Did Borders Miss its Pivot?

We all know the sad demise of Borders. Some of us know the the rest of the story as well: crushing debt and poor timing on taking on competitors, amongst other things. Could the real problem be that Borders did not make its ‘pivot’ when it should have?

Borders was a bookstore chain, but Borders was more than that and perhaps in this ‘more’ was their solution. What else was Borders? We have to look at what people used it for to really answer the question. Within that answer was the direction Borders should have changed its business plan to.

Certainly, people went to buy books – or at least look at books. People also went because it had a coffee shop where people could look at the books in depth and decide to purchase. People also used the bookstore as place to meet with others, as you could easily do in the aforementioned coffee shop.

The manner at which Borders coffee shops were set up was different than other coffee shop competitors. The area was far larger and could be used (most times) by a working patron. It had lots of tables instead of plush chairs. You had a better chance of finding an open table there than at any Starbucks. The larger space committed to the coffee shop portion made it re-configurable for larger groups, so you’d normally see students studying or people talking with each other.

The three kinds of shopper who frequented the coffee shop were shoppers, workers and socializers. If these were the people who most came in to the store, shouldn’t it be obvious that the store be redesigned to attract more of these sorts?

This would be the little bell for Borders to pivot.

Perhaps Borders could become a coffee shop? After all, a coffee shop attracts people in much the same manner and the great part about it is that Starbucks’ stores are really not set up to handle the sorts of activities at the scale Borders could. With a ‘coffee shop’ the square footage of a Borders, a company could afford to have more people drink coffee for longer without worrying as much at turn over. Perhaps instead of removing chairs and tables from the showroom floor, they should have put more in.

What if Borders traveled down that path further? If Borders had thought not as a bookstore with a coffee shop but more as a socializing place for people, things would have been different. They would have to make a business of bringing people together inside the store, or better yet, make a situation where the shopper would be inclined to stay longer? What if Borders was to become a social neighborhood hotspot? Perhaps even they could have sold more books.

People come together for a united cause. Friends are friends because they share something similar, whether it be the same love of cars, live in the same neighborhood or play the same sports. People also spend to be united in cause. Finally, most people are desperate to socialize (We are social animals after all.) Bring enough people together and socializing happens and for Borders, the longer people are in stores, the better the chances those people will buy.

This could have happened easily enough for Borders. It could have been a grass-roots sort of affair. It could have started as innocuously as with author talks, then with book clubs (driving book sales). Borders could then hire cool hunters to sort out the new thing and bring that in for demonstration, thus driving socialization and in the process, sales. If one is not constrained by thinking of purely authors, there are a world’s possibilities available for attracting shoppers.

Borders could have seriously embraced technology as it had early in its life and worked to bring both the cloud-world and the bricks & mortar world together. When people leave a Borders they stop thinking of going to Borders until they drive past or feel a specific need. With the social capabilities of technology that they could have leveraged, they could have made a persistent presence in shoppers’ lives. They could do this with all of the store engagements they execute. What good is having them if no one knows about them.

Of course there are other gems that could have polished. Perhaps then with a digital reader app that allows one to preview books only at the local borders, thus driving people to physically go to the store. It could have been pushed further; coupons would be sent to be redeemed when they checked into the store. They could have further pushed tech by creating in-store apps that connected people in interesting way, and broke down the awkward barriers people have to talking to new people. It could have even had a (gasp) ‘singles night’ like my local grocery store has ( yeah, that’s for real!).

All of these suggestions could have helped to at least slow down the decline. They take money, yes, but so does making money. The only way Borders could have pulled out would have been if Borders would have understood that there was no more money in being a bookstore and it had to do something else: Pivot.

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