Marketing rant: do I look like I work at Borders?

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One of the great joys in life is wandering the aisles of mega bookstores just to let all the new titles hit you randomly, perhaps leading you down a new avenue to explore.

But one of the great frustrations in life is actually trying to buy something at one of these mega bookstores.

Recently I was in a Borders book store seeking a copy of Little Heathens, a memoir by Mildred Armstrong Kalish about growing up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. I approached the customer service desk and asked for assistance locating a copy The employee noted that six copies were in store . . . but the computer did not say where. So we set off together to hunt down the mysterious six, section by section. First we tried New Releases and Featured Biographies and Memoirs, but to no avail. Next came Sociology, Modern U.S. History, and Borders Original Voices.


The employee was unfailingly polite . . . but I could see the wheels turning in her head: why doesn’t this guy just go away? And I don’t blame her! I wanted to go away, too.

Finally, I let her off the hook. Other customers needed her attention, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to buy the book. Out of desperation, I tried U.S. History once more — where I found on one tiny sliver of a shelf we had overlooked set aside for “Modern U.S. History — New Releases.” Bingo — all six copes of Little Heathens, tucked away apparently forever.

On my way out the store, I felt a sense of duty to inform my de facto employee associate of where she could find Little Heathens.

Fast forward to another visit to Borders in a different location a few days ago. This time I wanted a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, having just seen the compelling Coen Brothers movie adaption of this violent story.

I had resigned myself to purchasing one of those new editions that always come out with the movie — you know, the one that always features a facsimile of the movie poster on the cover, branding you as a reader led by the nose of his movie tastes.

Once again, finding the book was next to impossible. After looking in the fiction section, I flagged a friendly sales associate.

“Our computer shows several copies in stock,” she replied. “Let’s look in the fiction section.”

“I was just there, but let’s look anyway,” I replied, hoping maybe she knew something I did not.

Well, we could not find the book anywhere — again. “Hey,” I suggested, “Don’t you have some sort of movie tie-in section? The movie version is out now, so I”ll bet you have it on display with other books in theaters now.”

She smiled blankly and apologized. “I think it must be on someone’s classroom reading list,” she replied. “Probably a group of students cleaned us out even though our computer shows copies in the store. Sorry!”

Undaunted, I kept looking — through Great Reads, the Paperback Fiction Favorites Table, the Borders Recommends section, even the Buy One, Get One Half Price section. I had a feeling I could safely skip the Childrens section, though.

Finally, I found it in an At the Movies section carved out of a row of books devoted to new releases.

And once again I found myself politely waving a sales associate over to the section where she was supposed to have found the book.

So . . . should we blame the sales associates? I don’t think so. Frankly I would find it impossible to keep up with those finely sliced categories hiding across a huge warehouse of books.

I blame us — the marketers.

We’re trying so hard to anticipate and respond to exploding consumer micromarkets that we are confusing consumers with too many options and purchase categories under the justification of providing “choice.”

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discussed the “overwhelming abundance of choice” that clouds our lives. He talks of “choice overload,” or having too many options of products ranging from blue jeans to colleges, which creates analysis paralysis, “anxiety, and perpetual stress.”

You can’t even mail a letter at the post office anymore without subjecting yourself to a barrage of offers that you probably don’t care about — commemorative stamps, registered receipt, insurance, 2nd-day mail, special envelopes, etc.

Ironically, Borders can continue to crank out as many diverse titles as it pleases — it’s the myriad category choices in-store that confuse and overwhelm.

A little simplicity would go a long way. Please.

3 thoughts on “Marketing rant: do I look like I work at Borders?

  1. Hi David. They say women go to stores to shop, men go to stores to buy… apparently there is a difference. My understanding of retail layouts is they are designed to confuse and bombard you with choice to the point of abstraction. You are rendered helpless, but to surrender your wallet in an effort to find an exit.

    My solution was a mashup fantasy ( I blogged about a year ago… Imagine an app that could link ISBN codes to store layouts? You could literally pinpoint (like on a google map) where THE book you wanted was in the store, because you already knew they had it in stock. It\’s technically, possible, yes? But, like all technology solutions– just because it can be done, doesn\’t mean it will.

    P.S. don\’t tell your mashup fantasies to IBM– they actually build them for you.

  2. Bah humbug! I say more is more! Spice of life and all that. So what if there are 27 flavors of Pop Tarts. I won\’t be happy until there are at least 96 (Onion Rings \’n\’ Hot Fudge…are you listening Kellogs?).

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