As I write this column in early September, I'm also listening to Julian Barnes read from Arthur & George at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on July 10. I mention this not to laud my multitasking ability, nor to reveal deep secrets about time travel, but to recommend Authors on Tour: Podcasts of Authors and Their Books, a feature that adds considerable luster to an otherwise standard Booksense.com template.
According to Neil Strandberg, Tattered Cover's manager of operations, "The ideal Web site will be able to keep pace with changing technologies and services, even when the future of such ideas is murky or their current return on investment disappointing."
While he admits that this online ideal is still beyond the reach of most bookstores, including Tattered Cover, he believes a Web presence is "indispensable" for independents. Strandberg has given the online book world considerable thought, as you'll discover in my next two columns. This time, I'll share his views on Tattered Cover's work with Booksense.com's Web site service.
It's an important topic. During my siteseeing tour this year, I've encountered a range of opinions about the effectiveness of the Booksense.com approach. Strandberg's take, based upon experience as well as reflection, is an excellent starting point for this discussion.
Tattered Cover is the first example cited on Booksense.com's Q&A page. Strandberg says that the bookstore maintained its own Web site for several years, but switched to the Booksense.com template to keep pace with ever-changing technology and customer expectations: "Booksense.com offered, in our view, the best selection of functions and services for the resources available to us. This 'math' remains true now."
He adds that while the store's Web site helps sustain relationships with customers for whom the current offerings (event schedules, browsing options, etc.) are satisfactory, "I must simultaneously acknowledge that I have responded to many customers who have hoped for something different, 'better,' from a store with Tattered Cover's reputation. Also, the fact that our online ordering growth does not mirror national trends speaks for itself with respect to the kinds of relationships our site is sustaining--or not."
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the Booksense.com option? According to Strandberg, "One advantage relates to the cost to Tattered Cover, be that the cost of labor, equipment, R&D, software, troubleshooting or the like. Doing this on our own simply became impossible to sustain. Other stores, of course, have selected other providers. Booksite comes immediately to mind, but this point leads me to another great advantage: Len Vlahos and the BookSense.com crew. They are fantastically responsive, sharp and helpful. They 'get' our needs, can quickly connect the dots between service goals and technical abilities, and can translate a rapidly evolving jargon-laden conversation into plain English."
Strandberg acknowledges, however, the limited range of options available "to completely personalize the Web site and thereby reproduce online whatever is valuable about the in-store experience. Our internal arguments regarding this point center on frustrated desires to make the Web site as special and unique as any of the physical stores, and to offer all our products and services."
He knows that BookSense.com must please a diverse (dare we say fiercely independent?) bookstore community and is inevitably "pushed by users with high expectations and pulled by others whose requirements are more basic. We frequently work with Booksense.com to identify new goals for the Tattered Cover--and all template users--and simultaneously recognize that these ideas will be placed in a queue that BookSense.com prioritizes according to its resources and the demands of other stores."
While there is no such thing as an ideal bookstore Web site, Strandberg does have a dream site and his inspiration is Powells.com, which "has done a wonderful job of capitalizing on its core mission, selling books competitively while expanding its customer relationship via the Web. In fact, a Web site visitor can engage with books, digital media, Powell's staff, the stores, authors and aspects of the literary community in ways that the in-store customer could never experience. As a result, and this is my goal for Book Sense and the Tattered Cover, the in-store and online relationship both complement and expand upon each other. Neither is the pale shadow of the other, each promises to satisfy the ever-evolving spectrum of consumer interests."
"Ever-evolving" precludes arrival. The quest continues. More from Neil Strandberg next time.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)