Barnes and Noble, No!

Since college, I've been using to buy a lot of books. Typically, I hit up the used sections first, where I can generally find decent products for quite a bit cheaper, but generally, for high quality books. In general, I would hit up some of the local bookstores in Montpelier (although now, in Barre, I'm left with far fewer options), Barnes and Noble in Burlington and a bunch of places in between. Amazon, however, has been causing problems for the independent and brick and mortar bookstore scene, and I figured that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to start doing some of my online shopping somewhere else, at least for new books. So, with a new X-Wing novel coming out, (Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston) I went to Barnes and Noble's website, pre-ordered the book, and sat back to wait. Happily, there's the option to pay with PayPal, which would help me break my habit of ordering from Amazon, which already has my credit card information, and makes the impulse buys all that much more easy. Release day rolls around, and ... no book. Checking the website, I find that it hadn't shipped yet, which is weird, because I had ordered the book last month - plenty of time to get the book out to me within the lower shipping level that I selected.

Last night, I received an e-mail from Barnes and Noble:

Dear Andrew L ,

We want to give you an update about the pre-ordered item(s) listed below. Unfortunately, we just got word that the release date for this item(s) has been changed. We expect to ship the item(s) soon and will email you when it is ready to leave our warehouse. If we cannot acquire the item(s) within 30 days, we will notify you by email.

However, if you would like to cancel this portion of your order, you may do so online at: ...

We are working to fulfill the rest of your order as quickly as possible. Because we value you as a customer, we are sending the items that are currently available in your order now at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your patience.

Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay.

-- Barnes & Noble

Well, for one, the book's release date hadn't changed: Amazon still lists it as August 7th, as does Barnes and Noble. More importantly, Random House, the book's publisher, lists it as August 7th. Weird. I really want to read this book, so I go ahead and follow the directions to cancel the order. If Barnes and Noble isn’t going to ship it to me, I might as well go back to Amazon, who I know will.

Amazon sends me an automated book ordered e-mail, and because I ordered it directly from them, rather than from a 3rd Party, I'm pretty sure it'll ship out ASAP. Barnes and Noble sends me another note:

Dear Andrew L,

We have received your request to cancel your order #.

We regret that we are unable to complete your request because your order has entered the shipping process or has already shipped. We apologize for any inconvenience.

If you wish to return this item, you may return your purchase for a refund within 14 days of delivery by following the instructions we included in your package.

For more information regarding returns please click ...


So, which is it? Delayed, or in the shipping process? Barnes and Noble, I followed your directions, and you're not able to go through with even that? Color me unimpressed. So, Amazon's order is cancelled, and I'm simply going to have to wait for this to arrive on my doorstep later than expected.

There's more to my indignation here than entitled fanboy demands: it goes to show just why Amazon has been doing so well with the online market, and why Barnes and Noble has not been doing well. To be fair, if I'd gone up to Burlington's B&N outlet, I'm reasonably sure that I would have been able to pick up the book off the shelf - Star Wars new releases tended to be pretty high profile in the bookselling world, at least when I worked at Borders. But, Burlington's a good 45 minutes up the road from me, and I don't typically go up there unless I'm doing several things to make the trip worthwhile. I doubt that the local bookstore, Next Chapter, has anything in stock, with such a small SF/F selection.

What bothers me the most is that Barnes and Noble has had time to perfect their customer supply chain and management. Working at a bookstore during and after college demonstrated some of the principles of how CSM policy worked, and working at a college with a real start up / business flair demonstrated how it was essential for retaining business. What Barnes and Noble is doing is not great. It's not the worst that I've seen, but it's left me deflated and disappointed that I don't have a book that I was really looking forward to reading. On one hand, it's a good lesson in patience, and another opportunity to turn to another book. On the bookseller / CMS level, it's a customer who took (well, tried) their money somewhere else that was faster, more reliable, and most importantly, happy to take their money.

What bothers me the most is the disconnect between their messaging. Following their directions, I wasn't able to cancel the order as I'd tried to do: attempting to do so providing me with a completely contrary message, which suggests that there's a disconnect somewhere in their system. As of writing this, the book is still listed as pending shipment, and for all I know, it could be waiting for me at home or two weeks away. It’s troubling, because my confidence in their ability to actually do what they’re supposed to do: take my money and put a book in my hands.

The problem that this has revealed is an issue with automated systems. In an ideal world, Barnes and Noble would use their physical stores as their greatest asset: when an online order goes out, their system routes the order to the nearest store to your location, and has them fill the order, dropping it in the mail from their store location. This saves time for the buyer, but more importantly, a real, live person puts the order together and drops it in the mail. In a world increasingly filled with automated systems, people in the loop are incredibly important, because they can do what machines can not: recognize and solve a problem that is unexpected. Any bookseller who paid attention could find that this wasn't a problem, and act accordingly.

This element is crucial to Barnes and Noble's successes as a book retailer. Borders certainly failed to act as a good customer service company: their policy of twisting their customer's arms to buy selected books was one of many reasons why Barnes and Noble is still standing. Amazon has proven that it is far superior when handling automated orders: their supply chain is nothing short of remarkable, and it's going to serve them well into the future. Barnes and Noble's key strength is a physical location, and they would do well to keep people in the loop when it comes to their day to day operations.

When it comes to comparing Amazon to the thousands of booksellers across the country, there's almost no doubt in whom I'd want to buy from: the physical retail stores, from a bookseller who knows what they're doing. The face to face interaction with an employee, even when I don't need their help, is a key part of the buying experience that simply cannot replicate. The recommended titles are simply based off of similar data profiles from customers, going up against a bookseller who can tell you whether or not the book that you're looking for is something worth buying - I know that I've made the case and sold books that I felt invested in. What Barnes and Noble should do is carry this same thinking over to their online world, bringing someone into the loop.

But first, they need to send me my book! In the meantime, I’m going to attempt to learn a valuable lesson in patience, and read something else in the meantime.

Customers Aren't Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It's not a stretch to say that we're both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don't believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you're working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous 'key items' that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I'd never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn't pressured to buy something - they're there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they'd earn $5 back. It's a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it's a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren't interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people's hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they're not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don't want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I've attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it's clear that any business - especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales - this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I've had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company's bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven't needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven't fostered a loyal following. People don't tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they're not satisfied, they'll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn't practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they're not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can't adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.