It’s Sell or High Water

Whee-commerce! Can Indie Booksellers Ride the Wave?

The BookSense logo will appear on the front page of each store's site. Although a branding campaign could be a good thing on the mass market, some view this tactic with ambivalence. Dick Harte founded his own version of BookSense.com, called Booksite, in 1994. Now 150 stores operate within his system. Booksite is a totally invisible entity that merely provides the back-end stuff for its stores (some of which are ABA members). And unlike BookSense.com's "home page," you can't buy books through Booksite, only through the specific store's sites. "BookSense is creating another Amazon and having independents as associates," Harte complains.

Some booksellers are signing on to BookSense not to increase profits, but to take a stand. "I think that we need to be, as independents, an alternative that's put in people's vision," says Jill Dunbar, the owner of Three Lives-a Village fixture since 1970.

Proof that people do respond to an alternative lies in Powells.com, the largest independent bookseller online. Based in Portland, Oregon, Powell's, which specializes in used books, is one of Amazon's biggest suppliers for out-of-print titles. Powell's got a serious jump on e-commerce, offering its technical books online as early as 1993. Kanth Gopalpur, Powell's online marketing manager, believes BookSense may suffer from its tardy arrival on the scene. "It all depends on how they position themselves. It would be a big
mistake to try and compete head-on with Amazon and Barnes & Noble." He continues, "What's really going to set independent bookstores apart is their personalities, and that these people really know books."

Knowledge of product and sincerity of mission could finally be what drives traffic on the Net to indie sites. Successful independents understand the value of intimate customer interaction better than anyone, and to translate that level of understanding online would be impossible for a large, impersonal chain. Says Dunbar, "There's this 1984 notion that five CEOs are going to determine what we see and hear. Well, I'm an old hippie, I don't like that world. I can't go that way."

E-commerce is still evolving, and mimicking current models comes nowhere close to harnessing its potential. Amazon's glib formula for success is that consumers want three things: selection, convenience, and price; for fickle customers, this is an airtight combination. As Dick Harte of Booksite quips, "I'm as loyal as an old hound dog, but I still pump my own gas to save 50 cents on the dollar." So how to convert the masses? "That's the 24 million-dollar question," replies Harte.

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