recession in America and its troubling economic consequences for the average person.