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Pass Me a Bottle, Mr. Jones

Borders’ new CEO George Jones faces a major challenge. Known as a retail innovator from stints at Warner Bros. Studio Stores and Saks, Jones takes over a company that’s locked in a competitive vise-grip between Barnes & Noble and Amazon. I thought a little unsolicited advice might be in order: Dear Mr. Jones,

Borders’ new CEO George Jones faces a major challenge. Known as a retail innovator from stints at Warner Bros. Studio Stores and Saks, Jones takes over a company that’s locked in a competitive vise-grip between Barnes & Noble and Amazon. I thought a little unsolicited advice might be in order:

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Dear Mr. Jones,

I am an author, filmmaker, and avid consumer of books, CD’s, and videos. I live a few blocks from your Santa Monica store, and you don’t get any of my business.

Your store is located on the Third Street Promenade, a high-visibility location frequented by tourists and trendy locals. The Promenade has become a brand showcase for the world’s top retailers including Apple, Puma, Adidas, J Crew, Pottery Barn, Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware and Abercrombie & Fitch. These stores are glittering, innovative, and ever changing. Yours is dingy and unfocused.

Barnes & Noble runs a tight ship two blocks up the street. Their store is bigger, cleaner, and better organized. The clerks know books and can make thoughtful recommendations. One way you can begin to compete is with pricing. At B&N, almost everything except the bestsellers is sold at list, with a 10% loyalty discount to B&N cardholders.

The other day, I was in your store looking for a book that was out of stock. Your clerk pleasantly offered to special order the book for me. It would take seven days to arrive and would be priced at list. No thanks: as an Amazon Prime member, books are shipped to me in two days, and I pay an average of 35% off list.

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Oh, that’s right, you know something about the big snake. Your predecessor outsourced your online store to Amazon, hand-delivering Borders’ best customers to your toughest competitor for a measly commission. Toys R Us had to litigate to get out from under this kind of brand-destroying arrangement.

If you can’t compete online, then I suggest bringing the wired world into your stores. The new Santa Monica Public Library has a flat screen PC at the endcap of every bookshelf, enabling keyword search of the entire catalog. Whaddaya have? A few 1990’s era CRT kiosks scattered around the selling floor. When you install the new endcap PC’s, how about adding bar code scanners, enabling customers to wave their loyalty cards and get customized recommendations based on their current in-store location?

Let’s take it a step further and add WiFi-enabled Palm T/X handhelds for the clerks. Your staff will be able to respond to customer questions on the fly without heading towards a stationary terminal. Attach a credit card swipe to the Palm, and your clerks will accept payment on the selling floor, sending happy customers on their way without waiting in line for the cashier.

Speaking of the prime downstairs area, how about racking books, DVD’s and CD’s together when appropriate? Break down the bureaucratic walls between departments, and you can feature a political rack pairing Al Gore’s documentary with books about global warming. What about an arts table matching DVD’s with books about the films, and CD’s with books about the musicians? Santa Monica is the self-help capital of the world, so why not a table with Yoga books, videos and CD’s, even Yoga mats?

Finally, how about putting an employee in charge of tracking LA County’s major cultural events, and placing relevant books, DVD’s and CD’s at the front of the store? Tourists on the Promenade are in town for museum exhibits, sports, conventions, and political events… why not stock timely sale-priced items culled from The Long Tail? Read the customer’s mind, and the impulse buys will follow.

Fast Company contributor Greg Spotts is the director of the documentary film “American Jobs,” and the author of two nonfiction books about the changing global economy. Greg is the cofounder of the Shortlist Music Prize, and has produced live concerts and soccer matches broadcast on MTV2, ABC and ESPN. Greg’s personal blog is located at www.gregspotts.com.

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