Barnes & Noble E-Commerce Focuses On Experience

The battle for book sales should be an online natural. But as Barnes & Noble discovered this week, the compelling, intimate experience of a physical bookstore is still proving elusive.

B&N, with almost 800 bookshops in all 50 states, on Monday (Oct. 27) introduced what it dubbed "My B&N," a program designed to create personal profiles for all customers so that they can more easily interact with other customers.

More so than almost any other product, books and their multimedia cousins are about interactions and experience. Consumers walking into a Target to buy an MP3 player do not want to discuss MP3 players, and it's quite unlikely that they have a burning desire to hang around with other MP3 player customers. They want to just buy their item and get home to use it.

But the very nature of books—especially fiction—lends itself to social interactions. That's why B&N's latest effort is so closely integrated with social networks and in-site discussion forums. It's an almost identical strategy to Borders, which has also been pushing social connections and multimedia. Borders, however, has gotten more creative with in-store kiosks and making the in-store experience more interactive.

By contrast, Amazon.com has kept a look-and-feel that leans more toward efficiency. In short, Borders and Barnes & Noble seem to expect consumers to leisurely hang around while Amazon assumes they want to get in, find their stuff, pay and leave quickly. (The Amazon approach sits better with me personally, but as a professional curmudgeon, that's to be expected.)

The B&N strategy assumes that discussing books leads to book-lovers buying a lot more of them, which is quite plausible. "As you create an essential list on your site, it references related books. This book reminds me of this book that I enjoyed," said Kevin Ryan, B&N's VP for social media.

Video is an area that Borders and B&N have been pushing, and Ryan said B&N has about 1,300 videos on the site thus far. These would primarily be videos about books, such as author interviews, as opposed to videos being sold.

The B&N site experience, though, extends beyond discussion and encourages consumers to select their own online pseudonym and "an avatar from an exclusive collection of colorfully designed characters," a B&N statement said.

The trend among retailers to try and integrate themselves with various social networking sites is undeniable. EMarketer reported this week that almost 60 percent of the largest 100 E-tailers in the United States have pages on various social sites, with Facebook accounting for 32 percent, MySpace some 27 percent, YouTube 26 percent and Flickr five percent.

But that EMarketer report appears to have mixed and matched inconsistent figures. The 60 percent came from a report from Rosetta, an interactive marketing agency. But that report limited itself to Facebook and didn't even look at other social networking sites, said Adam Cohen, a firm partner. Also, the total sample was explicitly not the top 100 U.S. online retailers (although it said so in a news release), because it excluded from the calculations the firm's clients "who didn't want to be mentioned"—including Borders.

But those exclusions would likely increase those percentages, making the bottom line still valuable: Retailers are no longer going to wait for recession-panicked customers to find them. They'll go visit them in whatever virtual playground they're in.

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