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December 28, 2004 / jnolen

So I Think Amazon Has Won

I went into my local Barnes & Noble yesterday looking for a book on a specific topic. I was ready to buy one on the spot and take it home to read. I located the right shelf and started browsing. I found one promising title, and then another, and then another. There were at least a dozen that fit my category. And there was no way I could tell whether one was any better than the next.

And I thought: Amazon would give me the reader reviews that would tell me which book I should buy. I'd better just wait until I get back to the computer. And I walked out of B&N, my money still in my pocket.

As I walked away, this seemed to me a fairly significant and revealing sequence of events.

1) Amazon has completely changed what I expect from the book-buying experience. And the Amazon record of a book is now the first place that I’d go to for information about a given title.

2) If B&N had had a open computer terminal with internet access, I would have gone to Amazon, done the research and then bought the book I wanted from B&N. I more frequently shop at Borders, whose online store is run by But when you’re in the store, you don’t get any benefit from that partnership. There is no way to get Amazon’s secondary information about a book while you’re in the store.

But in this case at least, open access to a competitor’s website would have made B&N money. You could argue that B&N doesn’t want people price-comparing with Amazon while they’re in the store. (But I imagine that the big chain stores prices are already precisely balanced through market-research and competitive analysis.) Are there other counter-examples?

3) In earlier times, I could have asked the clerk at the bookstore which book I should buy and they might have had an informed opinion — but the sullen teenagers working the counter at B&N certainly didn’t. And in any case, B&N is far too large for the clerks to be well informed about even a fraction of the books on the shelves. Amazon doesn’t have that scaling-problem.

I’m not sure what the bottom line of all this is, but B&N failed to capture my dollars when I was ready to spend because the offline experience is too isolated and information-poor. If they want to continue to receive my patronage, then they need to find a way to meet the higher expectations of the online transaction in the offline context.

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