“Please take my money!”

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Borders’ bankruptcy discussed last week was a kind of bellwether for the future of book retailing, raising the possibility that Barnes and Noble will soon follow suit. This bleak assessment was reinforced by my own personal experiences at the store. I will let readers judge by the following anecdote.

It was December 2011 and I was juggling work on a complicated project and Christmas shopping. I decided to purchase a book as a Christmas gift through the bookstore rather than ordering the book on-line, because I wanted to include my personal greeting card in the package. I was in a hurry and called my local Barnes & Noble store, hoping to order the book over the phone with my credit card. I wanted them to gift wrap the book in advance so I could pick it up on my rush to the Post Office. Unfortunately the clerk said the store did “not take telephone orders.” I would have to come into the store to make the purchase. Since it was really important to me to include my personal greeting card in the package, I went to Barnes & Noble in search of these services, in spite of the inconvenience.

Though the store would not take a credit card purchase over the phone, which would have facilitated the purchase process, I was slow to change my Christmas tradition of sending a personal greeting to friends and family, so I headed to the Barnes and Noble store in my neighborhood. When I found the book on the shelf, I had trouble finding the checkout counter to close the deal because there was no clear pathway in the spatial design to guide me there. Since my last trip to the store, management had created a physical barrier between the shopping area and the checkout counter. They placed bookcases, display tables, and shelving in front of the check-out to encourage impulse purchases, but this tactic only made the purchase process more cumbersome and time consuming than it already was. Supermarkets use this tactic to force you to shop the produce section on your way to the packaged goods. At Barnes & Noble it only added to my frustration and underscored the overall semiotics of rejection communicated in the customer service, the payment options, and the overall layout of the retail space.

The semiotics of the store’s physical design communicated a distant, difficult relationship between store and consumer that reinforced my initial impression that Barnes & Noble was not eager to get my business. To make matters worse, when I arrived at the cashier I was surprised to find that the in-store price was 40% higher than the on-line price for the same book, though the store environment added no value to the purchase experience.

In the end, I ordered the book online with Amazon.com, my default source for online shopping. The book, shipping, and gift-wrapping combined cost less than the in-store price and took only few minutes of my time. I sent a personal Christmas card to my friend in a separate mailing. In the next blog I ponder the combination of forces that drove me to change long-standing habits around gift giving.

© 2013 marketing semiotics

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