Borders digital store
December 01, 2008


Borders has two big bookstores in Ann Arbor, both of which are always crowded with shoppers. So when the new Borders concept store opened several months ago, I was curious to see what it had to offer. Touted as a "breakthrough retail concept incorporating digital and internet features ", the new stores have quietly been opening around the country.

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Posted by ellen at December 01, 2008 11:16 AM

The obvious focal point of the store was the Digital Center, a circle of PC's surrounded by an array of tempting gadgets. It so happened when I first walked in, that I was in the market for an ebook reader, but it had to be capable of reading PDF's. Borders heavily promotes their Sony ebook reader, and it was about the right size, so I grabbed for my iphone to look up this information. Big surprise - the only wifi in the Borders store of the future is T-mobile, which is notoriously un-free. [Update 1 year later: they recently started offering free wifi.] You can't even get online for a few minutes without paying 6 or 7 bucks. Call me a digital snob, but even Starbucks finally got the message and dumped the pay-for-every-second T-mobile service. It definitely struck a jarring note. I looked it up using regular Edge service and found that the Sony does not do PDFs. It also doesn't have a huge selection of ebooks - nothing like the Kindle. That ended my interest in the Sony. (I eventually got an Acer Aspire One which cost only a little more than the Sony, reads PDF's without reformatting, has wifi, does email, runs Open Office, etc.)

The Digital Center offers Digital Services like Shutterfly photo books, Lulu self-publishing, music downloads, etc. I just can't understand what they are thinking. If I'm looking for music online, I really don't see a need to go to a store to do it. If I am too poor to have internet service at home, I probably can't afford an mp3 player or to pay for my music downloads, either. If I want to use Shutterfly or something similar to create a photo book, it's probably going to take at least an hour, often more, and I'll want to do that from home as well. If I am one of the few remaining people on the planet that can't figure Shutterfly out for myself, I might go down to Borders to get some help the first time, but not the second. And it's hardly a business model to build with.

The whole affair is a sad testimony to what can go wrong when corporate marketing people who understand neither how people use computer services nor how they use bookstores try to hop on the "digital" bandwagon. It's actually embarrassing and not very successful. The last time I went down there, last Sunday, just after Thanksgiving, there was hardly anyone in the store. There were loads of eager staff, though, ready to help out if we needed any. Actually I DID need help. I was looking for a book - on a digital subject, too! Erica Sadun's iPhone Developer's Cookbook. Borders did not have that book, nor any book on iPhone development. I assumed this was because the topic is too obscure or unpopular to be at a big bookstore and was all set to get it from Amazon, but then the very next week I found it and several other books on the subject at the local Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble got that sale. The Borders employees kindly offered to order the book, but if I need to order a book, I'll order through Amazon, since you get a choice of sellers and prices on most books, as well as indepth reviews, previews of the inside, etc.

Which brings me back to the books at Borders new store. There really aren't very many of them. There's loads of space for them, though, because the thing about digital services is, they don't take up much room! Even with all the signage and fanfare, the whole digital thing takes up a tiny fraction of the space available. But their book selection is shallow at best. They do have a lot of nice seating, though.

Borders really needs to think hard about why people choose to go to a physical bookstore in this day and age. I think it's got more to do with having a destination OTHER than your computer chair at home. We all spend plenty of quality time with our computers. We don't need someone to give us a worse computer to work on, with less features and no internet. Give us a nice place to browse the books that Amazon only gives us a glimpse of, and give us a superb selection. Spend some serious money on your book buyers who will figure out which books we actually want. Get creative! Enlarge the coffee shop, add some better food, make it fun!

I heard that Borders was trying to find a buyer a little while back, but were unsuccessful. That's really too bad, since it would be a shame to lose the other Borders stores, so I hope they reshape these concept stores into something attractive, soon.

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Based on the name, I'd have expected Print On Demand services available in store. Sure, not *every* book would be available for POD, but there's a fair number out there that would make sense. That's something I would pay for - order a book, have it ready in 20 minutes, or something like that. Print any book from lulu immediately - that would have been a good tie in, but that's not what I'm reading on their press page. Can you do that there?

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