Over the weekend I went into a Best Buy. I checked out some music and some movies, then went looking for the software shelves. There weren’t any.
I don’t know if you shop at Best Buy very often, but no tech-centered store does more to stay abreast of current trends. When MP3 players got hot, Best Buy made room. Now that mobile phones are all the rage they are also center stage at Best Buy. Still, the fact that there was no boxed software came as quite a shock to someone who has watched the PC revolution from its infancy.
But it was nothing compared with the shock I felt when I found myself staring at actual physical books for sale. Sure, the shelf was an orphaned unit, awkwardly placed. And the selection was small — maybe thirty titles in all. But there they were, mostly music-related titles, defiantly low-tech in a high-tech store that couldn’t be bothered to stock software. If I ever needed confirmation that books will never die, that was it.
This anachronism also prompted me to recall what I believe to be my only-ever visit to a Borders store. It came a month ago or so in Manhattan, and the whole time I was wandering around looking at titles I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was visiting a terminally ill patient in a hospital.
It wasn’t until I made my selections and headed to the check-out line, however, that I could feel the disease. There were four parties waiting in line ahead of me, plus two customers already being rung up by two sales clerks. Except the customers weren’t being rung up, they were being pitched various Borders sales programs, to such a prolonged extent that one of the clerks finally paused to call a third clerk to register row.
Even with a third clerk the processing of the purchases of six total customers took an interminably long time. Being last in line I got to listen to sales pitch after sales pitch, all delivered in a breathless mumbled slur by clerks who were embracing, if not artfully executing, somebody’s corporate game plan to turn each purchase into a shakedown of one sort or another. (I don’t know if they were working on commission. I don’t think it matters.)
I’ve seen the same thing at Barnes & Noble, of course. And it’s hard to buy a toaster or curling iron these days without being hit up for a service contract — and Best Buy is no exception to this kind of point-of-purchase opportunism. But of all the things that Borders could and should be doing, turning the purchase experience into the emotional equivalent of a time-share spiel seems to me the worst of all possible choices.
Think about it. You’ve managed to get a customer to come to your big-box bookstore in an age when book purchases are a single click away from any computer in the world. The customer spends time in the store, interacts with the floor staff, makes selections from your wares, and is then prepared to spend actual cash money on those selections. Your response to all this is to turn the purchase process into the equivalent of a twenty-question, marketing-driven financial inquisition? Isn’t that the functional equivalent of ending a successful first date with a face slap?
Instead of asking store clerks to plow through twenty pages of offers, counteroffers and bonuses with each customer, why not instruct clerks to compliment the customer on their choice of books, or attempt to build a personal relationship based on the products being bought? Doesn’t it make more sense to be positive about the things you sell, and to emphasize the service component of those sales — which no online outlet can match, even with customer reviews? I mean, if somebody comes to your store in an age when they can get whatever they want through an impersonal process, doesn’t it make sense to assume that maybe they want a more personal experience?
As I stood in line and listened it seemed to me there was nothing being said by the Borders clerks that couldn’t have been summarized in a brief piece of printed material. The printed copy could have been quickly tucked in a book or bag along with whatever items were being bought, speeding up the purchase process while making the various offers available when the customers chose to consider them.
It’s customary at this point to admit that the bean counters in any business are better positioned to know what works and what doesn’t, but having spent ten minutes in line I think the Borders bean counters don’t have a clue what they’re doing. I think they have a spreadsheet and a set of projections and productivity targets, which, when combined with the the right astrological alignment and rose-colored glasses buys Borders an extra six weeks of life.
I’m willing to admit that hassling customers at the checkout line instead of letting them decide to read a flier does increase conversions. I’m also positive that it introduces massive amounts of false data into the pipeline from customers who will do or say anything to get the clerk to shut up and ring up their purchases.
I wanted to buy books at Borders. Borders’ response was to make me wonder why I hadn’t just ordered what I wanted online, so I didn’t have to stand in line and wait my turn to be offered a rewards program I didn’t want. Personalized service indeed.
— Mark Barrett