Barnes and Noble, No!

Since college, I’ve been using Amazon.com to buy a lot of books. Typically, I hit up the used sections first, where I can generally find decent products for quite a bit cheaper, but generally, for high quality books. In general, I would hit up some of the local bookstores in Montpelier (although now, in Barre, I’m left with far fewer options), Barnes and Noble in Burlington and a bunch of places in between. Amazon, however, has been causing problems for the independent and brick and mortar bookstore scene, and I figured that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to start doing some of my online shopping somewhere else, at least for new books.

So, with a new X-Wing novel coming out, (Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston) I went to Barnes and Noble’s website, pre-ordered the book, and sat back to wait. Happily, there’s the option to pay with PayPal, which would help me break my habit of ordering from Amazon, which already has my credit card information, and makes the impulse buys all that much more easy. Release day rolls around, and … no book. Checking the website, I find that it hadn’t shipped yet, which is weird, because I had ordered the book last month – plenty of time to get the book out to me within the lower shipping level that I selected.

Last night, I received an e-mail from Barnes and Noble:

Dear Andrew L ,

We want to give you an update about the pre-ordered item(s) listed below. Unfortunately, we just got word that the release date for this item(s) has been changed. We expect to ship the item(s) soon and will email you when it is ready to leave our warehouse. If we cannot acquire the item(s) within 30 days, we will notify you by email.

However, if you would like to cancel this portion of your order, you may do so online at: …

We are working to fulfill the rest of your order as quickly as possible. Because we value you as a customer, we are sending the items that are currently available in your order now at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your patience.

Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay.

— Barnes & Noble

Well, for one, the book’s release date hadn’t changed: Amazon still lists it as August 7th, as does Barnes and Noble. More importantly, Random House, the book’s publisher, lists it as August 7th. Weird. I really want to read this book, so I go ahead and follow the directions to cancel the order. If Barnes and Noble isn’t going to ship it to me, I might as well go back to Amazon, who I know will.

Amazon sends me an automated book ordered e-mail, and because I ordered it directly from them, rather than from a 3rd Party, I’m pretty sure it’ll ship out ASAP. Barnes and Noble sends me another note:

Dear Andrew L,

We have received your request to cancel your order #.

We regret that we are unable to complete your request because your order has entered the shipping process or has already shipped. We apologize for any inconvenience.

If you wish to return this item, you may return your purchase for a refund within 14 days of delivery by following the instructions we included in your package.

For more information regarding returns please click …

So, which is it? Delayed, or in the shipping process? Barnes and Noble, I followed your directions, and you’re not able to go through with even that? Color me unimpressed. So, Amazon’s order is cancelled, and I’m simply going to have to wait for this to arrive on my doorstep later than expected.

There’s more to my indignation here than entitled fanboy demands: it goes to show just why Amazon has been doing so well with the online market, and why Barnes and Noble has not been doing well. To be fair, if I’d gone up to Burlington’s B&N outlet, I’m reasonably sure that I would have been able to pick up the book off the shelf – Star Wars new releases tended to be pretty high profile in the bookselling world, at least when I worked at Borders. But, Burlington’s a good 45 minutes up the road from me, and I don’t typically go up there unless I’m doing several things to make the trip worthwhile. I doubt that the local bookstore, Next Chapter, has anything in stock, with such a small SF/F selection.

What bothers me the most is that Barnes and Noble has had time to perfect their customer supply chain and management. Working at a bookstore during and after college demonstrated some of the principles of how CSM policy worked, and working at a college with a real start up / business flair demonstrated how it was essential for retaining business. What Barnes and Noble is doing is not great. It’s not the worst that I’ve seen, but it’s left me deflated and disappointed that I don’t have a book that I was really looking forward to reading. On one hand, it’s a good lesson in patience, and another opportunity to turn to another book. On the bookseller / CMS level, it’s a customer who took (well, tried) their money somewhere else that was faster, more reliable, and most importantly, happy to take their money.

What bothers me the most is the disconnect between their messaging. Following their directions, I wasn’t able to cancel the order as I’d tried to do: attempting to do so providing me with a completely contrary message, which suggests that there’s a disconnect somewhere in their system. As of writing this, the book is still listed as pending shipment, and for all I know, it could be waiting for me at home or two weeks away. It’s troubling, because my confidence in their ability to actually do what they’re supposed to do: take my money and put a book in my hands.

The problem that this has revealed is an issue with automated systems. In an ideal world, Barnes and Noble would use their physical stores as their greatest asset: when an online order goes out, their system routes the order to the nearest store to your location, and has them fill the order, dropping it in the mail from their store location. This saves time for the buyer, but more importantly, a real, live person puts the order together and drops it in the mail. In a world increasingly filled with automated systems, people in the loop are incredibly important, because they can do what machines can not: recognize and solve a problem that is unexpected. Any bookseller who paid attention could find that this wasn’t a problem, and act accordingly.

This element is crucial to Barnes and Noble’s successes as a book retailer. Borders certainly failed to act as a good customer service company: their policy of twisting their customer’s arms to buy selected books was one of many reasons why Barnes and Noble is still standing. Amazon has proven that it is far superior when handling automated orders: their supply chain is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s going to serve them well into the future. Barnes and Noble’s key strength is a physical location, and they would do well to keep people in the loop when it comes to their day to day operations.

When it comes to comparing Amazon to the thousands of booksellers across the country, there’s almost no doubt in whom I’d want to buy from: the physical retail stores, from a bookseller who knows what they’re doing. The face to face interaction with an employee, even when I don’t need their help, is a key part of the buying experience that Amazon.com simply cannot replicate. The recommended titles are simply based off of similar data profiles from customers, going up against a bookseller who can tell you whether or not the book that you’re looking for is something worth buying – I know that I’ve made the case and sold books that I felt invested in. What Barnes and Noble should do is carry this same thinking over to their online world, bringing someone into the loop.

But first, they need to send me my book! In the meantime, I’m going to attempt to learn a valuable lesson in patience, and read something else in the meantime.

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