Expanding the Borders of Brick-and-Mortar

Book retailer Borders is launching concept stores that mimic online shopping. Borders wants to give in-store customers an experience similar to online.

Retailers have been tinkering with the store shopping experience for centuries. Traveling merchants and open bazaars gave way to fixed stores that were usually general stores that carried a little bit of everything.

Then stores started getting more specific in what types of products they sold, and then started getting less personalized in the customer service they offered. Shopping malls brought lots of different stores under one roof for easy consumer access, and in recent years "big box" general merchandisers have combined the general store and shopping mall concepts.

Also in recent years, the Internet has proven to be a major bugaboo for brick-and-mortar retailers. E-commerce retailers offer customers personalized service and great convenience, and often waive or minimize shipping fees while also skirting sales tax regulations. Brick-and-mortar chains have responded to the e-commerce threat with all kinds of strategies, but mega-book-retailer Borders is experimenting with an interesting strategy that could be summed up as, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em."

Since February, Borders has opened 14 concept stores that incorporate many facets of the online shopping experience into a brick-and-mortar environment. Many books are displayed with the front covers facing out, rather than in the traditional spine-out manner. An in-store digital center allows customers to perform activities they might normally do online, such as create custom CDs, download audio and visual content, and even create and publish their own books.

Other e-commerce-style features of the Borders concept stores include kiosks and LCD display screens that provide shoppers with interactive access to customer reviews, expert recommendations, author interviews and other reader-oriented content. The concept stores are quite large (the first one opened, in Ann Arbor, Mich., measures almost 29,000 square feet) and feature user-friendly layouts and plenty of lighting to make browsing as easy as possible. Of course, in-store kiosks allow customers full access to the Borders.com e-commerce site to provide a true cross-channel shopping experience.

Criticisms of the Borders concept store format have included charges that it is too much like a library, does not go far enough in providing true innovation and does not offer consumers enough incentive to leave the comfort of using the Borders.com site at home. I'm not sure why aligning the format of a bookstore with elements of a library is necessarily a bad thing, but the other two criticisms are worth looking at more closely.

Does the new Borders store concept go far enough in providing innovation? Essentially, it combines a number of existing technologies with some customer-friendly layout ideas. In the sense of true "innovation," where you are presented with things you have never seen before, I suppose the new Borders store concept does not qualify.

But in the sense that no other book retailer I am aware of has done anything similar, Borders is offering innovation. Innovation usually happens in small increments, and by applying a number of Internet concepts to the brick-and-mortar environment, Borders is making a commendable step toward bringing the 20th century store experience into the 21st century.

Will consumers pampered by the ease of buying books online be drawn into the new Borders concept stores? Time will tell. Most likely, the casual book buyer who is picking up a gift or seeking to buy something for a purely utilitarian purpose will stay at home.

But book-lovers are a passionate breed, and want the opportunity to browse through books in person and get a real sense of what might make them decide to pick up a Hemingway novel over a Faulkner novel for their next read. The additional information and convenience of the Borders concept stores will probably have appeal for the dedicated reader.

There may be enough dedicated readers out there to justify the expense Borders is undoubtedly putting into these new concept stores. But regardless of how this experiment turns out, it is an important evolutionary step in brick-and-mortar commerce. The dinosaurs may have ultimately failed, but they still had a major impact on the world that is felt today. Do "fossil fuels" ring a bell?

Dan Berthiaume covers the retail space for eWEEK. For more industry news, check out eWEEK.com's Retail Site.