Tour’s Books Blog

February 12, 2013

Whither Goest Amazon?

Filed under: Editorial,opinion — toursbooks @ 2:01 am
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Quo Vadis?  Translation: Whither goest thou?  A movie, a book and maybe the ultimate question for Amazon and its users.  Their business model was always evolving and now we’re about to see the next version.  One thing they always did better than any other online bookseller was how they structured and built their website.  No one matches them in that.  But over the years, other companies have bettered them in service and price.  For years I would search on Amazon, but buy at B&N online or in store.  I spent a lot of time in Borders too.  Now Borders is gone.  B&N stores aren’t what they used to be, and Amazon has turned into a full service online seller, a virtual bazaar, or souk, filled with small stores all under a common roof with what is one of the best search engines around.

But what was a company that sold itself on delivery at your door, the ultimate convenience, now morphing into?  They do charge and insanely expensive annual Prime membership – but it did buy a lot of free shipping.  Thing is, Amazon never tried to find a way to consolidate member orders for pre-release books ordered on different dates.  I might pre-order some books 10 months out, other 2 months, but they’d all have the same release date.  That meant I’d get 8-15 boxes of books – each holding just 1 book.  Then it was PILES of corrugate to recycle.  I am amazed at how fast the stuff piles up.  I swear it breeds when I’m not looking.

Then recently they were asking if I want to drive to a pick-up site and get my order.  HUH?  If I wanted to drive, I’d go to a store and buy books.  Not even 4-for-3 pricing would pay for the gas and tolls, and my time!  The nearest locker was 30+ miles from my house in the most densely populated county in the country.  Oh yeah, I’m REAL anxious to spend half my day running there!

But what if they push this locker system?  What will that mean?  I don’t just buy books for me, I buy them for friends, for book swap winners, for other family members in different states.  What about them?  Will they be driving to some ‘locker’ in a city they hate to get their book?  WHy drive to pick up books from Amazon?  I mean I can ALWAYS do that with B&N.  It’s a service they’ve had for YEARS.  Not exactly new or innovative, except Amazon will have them ready ‘same day’.  It that enough for me to get in my car and drive somewhere?  If I HAD TO HAVE IT RIGHT NOW, why not just walk into the nearest bookstore and buy it?  Is this really an option we need?  And if this is their new business model, and you request shipping, will they charge more?  Where does that leave us?

Well, here’s the thing, Amazon finished off the independent booksellers, except for a hardy few that concentrate on specific genres, like The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ, or places selling religious books, or ones on everything from yoga to witchcraft.  There are no corner bookstores any more that have the latest mysteries, thrillers, romance, fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal.  Hell, my town doesn’t have a USED book store!  Yeah, the food stores have a tiny selection of new paperbacks, mostly bodice rippers and best-selling mystery series and the latest fad diets.  Not exactly a decent choice.

According to the letters I got from Amazon’s Customer Service:

While we’re planning a variety of special discounts and other promotional offers, I’m unable to share these details. I encourage you to check back in the next few weeks. Any special offers will be advertised throughout our website.

So stay tuned.  Will the promotions center around this ‘locker’ system they’re setting up?  Will it be based on how many dollars you spend?  Or just more of their 5% off daily special, which aren’t very special?

More importantly, are we really stuck with Amazon?  Maybe not entirely, or at least not me.  I still have a decent B&N not too far from me and BAM! (Books-A-Million) with it’s automatic 10% discount about a half mile away from them.  Online, Half.com is usually a better value than Amazon for used books, especially if one seller has multiple titles you want, and Alibris and HPB (Half-priced-books) have similar websites composed of a collectives of independent used book sellers.  Warehouse stores, especially Costco, has books, mostly top sellers, same for Walmart, not that I use either.  The Book Depository in the UK has free shipping, though that often means long waits.  Great selection and good website, too.  As a member of paperback swap, I can also buy from the PBS store, though once again, it’s a game of patience.  That’s a LOT of stores to replace one seller – still, I HATE feeling trapped.

I look around an realize two things – 1) I’m a dinosaur.  I prefer print books to ebooks any day of the week, even though I own a Kindle – and 2) we are all responsible for never-ending cycle in evolution on retail sales.  We abandoned downtowns for shopping malls.  We walked away from the family hardware store for some home supply chains.  Local bakeries closed because of competition from supermarkets with store bakeries.  We left local bookstores for large book retailers with 10% off and instore cafes and reading chairs.  Then we left stores and began buying online from sellers who had no stores, just supply warehouses.  We could go online day and night and buy everything from curtains to underwear.  On the best sites, we’d know if the item was in stock or not.  We could book flights, hotels, vacation packages, then buy the luggage, clothes, specialty gear, travel books and maps and never set foot in a store – or even talk to a person.

The very rich have personal secretaries, we have the internet.  Thing is, when it all goes south, we also have no one to call for help.  No travel agent to work for hours to find what we need.  No local hardware store you can walk into and say, “Hi Mr Zinnzer, can you tell me what I need to fix this this?”  I haven’t had a REAL Danish in YEARS, and then, it was from a bakery in Paris.  My local baker had real butter Danish, fabulous plain white bread, even good cookies.  He was just blocks from my house.  The last ‘real’ bakery in the area, one of a very few independents, closed its doors in the last 2 years.  I walk down the main street of my home town and more than half the stores are empty.  Yeah, some of it is the economy.  They rest of it though …………… we did that to ourselves.  You want to know why you have to drive 10 miles to some neighboring town, walk half a mile in some huge store, try and find someone to help you buy 1 lousy gasket?  Look in the mirror.  That gasket that cost $1.05 in your local hardware store and “just $0.79!” in the big home supply place – plus $5.80 in gas and 90 minutes of your time.  You bragged about how cheap it was, how they ‘had everything’.  Everything except what we’ve come to value most, friendly service, ease of use, and ACCURATE information.  It saved time and was much lower stress, but we walked away for the big, bright, shiny new store with all the cool stuff – until we found out the reason it was so cheap is because it’s not the same thing despite the name and appearance.  Ask a good, honest plumber about faucets and water heaters from those chains and hear what he says.

Is what’s happening with Amazon really any different?  B&N, Waldenbooks, Borders all combined to put many independent book sellers out of business.  Then came Amazon and the local bookstores watched what was left of their market slowly fade away.  Then the very companies that put them out of business slowly collapsed under the pressure of Amazon, ebooks and internet shopping.  Like all big companies, they couldn’t move fast enough – even all these years later B&N hasn’t come close to Amazon’s website for ease of use, Walden’s and Border’s are g-o-n-e.  Publishers suddenly have to deal with established authors defecting to Create Space, the Amazon owned book writing/publishing platform.  The whole business of books has changed and print books are being supplanted by ebooks – a fact B&N ignored far too long.

This isn’t so much about the 4-for-3 promotion, it’s about customer expectations.  Amazon sold itself on business model that would not work long term.  I moved my buying to Amazon because they delivered 2 days for free with Prime and they offered the 4-for-3 on some MMPB’s.  Then all MMPB’s, with a very few exceptions.   But even I said it made no sense they way they shipped so many books as singles when I was getting 10+ books on the same day.   I work in a related field and KNEW profit couldn’t be enough to fully support the system and something had to give – and what gave was the major lure Amazon used to pull in customers for your print books, the pricing break of 4-for-3.  Yeah, the trade and hardcovers are often a bit cheaper than at other sellers, occasionally a LOT cheaper, they stream movies, many free for prime members, they offer free kindle books – and I’ve grabbed a few of those.  Amazon does have its positives, but when I look at my towering pile of books, 70% are mass market paperbacks, the backbone of publishing.  They fought tooth and nail to avoid the whole sales tax thing.  Now Jeff Bezos is suddenly doing an about face and saying EVERYONE should be paying it!!!!!  In some states it’s meaningless, where I live, it isn’t.  With the demise of 4-for-3, my cost won’t jump 25%, it will jump 25% PLUS 7% sales tax, for an astonishing 32% increase!  That translates into fewer books and/or finding another source.  Maybe both.  Because I know one thing, I can’t afford to spend another 32% a year on an already too large book budget!

So, where goes Amazon?  What will it look like in 18 months, 3 years, long term?  Will ‘lockers’ supplant shipping, even the less desirable FedEx Smartpost?  How big a part will play in my future book buying?  I’ll keep my Prime for another year, but after that ……… I want to know if I get my money’s worth.  I want a better idea if Amazon will be a company that fits my life.  I dropped my B&N membership because I stopped buying enough to make it pay.  If I move to BAM or Book Depository, how much will that impact the amount I spend at Amazon?  Enough to justify the continued $79/year?  Will that cost go up if you refuse lockers?  Get discounted if you say YES to lockers?  So many unknowns.  And Amazon holds its plans as secret as Apple did in the days of Steve Jobs.  As for me,  I know I will be exploring alternative sources, see how they work.  I’ll give Amazon time to make their next move, but honestly, I don’t see anything long term in favor of customers like me.  Then again, maybe I don’t fit their most desired customer profile, so I’m not the one they want to please.  The world does not revolve around me.

But a suggestion to the readers out there who have options – start looking around for good alternatives.  The signs are not good that Amazon will continue the print book business as we’ve known it.  If you read mostly ebooks, this won’t affect you, except maybe the sales tax.  I know this, my old eyes prefer print, or as a friend calls them, ‘dead tree books’.  LOL  Hey, I pass them on to be reused and eventually recycled.  Those books have long and productive lives.  I wonder if some new player will step up and take on the behemoth?  The certain thing in life is change.  So I’ll adapt.

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