Borders.com Takes Control of Its Online Destiny

June 1 marked the official launch of the new Borders.com. Prior to then, Borders had partnered with Amazon, using the e-commerce site to handle the heavy lifting and delivering Borders customers mostly an Amazon experience for about seven years.

Now that Borders has total command of its site and controls its customers’ online experiences, I have some questions: What does it expect? What is it trying to do?

Of course, we can’t discuss selling books online without talking about Amazon’s dominance. Does Borders expect to go head to head with Amazon? Or does it have a different strategy?

While we don’t know all the answers to these questions, we can make guesses, even learn, as we look at the new Border’s site.

We see some exciting selling and marketing opportunities for Borders.com.

Amazon’s Vulnerability

Borders shouldn’t take on Amazon head to head, at least not now.

Readers of this column are aware of my regard for Amazon’s optimization culture. And there’s no doubt it does many things right, as evidenced by the company’s consistently high conversion rate.

But as you dig an inch beneath the surface of its success, you’ll discover Amazon has some weaknesses. While it’s the master of selling to those who know exactly what they want, it offers a horrible experience for anyone browsing for books and hoping to discover something new and unique.

This is no surprise. Amazon owns the search on unique identifiers, but with unique identifiers you deal with mostly middle- to late-stage buyers who know approximately or exactly the item they want. Amazon does a more than respectable job making product suggestions and increasing average order value (AOV) through up-sell, but it’s practically impossible to enjoy an experience if you are just browsing, looking to discover new books or authors.

By creating an unparalleled experience for book browsers, Borders can create a strong niche. Already Borders has changed tactics in stores, reducing shelf inventory, featuring more books face out, and allowing customers to see and discover more books. This change has increased brick-and-mortar sales by double digits. Our senior persuasion architect, Anthony Garcia, shops at Borders stores almost exclusively because he claims he has found dozens of new book and authors he had never considered before.

Borders needs to take this mojo online. If its new site is any indication, it’s already making that attempt.

Borders, King of Book Browsers

All of us at my company are book junkies. We buy more books than we can read, and we are always looking for unique business and history books. Many of us are on a never-ending hunt to find great new (or unfamiliar) fiction authors. With that in mind I gave Anthony a handy sum of Borders Bucks to see if he could find a few new books or authors using the new site.

Overall, he gave the site a solid “C” grade and came away buying nothing. But he did report some promise.

His first encounter was with the “Magic Shelf,” which turned out to be a little more than eye candy. His attempts to edit the shelf to better reflect his tastes proved difficult. He was repeatedly sent to his account and given a few radio buttons to choose categories. If there’s a way to place specific titles on his shelf, he couldn’t find it. And the books on his Magic Shelf were difficult to navigate or drill down into for more information. We are optimistic this feature will improve. When it does, it will be a powerful browsing tool, as it introduces more relevant new books and authors based on the visitor’s taste.

On listing pages like this one, the visitor is presented with two ways to display lists of books. The default list is an icon view that displays nothing but thumbnails of book covers. When you mouse over a thumbnail you get a box with more details on that particular book. We like the idea because book covers can be interesting and intriguing, but the thumbnails were too small and we had difficulty seeing the titles. Borders should increase the thumbnail size and offer at least a little detail underneath it, like the title, author, price, and availability. What would be even better would be an ability to “pick up the thumbnail,” thereby enlarging it and possibly even being able to flip it and see the back side. It would also be great if we could just drag and drop books onto the magic bookshelf.

The other listing option is more traditional, along the lines of an Amazon listing page.

There were also no clear calls to action (e.g., add to cart, add to wish list) on each view. The listing page offers a “want it?” action, but it’s a vague call to action and visitors will be unsure what happens when they click it.

Product detail pages also need some work. We found it hard to find the review tab, and once we did several of the books had measly and unhelpful reviews. We assume this will change as the site generates more traffic and sales. The book descriptions themselves were skimpy in comparison to Amazon’s. Compare the description for Scott McClellan’s book “What Happened?” on Borders and Amazon. Which page gives you more buying confidence? (It would be interesting to hear your thoughts here, list the reasons and send them to me.)

Some Tips for Borders

Borders has clearly done an amazing amount of work, and the site looks great. Our guess is it knows it needs to do much more. Here are few things it can do to outflank Amazon and own book buyers who are early in their buying phase:

  • Continue to work on the magic bookshelf. Find ways to make it easier to navigate and customize so the books on the shelf are more relevant to the visitor.

  • Make it easy to engage the magic bookshelf from anywhere on the site. Right now, we constantly had to go back to the home page to see it.
  • Continue to leverage the cross-channel opportunities using Borders Rewards.
  • Introduce more social Web 2.0 elements: allow visitors to share lists, chat, and discuss what they’re reading. Allow visitors to communicate with each other on your site about books they have read or are considering. In short, turn visitors into a de facto sales force.
  • Introduce a user tagging system that will allow visitors to tag books using their own terms. This will allow visitors to sort and interact with items on their terms, not just the terms/categories you’ve assigned. Is Heller’s “Catch-22” a classic, fiction, or both?
  • Improve Borders Rewards e-mail marketing. It shouldn’t be about offers but about real content.
  • Partner with or acquire Facebook apps, like Visual Bookshelf, and become active in social networking forums.
  • Don’t spend time on long-tail strategies. You’ve too far to go to catch up with Amazon.

We’ll continue to monitor Borders and its unique opportunity. We hope you will, too. In the meantime, tell us what you think about the site and what you’d do to help it.

Meet Bryan at SES Toronto, June 16-18 at Metro Toronto Convention Centre (South Bldg.).

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