Borders: Things Are Getting Shakier

bordersAfter years of troubling reports, it appears that Borders could indeed be on the verge of catastrophe.

After what should have been a profitable holiday season, the chain missed payments to publishers and has been trying—without much success, as reported yesterday by Publishers Weekly—to negotiate terms. Publishers are, quite understandably, tired of playing ball.  To make matters even murkier (and financial matters usually are), it was announced late on Thursday that Borders secured new financing which may buy them some time.

A few days ago, the Washington Post ran an article that explained more clearly than any piece I’d read before exactly what happened to the once glorious Borders empire.

I won’t attempt to summarize the article here since it’s such a lucid account of exactly how the company got itself in this pickle, but it’s hard to imagine the blindness of company executives who failed to grasp the importance of the Internet (crucial mistake number one) and eBooks (crucial mistake number two). I mean, heck, who knew the Interwebs was going to catch on?  And eBooks?  Who’d-a-thunk dedicated readers would so eagerly embrace an easier and faster way to get their hands on the books they love?

For a long time I resisted buying from Amazon because, I reasoned, I live in a major urban area with tons of bookstores all over the place, so why should I have to pay for shipping?  That led to disappointment after disappointment when I’d travel to Borders to pick up a book I knew was already released only to not find it on the shelves.  And, frankly, when I found employees willing to check in the back for the book I was looking for, with one or two exceptions, most of the time they returned empty handed.  And I left the store pissed off.

On one occasion I went in on a Friday to pick up a Nora Roberts trilogy entry that had been released the previous Tuesday.  Surely, I said to myself, it’s Nora Roberts, they’ll have the book, right?  Well, the joke was on me because the book wasn’t even anywhere in the store.  Wow.  Just wow.

Then there was the snark and attitude of Mr. Red Suspenders at the Borders I visited most frequently and the fact that they moved romance from the first floor (where it was easy to pop in and check what might be new) to the furthest section of the store on the second floor.  And, to make matters even more ridiculous, the Mass Market table—Impulse Purchase Central—was also moved to the same location.  That just doesn’t make a lick of sense on any retail level.

So, considering all this, when Amazon launched Kindle, I was one of the first to jump.  I went from buying at least a book a week at Borders (and very often more) to spending virtually nothing in the store.  And, clearly, I’m not the only one.

The bottom line for me is this:  I have never before done regular business with a company so obviously determined to shoot itself in the foot.

Amazon announced yesterday that the company’s sales for 2010 were up an astonishing 40% from 2009. And, for the first time, for every 100 paperback books sold by the Internet giant, 115 Kindle books were sold. So people are buying books.  They’re just not buying them from Borders.

The sad thing is that book buyers will be the ultimate losers. The aggressive expansion strategies of Borders and Barnes & Noble that drove the once ubiquitous romance-friendly mall bookstores into virtual extinction has left readers with few brick and mortar choices. Sadly, if Borders is not able to weather this crisis, those choices may get considerably smaller.

My sympathies to the employees who might be hurt by this. My sympathies as well to readers who depend on Borders for access to books.  This just isn’t good on any level, but, as a former customer, I sure as heck saw it coming. Too bad Borders executives didn’t.

– Sandy AAR

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35 Responses to Borders: Things Are Getting Shakier

  1. Nathalie T says:

    In Sweden we have the same problem Akademibokhandeln (a big chain of bookstores) decided to “reorganize” their stores. Today they’ll soon sell more pens and notepads than books. The customers who like books buy them online instead or go to another store.

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  3. JM says:

    The last time I went to our local Borders store I determined it would be my last attempt at purchasing from them. I had checked their in-store availability of two new releases, they had them in-stock and I requested them to be held. Two hours later when I arrived at the store the cashier said they had sold them. I had to wonder if they had ever been in the store. Angry, yes, but more I was sad knowing that was my last trip there.

    I feel the same way at our local Barnes and Nobel: into the store, past the designer handbags and accessories, past the discounted books, past the new releases that are really last months releases, up the escalator, past the re-issues of classics, past mystery and suspense and back, back, back to the corner where romance books are stocked. But not the new release, they were not on the shelves yet.

    When I asked an employee to check he said I could get them faster if I ordered them online. Okay. If I’m having books shipped it will be from Amazon using Prime feature or Book Depository that gives me free shipping. Or order the ebook on kindle.

    I’m only one buyer but I think I’m fairly typical of women my age and income. I haven’t the time or interest to track down products that someone else has made more readily available.

  4. Magdalen says:

    Of course, there are macro-level problems and micro-level problems. Getting its own e-reader might or might not have made a difference (I can imagine a scenario where attempting to compete with the Nook and the Kindle might have broken the camel’s back that much sooner), but they had address the issue of ebooks better.

    It’s not clear if the decision to reorganize stores is national or specific to each store — the Borders nearest to me (in which I almost never shop) has romance in the middle of the store, but the one time I went looking for a specific book, it wasn’t there.

    But most likely the largest mistakes are at the corporate level, and may have as much to do with store siting and lease terms as anything that we, as readers, see.

    From my perspective, if Borders goes into Chapter 11 and some of its stores are bought by Barnes & Noble (including the one closest to me, which doesn’t have a B&N anywhere close), I win. Because B&N is a better run chain and I actually do spend money there.

  5. Scorpio M. says:

    I have the opposite experience. The Borders by me is excellent. The romance section is huge and new releases are always on time. Staff is very friendly. Plus, the weekly coupons (30-50% off) are amazing.

    I stop by almost every weekend and have coffee (there’s a Seattle’s Best inside!), browse and buy books. I hope they somehow figure things out. I am not a B&N fan.

  6. AAR Sandy says:

    Nathalie T: Sorry to hear that book buyers in Sweden are having problems, too.

    JMM: Extremely well said. I tried that online reserve feature several times with little success. I learned that the computer said a book was “in store” if it was still in boxes at the back. And we KNOW there’s a HUGE difference between in boxes in the back and actually on shelves where, you know, customers might want to purchase them.

    Magdalen: The WaPo article I linked to said that by the time they addressed eReaders, their best customers — like me — were already locked into other formats. Hence, no way to win because of their slow actions.

    The WaPo also said that their many bumbles with regards to the Internet were a key factor in doing them in. Borders management MISSED trends and market indications that were crystal clear to everybody else. So, IMO, it’s more about not knowing their own business that did Borders in as opposed to lease terms and stuff I don’t want to understand.

    Borders did, indeed, make mistakes at the micro and macro level. But I think most of their mistakes were obvious.

  7. RobinB says:

    I’m with Scorpio M.–I really like the Borders near where I live, and I would be very sorry to see it go away. Sandy mentioned mall bookstores that were “romance-friendly”, and I have to say that my neighborhood Borders definitely falls into that category–much more so than the Barnes & Noble which is in my neighborhood. I have a Nook and I suppose I could just buy all my romances in e-format if I don’t have a nearby store with a nice supply of the latest books. But, there is just something about curling up at night with a book in my hands!

  8. Lea AAR says:

    Very interesting article Sandy.

    In my community of 400,000 we have two Barnes and Noble and two Borders. I far prefer shopping at the very well laid out B & N store. Borders almost has a disorganized look and often don’t have what I’m looking for.

    That said, before I purchased my Kindle 2-3 years ago, I patronized both stores since I wanted our community to have TWO book chains instead of one. This last year with the news of Borders’ financial woes, I found myself heading straight for B & N. It’s simpler and quicker but I must admit that I feel like I’m not doing my part in helping a sinking ship (I’m that way – a helper).

    Since I now buy the majority of my books on my Kindle rather than a bricks and mortar store, I’m one of those who enjoys all the designer journals and magazines and other reading related accessories at the front of the store. Barnes and Noble keeps getting my business since it is now a fun place to shop for more than just books. I consider that smart marketing to the ever growing group of eBook readers like me.

  9. sandyl says:

    I thought that I was only person in the world that this happened to. Frequently, I would go into my Borders and the books would not be on the shelves. Sometimes, they would look in the back for me. The final straw was when they didn’t even order one of my favorite historial authors–someone I clearly thought should be on the shelf.

    I will miss the brick and mortar stores. After all, electronic books are leased, not owned. So I still try to buy my very favorite authors in paper. And I still love to browse among the shelves.

  10. Diana says:

    I work across the street from a Borders and for years happily browsed away at least a couple of lunch hours every week in the romance aisles. When the online romance community became my source of information on what new books were coming and when I thought wow this is great, now I can eat lunch because I can zip in, buy my book and go. Week after week Borders either didn’t have the book on release day, had no idea when they would, nor any plans to shelve it. I remember telling the store manager at least 5 years ago that regular book buyers are on line now, we know when to expect the book in stores. I said this to each subsequent manager. Instead of getting better in the last 5 years it’s gotten worse as they’ve cut staff. Overnight shelving crews were eliminated years ago.

    I jumped on board with Kindle very early. I used to spend a large part of my disposable income with Borders. Now I spend it with Amazon who gives excellent customer service. Anecdotal, yes, but me times hundreds for this particular store, times thousands in this city, times millions and it’s no mystery why they’re in trouble. Amazon treats the customer as king, Borders in the last few years has treated me as an annoyance, someone bugging them for books they don’t have. I haven’t bought a book in Borders for over two years and I’m sure not going in there for junk I can buy at CVS.

  11. xina says:

    I stopped frequenting Borders over a year ago. I have been reading e-books for about 6 months now and love, love it, but I still buy paper from my Barnes and Noble. Not as many as I used to, but I still do. As for why I stopped going to Borders, I can’t really put my finger on it, but it has an entirely different atmosphere than my Barnes and Noble. Too small, too dark…the employees are hard to find for questions. Whatever the reason, I just don’t go there anymore.

  12. Becky says:

    I’m sorry to hear that Borders is in financial trouble. We (my fiance and I) live in Canada, but frequently vacation in Michigan and one of the highlights of every trip is our Borders visit. The staff at every store we have been in have always been helpful and courteous, and we have used the on-line reservation system for several items and have never had an issue. We get coupons e-mailed to us at least once a week and we always take advantage of them when we visit. Neither of us has progressed to the e-readers yet and have no plans to do so. One of our favourite “dates” is a bookstore visit to spend an hour or so roaming through lots and lots of books. However, I digress…I hope Borders gets their financial woes sorted out…we have shopped Barnes & Noble and don’t like them nearly as well.

  13. Helen D says:

    In a 25 mile radius there were 3 Borders and 2 B & N stores in our area. . Two of the Borders stores were in malls. They have since closed….. and the third one is in a strip mall. That one is doing very well BUT…the romance book section was moved to the bowels of the store! It was downstairs and tucked waayy back in the corner. I complained about the situation to the clerk and she too agreed and wondered about the move. Said it was a no-brainer that romance books are the biggest seller books in the store.

    So by the time we wend our way to the register line…waiting 5-10 minutes because there is only one register open…can’t wait to get the hell out of Borders and forgo the Seattle Best Cafe at the other end of the store. Sheesh whomever laid out the sections of the store were NOT romance readers nor coffee drinkers!

  14. Eggletina says:

    I’ve never had a Borders near me, but I did get a gift certificate for xmas. Guess I better use it quickly! My local B&N suffered from some of the same, though not all, problems. They closed last spring and that’s when I bought my eReader. I knew if I wanted books, I’d have to order online anyway.

  15. Heather says:

    I love our Borders and really hope they don’t close. They are romance friendly and have friendly, helpful staff. However, they do have a problem with getting books out on time. I had some Borders bucks to spend and went yesterday to get a couple of new releases. One was out (Joss Ware) and one wasn’t (Elizabeth Hoyt). My next stop was Meijer and the Elizabeth Hoyt book was right there at the end of their book aisle. You’d think a bookstore would be more on top of the new releases than a supermarket. Not the first time Borders has lost a sale to me like this.

  16. AARPat says:

    Interesting that the WPost article on Borders and Jeff Bezos’ press release about Amazon/Kindle came in the same week since they both underscore the shift in the book business that those of us on the sidelines have been watching with interest.

    I too abandoned my nearby Borders when it seemed to be taken over by things non-book — wrapping paper, games, cafe (that mushroomed), etc. I had previously abandoned B&N when the romance section became a microcosmic dot in a sea of books and the staff became rudely snotty.

    But as we all know, readers read. This means we ferret out books no matter where we have to look — even online. I found Amazon and the Kindle and like so many others according to the two stories, didn’t even wave goodbye to the two bricks and mortar stores.

  17. Ida R. says:

    I only go to Borders now if I have a 40 – 50 % off coupon to use. Otherwise I will go to the B & N, just across the highway and always have a better experience, in parking, store layout, new releases, and customer service. If a new release in not on the shelves (and it was new year’s day, so understandable), I have once had 3 “help desk” people help me find the books that I wanted. I am on the brink of buying a ereader (if only the Nook Color had a 3G version!), but I live in Austin, Texas, with multiple large chain bookstores, not to mention Walmart, Target, and the many Half Price Bookstores in my area.

    There is a large independent bookstore in the city that is beloved by a lot of the population for not being a chain, having local authors spotlighted and doing signings, and I hate going there! Why? Because their romance section is two floor to ceiling shelves, compared to EVERY other genre’s many shelves. I have no doubt that in a city like Austin, independent stores that sell books, music, and rent DVDs are thriving despite online competitors, due to the culture of supporting local businesses here, which is great, but it’s not this way everywhere.

  18. Susan/DC says:

    I go to the same Borders as Sandy AAR, but must say I’ve generally had a better experience. I much prefer it to Barnes & Noble. The B&N near where I work in Tysons Corner and the one in downtown DC have fewer romances and are much more careless about how they are shelved. I know people pick up books and put them back wherever they then happen to be standing, but at least at my Borders they seem to go through the stacks periodically to reshelve them properly. And if you don’t go to Mr. Red Suspenders, the staff is actually quite friendly and helpful even when I’m asking for the latest romance. I go to Borders almost every weekend and love the social aspect of it. I may not see anyone I know, but I love browsing, picking up books to look them over, and then reading a chapter or two in the coffee shop to see if I want to buy, all the while surrounded by other book lovers. I will miss it dreadfully if it goes out of business.

  19. Tess V says:

    I would hate it if the Borders near my house went out of business. They have a WAY better selection of romance novels than the Barnes and Noble across the street. I will be thinking good thoughts for this location at least!

  20. Victoria S says:

    I am one of the readers who helped put another nail in the Borders’ coffin. I haven’t been to a Borders store in almost a year. For years I was a once or twice a week Borders shopper. But then, like Sandy, I had a problem getting books there that I knew were already issued. It happened so often ,I was starting to think I was crazy. And again, like Sandy, the staff was ALWAYS willing to look in the back ,but they always came back empty-handed.

    I was a e-book hold-out for years, and finally succumbed this past October, so Amazon has become my primary reading source. Now, I didn’t go strictly e-book, I buy e-books, paperbacks and hardcovers from Amazon. with their policy of over $25.00 shipping free, I have no problems getting a constant flow of books in print, and with my Kindle, I get instant gratification…Win-Win for me and Amazon.

    The store closing that has truly made me the saddest was the closing of a very good Used Bookstore within 2 miles of me. That was cause for despair! I wish Borders well, and hope they do pull themselves out of their plight.

  21. SandyCo says:

    The last time I went to Borders looking for a particular book, which happened to be “Lover Mine” by J.R. Ward, this book was nowhere to be found. I finally enlisted the help of a clerk, who found copies *behind* her older releases! Who shelved those?! This was only a few days after the release date. On the plus side, the clerk was extremely helpful. However, I have to wonder about the brainless people who would stock the shelves by hiding the new releases behind the older ones.

    I just went there a week ago to browse, and noticed a lot of empty shelves, and the place looked like a ghost town. It’s very sad, because that’s the most local book store for me. The B&N 5 miles away closed on 12/31. Of course, I live in a huge metro area, so even if I have to drive a little further (20 miles), I’ll still have access to brick and mortar book stores, but I can see the future, and it isn’t pretty!

  22. Julie says:

    I hope Border’s doesn’t go completely out of business. I don’t like the Barnes & Noble here in Orlando. The closest store to me is Books A Million, but I don’t shop there very often unless I HAVE TO GO BUY a new release and I don’t have a Border’s coupon. Otherwise, I always go to Borders so I get the rewards and especially if I have one of the 40% or 50% off coupons. I love those! I hate that I have to pay $20 to join BAM or BNs rewards programs.

  23. Blythe says:

    I read everyone’s comments with interest. It seems like a lot of our decision making is local, and dependent on location and staff.

    I wonder if Borders’ coupon culture isn’t part of the problem. The idea of having a 30-40% coupon every week is that you go in for your 30% off book and buy a few more at full price. But was anyone doing that? I know I would just go in and buy my one book with the coupon, and I have a hunch that everyone else was doing that too. I do like the staff at my local Borders.

    But (and it’s a big but) – I work right by Barnes and Noble. And after studying e-readers, the nookcolor was the clear choice for me. I would consider myself a late convert to the ebook revolution. I hate to sound yet again like the dinosaur of the internet, but I have been around long enough to remember people talking about their Rocket ereaders (and thinking, that will catch on someday – but not yet). They’ve perfected the technology, and it seems like every reader I know who didn’t already own a kindle or a nook got one for Christmas. Borders was waaaaay behind on that trend.

    It’s sad, but I don’t really see myself spending much of my money there in the future either.

  24. Claire says:

    My local Borders has the romance section near the front and the employees have most of the time been very helpful and without the ‘tude. The romance aisle at B&N on the other hand is in a terrible location in the store and isn’t well stocked. I feel bad for customers who like me do shop at Borders. I also use amazon and now the nook online though. Its sad to see competition to B&N possibly going away. Surely that can’t be good for consumers?

  25. AAR Sandy says:

    Blythe, I think the coupon culture was really damaging to Borders. When you train customers to wait for the coupon that comes every week, then who the heck would be stupid enough to buy anything without a coupon? I think, though, that when I used them (when I used to buy books at Borders) as often as not I bought a second book. Since I’ve stopped shopping there, the coupon offers that still come every week seem to be getting ever more desperate.

    I’ve seen the coupon culture destroy two old-line Washington Department stores. Both are gone now and I think it’s sad.

    Susan/DC, I agree that for the most part people who work in the store are pleasant enough, but a nice manner only goes so far if they don’t have what I’m looking for. And it’s usually not their fault, anyway since Borders used to have overnight shelving crews who put out books, but they cut them a few years ago. And employees aren’t supposed to shelve, I’m told by my niece who used to work there. That seems beyond clueless to me on the part of Borders management.

  26. Barbara says:

    I have a Borders close to the house and a BN about 6 miles away. I will make the trip to BN almost every time as the Borders just does not have the selection of books. I will say the Borders Romance Blog is better than BN’s, but with the customer service I get from BN I much prefer BN. I do the majority of my shopping on-line, especially since I purchase about 50%, if not more, ebooks over paperbacks.

  27. renee says:

    Interesting discussion. I suppose I have seen something like this coming for a while. I remember when Borders acquired my favorite romance friendly Waldenbooks and the trend for me began to change because it was easier (and less expensive) for me to buy my books online from Amazon with no tax or shipping costs. After that, my family bought me a Sony e reader and this past Christmas a nook color and frankly have little need to purchase books from brick and mortar stores.

    Ironically the last time I browsed at a Borders bookstore, I curled up and read sections of books I was interested in and downloaded them on-sight to my Sony daily reader. (I did feel a little quilty :) )

  28. Jen Tullis says:

    I went to Borders just the other day to buy ShadowFever and it was nowhere to be found. So I went down the road about a mile to Barnes & Noble and got it there. Sorry to hear that it is happening to them. I have always loved going in there to shop.

  29. mingqi says:

    the romance aisle is actually at the very front of the store at the borders that I frequent. I find that the new releases do come in on time and customer service is super friendly too.

    I’m surprised at how fast Borders has fallen. I remember when the Borders stores were increasing and the BN stores were going out of business. Now it is BN remaining stable. The BN I go to now practically buries its romance and graphic novel section. It’s really a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of situation.

    I have to agree that the weekly coupons may not be helping the cause. It has been years since I bought anything from Borders at full price because I just use the coupons. Some weeks, I would use the coupons twice. Now I hardly buy anything because I’ve run out of shelf space and have basically bought all I’ve wanted to buy with the rash of coupons these past few years.

  30. Lynn M says:

    Wow, I’ll be very sad if my local Borders disappears. While not a perfect bookstore by any means (I sometimes struggle to find title I’d expect them to have), it’s the only brick and mortar store I actually like to go to. When our Barnes & Noble moved across the street into the mall, it became a huge chore to go to – no parking, have to hike miles to get to it. I even let my B&N Membership lapse. When I want a hard copy of a book quickly I head to Borders. That said, I order most of my books on Amazon or as e-books for my Sony eReader, so I can see why they are struggling. I’m guilty of contributing to their problems.

  31. annmartina says:

    We have a lovely Borders in Bloomington, MN that has great, enthusiastic employees and does a great job of supporting and promoting local authors. I’d be sorry to see it go.

  32. Mary G says:

    I’m in Canada. I wanted to send someone in the US a bookstore gift card. I chose Borders. The site let me fill out everything & then when it got to my billing address it bombed. Confirmed by phone – they don’t deal with out of country sales even though nothing physical was leaving the country. B & N got my business.

  33. Kadie says:

    Borders served as many a date night for my husband and I, read a few magazines, have a snack and usually buy a book or magazine a piece (even if we didn’t have a coupon), so I couldn’t understand what the problem was with Borders…..then came Christmas and I gave my husband my wishlist (from Amazon). He took it to our local Borders and he only could find one of the 12 books listed (books released in last 6 months most for the holidays) they were all full price even online. amazon had all in stock for at least 30% if not 40% off (BN had all on sale as well). So instead of spending almost $500 at Borders he spent less than $300 at Amazon and got them in a few days (along with my Kindle)

  34. sue from england says:

    I have read this blog with real interest. In the UK we lost Borders over a year ago now and I saw it go with real sadness because it was the only bookstore in the UK where I could get all the romance novels I wanted. Now apart from a select few (Nora Roberts, Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, Gaelen Foley)published by publishers int he UK and Mills and Boon, there is only Amazon (which to be fair gives an excellent service!)
    I too have a Kindle and I love it, but it is a shame that you can’t browse and discover new authors. I subscribe to RT Book Reviews, am an avid follower of this site and track my favourite authors through RWA, but nothing beats the excitement of browsing shelf upon shelf of books, reading the blurb on the back and finding a new writer to delight. Whenever I come to the States, the prospect of visiting Borders and Barnes and Noble has always been a thrilling one. If we lose them, what a shame it will be!

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