I love reading books. These days, mostly business books, as time allows. And yes for me, a good part of the experience is physically holding the book and turning the pages. I have heard the same argument for newspapers and magazines, whose recent demise is well documented. In their case, they’re not only readily available online but also easily customized to an individual’s preferences through RSS feeds, Google Alerts, etc. Thus, digital is well on its way to supplanting the hard copies available at your local newsstand.
On the other hand, good business books start with a foundation and build on those core concepts, illustrating with examples and case studies along the way. Hence, you miss out on important takeaways if you don’t read a book cover to cover. And let’s face it, no one wants to read a 200+ page book on a computer.
Enter the Kindle and all of the look-a-like e-book readers that have started and will continue to penetrate the market over the months to come, and you have the perfect example of disruptive technology. While I don’t own a Kindle as of yet (I’m usually an early follower when it comes to gadgets and wait for the price to drop a bit before I jump in), my friends and colleagues tell me they read more quickly and it’s easy on the eyes. Apparently digital ink technology has eliminated one of the top reasons to do your reading offline.
Now, let’s use the following evolution of movie rentals/ownership…
Blockbuster –> Netflix (via mail) –> Video on Demand (VOD)
…as an analogy to see how it relates and whether it can help us predict the future of printed books and bookstores:
- Instant gratification – Because the internet is accessible 24/7, consumers have grown accustomed to getting what they want in real-time. Netflix pioneered cost-effective overnight delivery of movies, and now along with the broadband providers, is moving its library to VOD. Let’s face it, if you have some free time now, would you rather spend it traveling to the book store or downloading the title at the top of your list and reading the first few chapters?
- Convenience – Netflix made it simple to return movies without incurring late fees. When you’re on vacation or in your second office (i.e. the airplane), the Kindle stores all of the books on your reading list and weighs far less.
- Scarcity of time and space – Except for a select few real classics, most people don’t watch the same movie more than once in a short time frame. Hence, it makes little sense to own a movie, especially since Netflix has removed the pain points from the return process and the marginal cost of re-renting a Netflix movie later on is nearly zero (under most price plans). Similarly, while some folks like keeping good books on display at home or in the office, the trend towards urban living and cubicles means space is at a premium. (Trust me, it hurts me to say this, as I have dreamed of having a library in my future home. I really worry that our society will lose all of its character, and our abodes will resemble sterile laboratories in the not too distant future.)
You might claim the analogy is flawed in that, my definition of “movie” is as a secondary market (i.e. for the most part, movies are available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD only after they have hit the theater), while books, by nature, address a primary market (i.e. there is no previously released version). It’s true some consumers watch a movie on the big screen and then rent it again at home (largely due to the low cost). There’s no doubt an e-book has similar residual value (as a reference tool or refresher), because it’s difficult to absorb and digest all key learnings after just one read. However, since you don’t have to return an e-book as you do a movie rental, this argument doesn’t hold weight.
So what’s my conclusion? Book stores will not disappear in the very near future; some genres with illustrations and other characteristics that appeal to the senses (e.g. travel books, cookbooks, children’s books, some novels) will still be preferable in hard copy. But if the Barnes & Noble’s of the world know what’s good for them, they had better innovate more quickly than Blockbuster has in this decade. Providing couches and chairs where shoppers lounge, sip lattes and leisurely preview the latest best sellers is not a viable business strategy. Further investment in e-commerce is insufficient. And with all of that costly real estate on their hands, they can ill afford to be defensive and simply rely on imitation Kindles to save their legacy businesses.
In my last post, I blogged about how a relatively unknown brand, Forzieri, integrated innovative product marketing tactics into its e-commerce solution. Staying on this same theme, I recently had a surprisingly positive experience on JCrew.com. It’s been many months since I visited the site, so it’s quite possible JCrew has been doing this for a while.
I was looking for a pair of men’s shorts and clicked on a specific item on the initial results page to get the product details. Most websites selling apparel include a basic description and a size chart, but JCrew added a real personal touch. Beneath the button to add the item to my shopping bag, was the caption “Not sure about size? Need help putting it all together? Email Erica, our personal shopping expert, at Erica@jcrew.com.”
As I suspected, it turns out “Erica” is not a single person but rather an alias for a staff of personal shoppers who field questions and answer via email (as opposed to by phone in a call center). I was a bit disheartened, because I really would have liked to see JCrew pull that off. Nevertheless, when I am in the mindset of shopping online, I prefer to interact and transact electronically end-to-end versus interrupting the flow by making a phone call. As I argue in my previous post, I believe that’s where Zappos gets it wrong.
Granted there was latency while I awaited a response from “Erica,” whereas a call center rep might have answered my questions in real-time. But whether perception or reality, JCrew had me convinced “Erica” would be better equipped to answer my question. Hence, it would be worthwhile awaiting her response, which arrived about 5 hours later and included her direct contact details, both phone and email.
My guess is this feature isn’t widely used (it’s a bit buried on the page), because I don’t get how it would scale, especially since there is no form, or at the very least, instructions on what information to include in your email. That said, I am convinced a meaningful segment of online consumers will see this as a refreshing alternative to picking up the phone and speaking to an agent, whose performance is largely being measured on standard call center metrics (i.e. production, efficiency and sales).