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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

R.I.P. Borders Bookstores

Borders one of the largest Bookstore chains in the United States is liquidating. They say they’ll be out of business by September.

I’m sad to see them go.

My sister and I were regular shoppers at the Borders next to Madison Square Garden on Broadway here in New York. She bought a lot of books for her classroom there. I bought my A+training manual there. On occasion, I’d peruse the African-American fiction section to see what publishers were offering brothers and sisters to read. From what I saw there I wrote a blog about Street lit dominating the African-American fiction section way back in 2007.

I noticed problems with Borders way back in 2008, and I knew where they were making mistakes. Unfortunately, I’m just a brotha on the sidelines. I don’t have the degrees people covet for those executive positions. But I know what a business looks like when it’s in trouble by just walking into the store. I wish I could have been a manager there to help Borders employees’ save their jobs.

From a business perspective three things did Borders in. One was the overdependence on New York Times Bestsellers. Every time I went to Borders most of what they had in stock were the most popular books from the New York Times Besteller lists and books from all the big celebrity authors. In the African-American section it was always stocked with the top ten of the Essence Bestseller list, popular street lit, Erotica, Christian Fiction and nothing else.

Bestsellers may be popular, but they don’t get most of the sales at bookstore. What really makes the money at retail in the bookstore are the niche titles produced by self-publishers and small presses. Specialized stuff like African-American fiction, African-American fantasy, fantasy, Sci-fi stories and nonfiction like art books, computer manuals, gaming books, and technical manuals. These niche books are what people buy on sight because they are hard-to-find at regular retail. Usually, bookstores have to order these kinds of books from the publisher and pay extra for shipping them to a customers’ home. Having them on hand save customers time and money and help a bookstore stand out in a competitive retail market.

Ironically, a long time ago Borders used to carry more books by small presses and self published authors than bestsellers. I remember when I could find Isis in their system when I typed it in back in 2007.

Then in 2008, a new management team took over Borders They stopped carrying Isis. In fact they stopped carrying books by all the small presses and self-publishers. That decision is what turned many of the regular Borders customers into Amazon customers.

At Amazon a customer could find all my old titles and my new titles. Moreover, they could find all the titles of the small press and self-published authors who Borders stopped carrying. The niche titles that made them money. The niche titles that made Borders stand out as a retailer.

In addition to eliminating the small press and self-published titles from their shelves, the New Borders management didn’t pay attention to what their competitors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon were doing.

At Amazon a customer could find a book at a discounted price. Moreover they could find the eBook version for their Kindles for a third of that price.

At Barnes & Noble a customer could find a book at a discounted price. Moreover, they could find the eBook version for their Nooks for a third of that price.

Two, Borders always sold their books at FULL LIST PRICE. No bookstore large or small looking to make a profit charges full list for a title at retail. Discounts are the lifeblood of the retail book business. They’re what turn browsers into buyers. They’re what move product off the shelves and out of the stores.

On top of the crazy full list prices they charged for books, Borders also offered DVDs and music at full list price here in New York. That’s crazy because I could find DVDs and CDs for a third of that price at Best Buy down the street. I could find them for half that price at Amazon.

By charging full list prices, Borders offered customers who came into their stores no incentive to purchase books at their stores. I can think of a few novels and graphic novels I would have purchased with them if they offered a discount of some kind.

Three, they had a store layout that made customers feel indifferent. The Borders sales floor didn’t stimulate the customer’s senses or emotions. It didn’t set a mood that connected readers to a distinct shopping experience they could remember. With pastel colored walls and fluorescent lighting like a drugstore and woodgrain tables and shelves fresh out of a Staples catalog, the sales floor of Borders stores felt artificial and manufactured. There was an antiseptic, sterilized feeling in the air. The place had no heart and soul like Barnes & Noble or a neighborhood bookstore that made it feel like it was a part of the community.

Along with the dry retail floor the customer service at Borders was just average. While the staff was professional, I never felt a personal connection to anyone like I did at other bookstores like Barnes & Noble or even the Book Vendors in Harlem. There was always a new face at the register, and they were often indifferent as they rang me and my sister up. Everything at Borders was just an end to a means, not about creating a relationship with the customer so they would go out of their way to shop there.

My shopping experiences at the Madison Square Garden Borders felt cold and distant. I wanted to get my books and get out of there. That kept me from staying longer and really perusing the shelves. Maybe finding something I could like. Maybe talking to the employees. Forming a relationship with them. Forming a connection with the retailer. Having that great shopping experience that I could tell others about. Wanting to come back and go out of my way to buy more books with their stores.

Some will say eBooks killed Borders. No, Borders was in trouble way before eBooks became popular. It was a combination of limited inventory, lack of discounts and an uninviting retail environment that drove Borders out of business. The weak economy only accelerated and exacerbated the long-standing problems at retail caused by a group of incompetent managers that didn’t know what direction they wanted to take the Borders Group in. Did they want to be a book retail superstore, media retail superstore, or an entertainment superstore? On one hand they wanted to compete with Amazon by having a large inventory of merchandise, but they didn’t offer the discounted prices Amazon offered. On another hand they wanted to compete with Barnes & Noble by having large retail stores, but didn’t offer the shopping experience Barnes & Noble offered. Because Borders never picked a direction they wanted to go in they never stood out in a competitive retail marketplace. And because they didn’t focus on something that made them stand out as a retailer they never gave the customer a reason to care about Borders. And because customers didn’t’ care about Borders they didn’t form a connection to the store. I can’t honestly say I’ve had that one great Borders shopping experience I could tell others about.

I’m really sad to see Borders go out of business. 11,000 people are going to be out of work because of this and I feel really bad for them.


  1. This is an excellent and insightful post. It really made me think. I was lucky that my closest Borders in Wayne, NJ, which shut down several years ago, was a really home-like place. I loved it and have really missed it. The other Borders I went to just weren't the same.

    It's just terrible that so many people will lose their jobs.

    By the way, I wrote my blog post on Borders last night, but I have just added a link to YOUR post because it's so good. :)

    I wish you had the Followers gadget.

  2. Shawn,this is a great article. I have such mixed emotions about the whole publishing industry right now, and have for some time. The bookselling end of it has been a mess for a long time as well. I have to agree with your perceptions of Borders. I am very sad to see them close, as so many people are losing their jobs, and some I know personally. This is very sad indeed :(

  3. It is very sad so many people are losing their jobs. What's even sadder to me is how preventable all of this was. Borders' management was so out-of-touch when it came to selling books at retail, disconnected with the needs of the customer and unwilling to adapt to change.

    The whole publishing industry is crumbling, and everything is so uncertain. This is a rough storm in the business. No one really knows what the industry will look like in a year or five years from now. I have to wonder if self-publishing will be how most books are produced in the future.

  4. Shawn, you really outdid yourself on this one. It's excellent, thoroughly insightful, and offers deeper material on why Borders failed than other articles I've read. Theirs was surface; yours is in depth.

    I've come to expect only the best from you and in this we get the best of the best in comments.