Rocket Bomber - article - retail - commentary - Amazon is a soul sucking leech on the book business.


Amazon is a soul sucking leech on the book business.

filed under , 9 April 2012, 13:35 by

[I know it’s an inflammatory title. I mean it.]

Let’s say that in one last-ditch attempt to control costs, I unplugged the phone, bulldozed the information desk, fired all my employees except for the cashiers, and no longer hired or trained any booksellers to answer questions or help you find books. Instead, I make sure all the bookcases are well-marked, hire a couple of people part time (to work nights) to shelve the books that come in, and otherwise just sort of let the place go.

Magazines that customers take off the rack and leave on tables and in chairs would just stack up over 14 hours, until the night crew can get them. Books that customers browse and leave would also collect in situ. I can put up a sign for you, though, “Please return merchandise to the proper shelf. Thank you. If you cannot remember where you found a book, please leave it on this recovery table.”

People are smart and considerate. I predict no problems, and relatively little need for the table (an afterthought) — a small end table below the sign should suffice.

Customers with questions would be directed to the single kiosk where they can try and search for themselves, and pointedly told that employees are not allowed to leave the register to help.

Would you shop here?

Why not? The books are all still there — unless another customer moved them, and how is that the retailers fault, that people can’t clean up after themselves? Even patrons of McDonald’s can bus their own table, right? Every bookcase would still have a label, new books would still be stocked. In fact, all I’m changing is the staff levels: at the base it’s still the same store, right?

My point is that the booksellers who work constantly to maintain the bookstore and equally hard to answer your questions are the reason we all shop at bookstores — the books themselves are available from just about anywhere these days, including Wal-Mart and the supermarket.

Books can be sold anywhere, that’s not what the bookstore does. We provide a specialty service. We’re the only retailer set up to answer questions, and being good sports, we’ll accept just about any question folks care to bring in — and see if there’s a book for it. Bookselling is, in fact, a service industry (lightly masked as retail) and though we support ourselves through the sale of books, it is not all that we do, or always what we do.

Still, the unstaffed bookstore I described above would also have a certain appeal to the customer base, so long as we still sold coffee & provided free wifi. A glorified reading room — or a library but without the pesky librarian to shush you when you talk too loud with friends (or on your cellphone). If you can manage the haphazard organization, you might even prefer it — so long as you didn’t need a particular issue of any one specialized magazine (how do you people find out about the feature article in Vogue Hellas anyway?) (yes, we stock it).

Still, even if you just hang out with us all day eventually you will want or need a book, and then you’ll suddenly be looking for a bookseller.

##

We have long since moved past the days when buying a particular book meant scrounging and searching dusty bookshops, or finding a accomodating bookseller with a copy of Bowker’s Books In Print (at the time an impressively large bound volume, like a huge phone book) and then waiting four to six weeks for the order to arrive.

There have always been other options: The Book of the Month Club and it’s competitors and genre-specific spinoffs were valid (and popular) options even into the late 80s — and indeed, the Book of the Month Club is still an ongoing operation, though smaller now in the internet age.

If one were interested in gardening, or astronomy, or model trains, the same catalog from which you ordered the tools of your hobby also offered books on the topic.

Prior to the shopping mall and the big box bookstore: your downtown department store had a book department (often on the first floor) [See sources: 1920, 1949] — while we almost always think of book shops as separate and an institution onto themselves, independent booksellers have, for a century and a half [and more: since the 1830s, starting in England and New York] been forced to operate alongside larger ‘corporate’ competition.

In doing research, I found complaints from booksellers lamenting the use of books as a loss leader to pull shoppers into department stores, from 1900: “Every Philadelphian who reads that offer might well get the idea that Lippincott’s and the booksellers are humbugs and frauds to want to charge $1.50 for a book which the philanthopic Mr. Wanamaker will give him for $1.10. It may be business but it is demoralizing. The discount question is one of the first that should be grappled with by the new American Publishers’ Association. If the publishers must sell to department stores, than let the books be published at net prices with closer discounts so that the department stores shall not get too much credit for cheap selling.” [Google Book Search is an amazing thing — and some problems are as old as retail.]

##

While competition from down the street is not only unavoidable, but considered kind-of-the-point of capitalist economies, the new competition presented to booksellers is both old & new, and pernicious.

Amazon is not a bookstore, though they have always presented themselves a such, even going so far as to bake the words into the early .gif and .jpg logos. Despite their own propaganda, there is no store: Amazon is a mail-order catalog.

Before you say, “No, Amazon sells books; so they’re a bookseller, right? Obvious, really…” I’ll point out that Amazon does not maintain a shop or storefront and sends books to you via the post or parcel services. So: catalog, QED.

The internet is a fabulous invention and has simplified many, many aspects of the old mail-order catalog business — there is no need to check off boxes on an order form or laboriously write out, line by line, item numbers, prices, tax, shipping & handling, and then mail the physical object (with an envelope and stamps, actually licking them… how barbaric) to some far away city and waiting, patiently, for the goods to arrive. Even the improvements provided by toll free 1-800 numbers and telephone orders are eclipsed by the convenience of web sites. But the basic process—placing orders fulfilled by a remote distribution center—is the classic mail-order business model.

Amazon is a book catalog, sure, but don’t give them undeserved credit. In positioning itself as a “Bookstore” Amazon has set up a false equivalence in the minds of customers and presents your average bookseller with a series of competitions that we cannot win:

“Oh, you don’t have it? But it’s in stock at Amazon.” [1]
“Why can’t I return this? Returns are easier at Amazon.” [2]
“Why is this book $28? There’s a copy for only $1.49 on Amazon.” [3]
“Why will it take 4 days to get here? I mean, I can get it in just 2 days from Amazon.” [4]
“Amazon customer service is just so much better. I’m never shopping here again.” [5]

[1] “In Stock” at Amazon is the same as an item being in stock at a warehouse, or book wholesaler, or even at a publisher. Yes, the book exists. That doesn’t mean you can have a copy today. Once again, customer perceptions are against me as a bookseller: The customer equates the click of a ‘buy’ button with the actual sale (“Oh, I just bought that on the web”) but the goods take time to deliver. Even a pizza takes 30 minutes.

[2] As part of its customer service, Amazon does make returns ‘easy’ – but not unlimited, and only for items sold & fulfilled by Amazon itself, not (always) for 3rd party sellers in the marketplace, and not (always) refunding shipping, either to the customer or back to Amazon. Yes, I’ve read anecdotes of amazing customer service — full refunds, prompt replacements, even shipping a new item before getting the old one back — but these seem to be true exceptions and not the rule.

Also, no one shows up to Amazon’s doorstep (corporate HQ, I guess, since they don’t have stores) with a book, asking for a refund. No receipt, no proof that it was even bought at Amazon, “it was a gift”, but with every expectation that they not only provide a gift card or credit for the full retail price of the book, but that Amazon do so with a smile and a thank you. And yet I get this kind of request daily at the bookstore.

[3] One reason Amazon can sell books for less than retail is they do not need to employ a staff member to give their customers basic lessons in economics, clarification that used goods are not equivalent to new, a concise description of how Amazon’s Marketplace works, or polite explanations that after ‘shipping & handling’ is tacked on by the seller they’re going to end up paying $8 and waiting a week for a 10 year old book.

And that’s fine, a deal in fact. And used books are great, I love them. Just don’t throw that buck-fifty in my face when we’re talking about a brand new hardcover that’s only been out of the box for 2 days.

[4] …If you are an Amazon Prime member (paying $79 for the priviledge) I’d like to thank you for remembering us at the bookstore, for making the trip to come in, for shopping with us, and even for taking additional time to engage a bookseller — up to and including asking if we can order a book for you and how long it might take to arrive. But why ask me to defend why I, as a bookseller (making minimum wage for all you know) with no control over either warehouse procedures or the shipping companies we employ, can’t match a premium service you pay an annual fee for. It seems a bit much. Are you trolling the bookstore?

[5] Amazon’s much vaunted “customer service” consists of having a web site, shipping the correct item in a more or less timely manner, and handling the 1-in-1000 or so orders where there is some sort of issue — damaged in shipping, lost, wrong item, or ‘customer error’ of various sorts up to and including folks who just decide they don’t want it — which they do via email and their web site. It’s almost impossible to actually call Amazon, as they don’t publish their 1-800 number anywhere on the site (Google searches pull up 1.866.216.1072).

Oddly, it’s the same thing I do every day – in person. And yet, I get no credit.

##

I’ll get to my point: Amazon is not only *not* a bookstore, they are a parasite on bookselling.

Amazon is soaking up all the easy sales: those where the customer already knows what they want and can clearly communicate that [to a computer in this case]. These are books that we have in store, often on front-of-store displays, including the bestseller lists and major new releases. In the event of unprecedented demand, due to breaking events or sudden popularity [50 Shades of Grey], Amazon will even sell you the book before they have it in stock. Under the guise of ‘preorders’ they get to sell at no risk, even before they themselves have to pay for the stock.

Amazon can manipulate this part of their business quite well; they delay payments to suppliers until weeks after they themselves have already banked the sale.

What about the hard sales? The customer searches? Yes, like any other search engine, a customer can use Amazon to find books — if the customer is willing to work at it. There isn’t anyone on hand to correct their spelling, or to point out that Instanbul, Constantinople, and Byzantium are all different names for the same city.

And as I point out above, no one picks up the phone to call Amazon. Have no doubt that people call the book store with the web browser window open and ask us questions until they can complete their Amazon order. If you’d care to find out just how many people call a bookstore, I’d like to invite you to my workplace for an afternoon. [We’re listed first in the phonebook, even ahead of all the other stores in our chain, in a metropolitan area with 4.5 million people — so yeah.]

Amazon doesn’t recommend books either, not like a bookseller can (and does). “People who bought this also bought” is a fine thought (and easy to code) but is it any surprise that folks who read Patterson have bought 5 of his other books? And the much vaunted [patented, even] customer reviews?

Randall Monroe has the most concise response to that:

After the holidays, every January I’m presented with dozens of gift returns — no few of which came from Amazon, no doubt — but I won’t belabor the point by mentioning it more than once twice.

In-store author events, browsing bookshelves, independent discovery, front of store displays as publisher marketing tools — all things the bookstore provides that you don’t get from Amazon, all of which promote reading and books (and book collecting, occasionally) as pursuits, and which also enrich your community. Amazon is slowly siphoning off sales that result from the efforts we make in-store, while giving nothing back to your community. They don’t even pay what should be their fair share of local taxes.

Amazon is a catalog, not a bookstore. Booksellers provide services to you that few appreciate, at least to the point of financially supporting us. Amazon also makes use of our services, in that we’re helping their customers, too; it’s our job to sell books even if we can’t bank the sale.

Imagine the bookstore with no sales staff, just cashiers. That’s the future we’re already heading towards as more bookstores are forced to hire fewer booksellers — or even to let a few go.

Imagine your hometown or neighborhood without a bookstore. Some of you don’t have to imagine, as one major chain has already closed.

There are solutions. One can even compete with Amazon. But the new bookstore will likely look a bit different than anyone is used to.

[I’ll write up my thoughts on a ‘new model’ bookstore in the next post]



Comment

  1. Isn’t this just another statement about physical bookstores having to compete with virtual by providing better customer service? I suspect articles like this help you feel better, which is a fine thing, but I’m not sure where to go after reading them. Are you trying to convince me to pay 30-50% more for the exact same object locally? I don’t use the elements you’re promoting as virtues of the local store. I don’t buy coffee. I don’t use free wi-fi. I don’t read free magazines. I’ve never gotten satisfactory help. (The books I want don’t tend to be stocked in my local suburban store.) So … maybe I’m missing the point here. Help?

    Comment by Johanna — 9 April 2012, 14:51 #

  2. I don’t think this payroll reduction game is going to do any favors for B&N in the long run. Fewer booksellers = Fewer salespeople = Fewer sales = Far less efficient use of a giant, expensive store. Every time I go into one it seems there is less and less to differentiate a B&N store from your hypothetical bookseller-less store, or from a mail-order catalog for that matter.

    Comment by Nathan — 9 April 2012, 15:08 #

  3. @ Johanna:

    I guess I meant to show that there are things web sites don’t/can’t do yet.

    Also, cutting payroll is not the way out of this mess. See the article from the Jan/Feb issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Why Good Jobs Are Good for Retail” http://hbr.org/2012/01/why-good-jobs-are-good-for-retailers

    And yes, venting makes me feel better.

    I had a much larger article in the works, and this particular rant wasn’t a good fit for that post; so maybe I wasn’t clear, or thought I was making a point that is not apparent above.

    It is also possible that web sites are in fact the better business model, and I’m backing the wrong side.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 9 April 2012, 18:19 #

  4. I agree with you guys — cutting payroll damages what makes bookstores special. Typical short-term business thinking at the expense of the long-term.

    Comment by Johanna — 9 April 2012, 19:14 #

  5. “Are you trying to convince me to pay 30-50% more for the exact same object locally?”

    The point would seem to be, the bookstore is selling something other than just the object.

    For people who are consuming those services, it wouldn’t be a matter of convincing them, but rather of reminding them.

    For people like me in living in a small city / town with no Big Box store in easy cycling or bus distance, its neither here nor there ~ unless there’s some form of bookstore business model that works for a smaller locality, I won’t have access to the services that a big box store can provide. Indeed, I never really did ~ I shopped at the mall bookstores in the 80’s a bit, then went to Grad School, then went to work in Oz, where paperbacks cost a bloody fortune but I was still shopping at the mall bookstore at the regional mall, sometimes the slightly larger (but not big box) bookstore in the Newcastle Hunter Street Mall … and then back to the US and genteel poverty in a small city / town not big enough for a big box store, that lost its Borders outlet on the opposite end of the bus line a year before Borders went belly up countrywide.

    A double pocket-sized mall kind of bookstore with bestsellers and recent genre sellers and a coffee shop and a WiFi and bestsellers and a Print On Demand machine and an ability to place an order for a title in print but not in stock would do me fine. Even if I had to go to the next city over to get to it.

    Comment by BruceMcF — 9 April 2012, 20:11 #

  6. I belong to the “those where the customer already knows what they want and can clearly communicate that” group.

    But from a business point of view, you should think like a customer. Disclaimer: I’m a huge Amazon customer.

    I buy from Amazon because prices are cheap, and service is non-existent. For me, no service is good service, that happens to be what Jeff Bezos think as well.

    Those online reviews are actually “store helpers”, and that’s only possible with the Internet.

    The internet has changed business models significantly.

    You’re selling books. They are selling books. So that’s the difference between buying from you or them? You have to do something significantly different from your competition to stay ahead.

    Physical bookstores are hard to run nowadays. Same case for bleeding newspaper companies.

    Comment by Parka — 10 April 2012, 00:19 #

  7. @ Parka

    When I see that folks are no longer taking pictures of book covers with their smart phones in my store, to order later online, then I’ll concede I have nothing left to add to the process.

    As far as ‘business’ goes: I’m a corporate wage slave forced to labor on in the face of both willful ignorance on the part of my employer and active resistance [and occasional hostility] from the visitors to my store, who used to be my store’s customers.

    I still find reviews from independent websites & blogs to be more helpful than ‘customer reviews’. YMMV. Amazon is not the whole of the internet, so it’s best not to conflate the two: do not confuse the gatekeeper with the gate, or the wall, or lands beyond, or the people who live in the lands beyond. You may only interact with them at that one gate, but that doesn’t make the gatekeeper an oracle.

    If you are happy with Amazon, congratulations. They are a fine company and sell a wide variety of products, not just books.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 10 April 2012, 00:34 #

  8. General, to all readers: This post is dripping so much sarcasm through its first 10 paragraphs that it’s been named an EPA sarcasm superfund site – catch the joke or do not comment.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 10 April 2012, 00:54 #

  9. Amazon does a better job than you ever will because they respect their customers, which you clearly don’t. You have a huge sense of entitlement, and blame everybody but yourself for not adapting to the 21st century. A dedicated bookstore is a waste of space and resources when the reviews, blogs and discussions on the internet have far, far, far more value than the misguided opinions of one bookseller recommending another author to you.

    Instead of whining that customers should do business with you else they’re ignorant (what a load of crap) you should try changing your business model.

    There is a local bookstore around here that thrives where you fail because they pay extra to offer 2 day shipping for all books. They branched out and became an educational toy store as well.

    You can blame amazon all you want, but this started before amazon. BN and Borders were kicking the crap out of independent bookstores before amazon was the giant it is now. How did they do it? By offering a larger selection, discounts, preorders, fast shipping, book clubs, and expanding into movies and music.

    Let me revisit your list: #1. Small bookstores have poor selection, which is why shopping at amazon, bn etc is way more awesome. Nothing you say is going to change that. And with ebooks there IS NO WAIT. #2. Returns are easier at amazon, and targeting the marketplace is a COP OUT because that’s not amazon, those are stores exactly like yours offering poor customer service because you fundamentally mistrust your customers. #3. Consider offering a buy back service. You will never compete with selling books new when used like new is much cheaper. #4. Well your criticism is actually fair for once. #5. Amazon customer service involves TRUSTING the customer and working with them. They seem to have a customer is always right policy, and act fast and courteously in our favor. They do not write angry, raging blogs about how much they hate their customer. They do not require receipts for returns (they don’t and for that matter neither does walmart), nor would they ever have restocking fees or any other made up thing to punish customer for making a return.

    Instead of blaming amazon and your own customers, point the finger where it belongs, yourself. You must innovate, you must offer something that people want. You are not entitled to paying customers just because you personally like the idea of a bookstore and what it brings to the community. That is irrelevant. You need to offer something that everybody else wants. Figure out what they want and offer it or pay the consequences (go bankrupt).

    You must transform to fit the 21st century, or you will become a relic. And the first step to doing that is taking personal responsibility for your own failure as a bookseller.

    Comment by DavidW — 20 April 2012, 09:37 #

  10. @David.

    Yep, I love calling Amazon and talking to one of their Customer Service reps. Oh, wait, I had to use a search engine to find that number, and google pulled up sites where people complain about Amazon’s customer service — as Amazon doesn’t actually list a telephone number anywhere on their own site.

    I also love the guided search they provide, the prompt answers to really tough book-trivia questions, and all the personal recommendations I get because they have someone working their information desk — well, I suppose that would have to be a chat box. [which they also don’t have]

    I also love all the Amazon employees — you know, the lowest-paid front-line warehouse guys — who care so much about their job they write empassioned blog posts about how much fun it is to work for Amazon, and how much they enjoy the personal, human interaction with their customers.

    ##

    Amazon is fine – for a mail order catalog.
    Amazon has great recommendations – written by your fellow customers, not by staff at Amazon.
    Amazon has everything – if you already know what you want, and can find it yourself.

    I think, as stated in the post, that Amazon’s vaunted “customer service” is putting the right item in a box and sending it to you. Way to raise the bar.

    Amazon is a very fine company – but is not a bookstore. Making comparisons between the two means one is going to look bad in comparison to the other.

    Saying that the bookstore is no Amazon is fine, if your personal preference is to just buy things from a catalog. I find that in many other areas, they are lacking.

    And thank you for taking the time to comment.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 20 April 2012, 10:02 #

  11. You don’t have to use a search engine to call Amazon. Click on Help, then click on Contact us, and you’ll be given several different ways of contacting them, including by phone. When I had a return issue (for a defective DVD) that couldn’t be handled with their normal return system, I went through this route, and had no problem talking on the phone. I chose the “call me” option so I didn’t have to sit on hold waiting for a customer service rep.

    For most returns, their forms-based process works just fine. For the occasional return that doesn’t fit within its parameters, I’ve had success with both email and phone contact.

    Comment by Sherri — 20 April 2012, 11:36 #

  12. As an independent bookstore, my feeling is — a pox on both your houses.

    Barnes and Noble is just getting back what it dished out.

    As far as customers like David are concerned, he was never going to be a customer of mine anyway. His arrogance is pretty breathtaking.

    What I do is carry the best possible books I can afford to carry. I don’t discount, I don’t serve coffee, I don’t even have any chairs. Just books. Really good books.

    I’ve read a lot of them, and love to talk about them.

    I deal with the customers I have, not the customers I don’t have. I provide the service that is required of the product.

    “Well,” I hear you saying. “You won’t stay in business long.”

    I’m in my 32th year of business, the last five years have been my best ever, and I’m taking as much time off as I want. My wife also has a successful bookstore, in its 9th year.

    I’m happy with my job.

    The mistake I think most bookstores are making is trying to be like Barnes and Noble or like Amazon.

    Anyone who says to me, “the customer is always right” I just smile, and think the poor sap is deluded. Anyone who wants me to discount, is given directions to Walmart.

    It’s my store, you’re my guest, and I’ll treat you as a guest and hope you like what I have to offer. I’ll care about you, if you care about me. If not, there is always the warm embrace of Amazon if that’s your karma.

    Pretty simple, really.

    Comment by pigs with wings. — 21 April 2012, 18:34 #

  13. Sorry, Matt. I’m not sure you’ll post these anyway, but this is to you.

    I wonder if this might be a really good time to start an independent bookstore. A couple of years ago, I was worried like everyone else, but books keep on selling, at least the way I sell them.

    A small, curated store that just focuses on books and nothing else but books. Keep the costs down, No signings, No coffee, no extras, just books.

    No offense to your employer, but I wonder if it really wants to stay in the non-e book business, which will open room for the indies.

    My experience is, the best time to start an enterprise is when no one thinks you can do it, but where you see an opportunity.

    Because, I think you’d really like being in control of the decisions.

    Comment by pigs with wings — 21 April 2012, 19:42 #

  14. Why would Amazon ask for a receipt for a return? The CSR would just look up your order.
    You don’t really think they would accept a return they did not sell? Then again, what other company can stay in business all these years and not make a profit? Sell the Kindles for cost of manufacture? Spend biillions more for shipping than received from sales of Amazon Prime?
    Apparently what they do best is loose money!

    Comment by Mik Finkel — 22 April 2012, 20:41 #

  15. Why keep the cashiers? You could just have those self-check out machines like they do at Home Depot, and spend the money saved on LP personnel. Nobody is going to mistake one of them for somebody that will help you.

    Comment by cmchan — 4 May 2012, 00:53 #

Commenting is closed for this article.



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