Shelf Help

By Jul 01, 2008

Borders wants to sell you a book online — at last.

That’s right. The chain hadn’t sold books on the Web until it relaunched its site ( in May.

However, that fact comes with an asterisk. Back in 2001 Borders delegated all Web-selling duties to The latter hosted the e-commerce site, used Borders’ logo and took a cut of the sales.

With this setup Borders was able to avoid the cost of building an online sales presence from scratch, something Barnes & Noble had been doing since 1997.

The Amazon deal started looking like a bad move for Borders a few years ago, and not just because it handed control of online sales to its prime Web rival. Borders has stumbled financially during the last few years, posting a $157 million loss in 2007 on sales increases of 2.4%. This past March the company said it was investigating “strategic alternatives,” including the sale of some divisions or even the whole company.

Whatever the future may hold, Borders saw a need to market more effectively both online and off. In March 2007 Borders announced it would end the Amazon deal and establish a full-fledged Web site that could help sales by bringing the best parts of the store experience onto the Internet and vice versa.

Vice president of e-business Kevin Ertell says the new grew out of conversations within company walls about what elements best defined the brand.

“Cross-channel selling is a big opportunity for us,” he says. “We think we can create an experience that customers will truly value and that will give them a reason to shop with us. So we said, how do we capture the sense of discovery people get when they come into our stores and bring that to life online in a way no one else in bookselling has done?”

One answer was to recreate the experience of browsing shelves. Borders has begun “facing out” more books in its retail outlets so the covers can draw shoppers’ attention. The new Web site does the same with a “Magic Shelf,” a recommendation slot that rides atop Borders’ home page.

Users can scroll up or down through as many as 20 categories and move side to side within each shelf, clicking on book covers to learn more about the titles, purchase them immediately or add them to a wish list.

The Magic Shelf, built with interface technology from Allurent and on a search and navigation platform from Endeca Technologies, gives Borders’ merchandising department an online way to promote special-category titles such as Father’s Day gifts or beach reading. Additionally, the shelves can be used to respond quickly to the public’s interests. For example, director Sydney Pollack died the day the Magic Shelf went up. Within a few hours a special shelf tribute was posted, highlighting DVDs of 15 of Pollack’s most notable movies.

But the feature also will let registered users design a “Picked for You” shelf tailored to their own interests from a menu of categories, including history, cooking and sports.

“Borders is really trying to give a voice to its brand with this feature,” says Allurent COO Graeme Grant. “It’s saying, ‘Here are books that our staffers and in-store experts want you to know about.’”

Of course, many online shoppers are accustomed to getting even more customized recommendations from Amazon, Netflix and other e-commerce marketers — picks based not only on broad genres or subjects they like but on their actual purchase histories. Borders’ Magic Shelf can’t reach that level of insight yet, but Ertell says it’s in the planning stage, along with Web community features: “We’re working toward a really personalized recommendation, but to do that takes a lot of information.

“Right now we have that data for our Borders Rewards customers, but we only use it in aggregate to inform the recommendations that accompany individual titles.”

The Web site also serves up large helpings of Borders-created media content, including author interviews, cookbook demos, and a regular segment called “Live at 01” that shows videotaped meetings of a book club at the chain’s flagship Ann Arbor store, often with author participation.

The site uses free entertainment content to drive traffic and build buzz for specific titles. On June 17 it began posting the first of 50 two-minute Webisodes telling the story of the prequel to author Robin Cook’s thriller “Foreign Body,” due out Aug. 5. Episodes will go up daily until publication, and visitors can pre-order the book on the site. Content comes from Vuguru, the Web production start-up headed by former Disney chief Michael Eisner.

One quick benefit Borders could realize from selling its own wares online is a boost to the Borders Rewards loyalty program, currently about 26 million global members strong. Under the old system online shoppers couldn’t redeem rewards when making purchases because Amazon’s platform didn’t integrate the card program. The site will now honor reward points for those purchases.

The Web relaunch comes as Borders rolls out “concept” stores in selected metro markets that carry less physical stock but add e-books and downloadable content to their offerings. The company has nine such stores and plans to open five more in the next few months.

The new site has a part to play in those stores, too. Customers can access it from in-store kiosks that let them print out the wish lists they’ve created online. Ertell expects store shoppers will also want to look up book titles to find reader reviews.

One unique online/offline integration will enable customers to buy a book on the site and have it shipped to a Borders store for in-store pickup — with no shipping charge.

“We’ve already heard that this is a popular option in urban environments, where people aren’t always comfortable having packages left on their doorstep,” Ertell says. “Plus, it’s free.”

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