The Strange Relief of Borders’ Closing

A short while back, I wrote a post thinking about the closing of the U.S. bookselling giant, Borders Books. The doors are closed now. Both they and their largest competitor are (were) within a few miles of us, and interestingly, The Kid and I went to that rival, Barnes & Noble, this weekend to browse.

It was quite interesting, because we noticed they’re still as packed as ever they were, but no more packed. I had expected either fewer people, with everyone having had their fill of books for a while (I confess to having bought a few when the sale got pretty good, for myself and for The Kid—so as I walked into Barnes & Noble I did wonder why we were going), or more people, with folks who used to go down the street for their bookstore fix crowding into the last shop standing.

But it looked no different than B&N always does, and that got me thinking.

Borders and B&N both had loyalty cards, as so many retailers seem to these days, which give you a discount when you shop with them. Borders made their card free a couple of years ago, in one of their attempts to hold on (as they were sinking). Once they did that, I gave up my B&N discount card, which had an annual fee, for the free Borders card. I always made back my B&N fee in discounts (I do love books!), but FREE is hard to argue with.

The result: I nearly stopped buying books over the last two years. Yet I’d never thought about it until I stood in B&N this weekend.

So, why did I stop buying books?

Because I was a devoted Barnes & Noble customer, but I had this free card, see? So I couldn’t go to B&N and waste money (by not getting a discount) when I should go to Borders to do my book browsing and buying.

At first I tried to switch loyalties, but eventually I just stopped hanging out at either store. Borders did what every business, including yours, wants to be able to do—they changed a customer’s shopping habits—but for them it was bad, BAD.

This all hit me when I stood in B&N this weekend and felt… relief. The strangest feeling of relief that Borders was gone, that I’d be able to go to Barnes & Noble’s without feeling guilt, that I’d get my discount card again…

Yes, that card that costs an annual fee. I’ll probably get one again. I mean, who wants to pay full price for their books and mags?

Lessons:

A discount card can’t change habits if it’s all you’ve got in your bag of tricks. Borders never “felt” right to me, and without realizing it, I changed my shopping habits rather than shop there.

What about amazon.com? I hear you say. I did shop online for books when I knew what I wanted in advance and didn’t need it now-now-now. I still do. This is usually much more of a discount than retail-plus-discount-card, but it’s changed my retail bookshopping very little. Much as I love them, amazon can’t completely fill the need to see and experience the product in advance, and they have a hard time being in my face at a weak moment when I just “feel like” having something new to read. If your business is online, keep this in mind and find ways to be there at serendipitous moments; if you’re mainly an offline, bricks-and-mortar place, remember that seeing, touching, and discussing purchases in person—convincing ourselves into the purchase with your help—is still your great advantage.

And a last, unscientific musing on Borders’ passing:

If my Barnes & Noble store is typical, and if the volume of their business this weekend wasn’t just a coincidence, then why are they not (a) less packed or (b) more packed than usual?

I’d guess loyal B&N customers aren’t immune to a good sale, but that like me they didn’t spend very long at Borders’ closing sales. They bought a few things they probably didn’t “need,” but couldn’t pass up at the prices, and then went back to their normal habit, of hanging out now and again, browsing and shopping at Barnes & Noble.

Loyal Borders customers, on the other hand, don’t need a book right now, and they’ve lost their place to shop. Like me with a discount card for a place I didn’t really like, their shopping habits are disrupted, and whether they’ll ever change loyalty is, right now, anybody’s guess.

Shopping is about a lot more than what you buy.

A simple conclusion, but it should be comforting to us small business people.

 

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson