Hoping to tap into that Amazon.com magic right here in Japan, Softbank (a software and publishing company), Seven-Eleven, Yahoo! Japan and Tohan, a book publisher and distributor, last week announced a joint venture to sell books online. e-Shopping! Books (who thinks up these names?) plans to open for business in November
The scheme is designed to circumvent the chief obstacle to e-commerce in Japan: the reluctance of Japanese consumers to give out credit-card numbers over the Internet. In this plan, a customer will order a book online, mosey over to a neighborhood Seven-Eleven, plunk down the cash and wait for the book to be delivered (by Yamato Transport, another participant).
Elegant, no? Business analysts give the plan mixed reviews, at least in terms of its impact on the four partners’ prospects.
The real problem is that Japanese laws prevent book retailers from discounting prices as they do in the States. An informal survey of acquaintances who shop at Amazon.com suggests that hefty price breaks attract them most. On top of that, it’s always tough finding English-language books while overseas.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, started the business because he realized that the economies of a virtual bookstore could never be matched by a bricks-and-mortar one. No store could match his stock.
The one slight problem is that shopping for books is a real-world experience. Amazon.com is trying to use fuzzy logic and similar tools to help customers find books they might be interested in. They are doing a pretty good job too — probably the best of any of the Internet retailers.
But, sorry Jeff — no computer can capture the serendipity involved in a meander through a bookstore. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have no clue when entering a bookstore what I’ll walk out with, and there is no standard procedure that could tell you how I make my choices. The random walk is the best part of a bookstore.
I’m not alone in this veneration of the bookstore. Just try to squeeze through the aisles of any hon-ya in Japan. I was in Singapore recently and ended up in the Borders bookstore there. It was a virtual community center: readers lounging or sprawling everywhere. Children make a beeline for the kids’ corner, plop down on the floor and amuse themselves for hours.
In the old days, the idea of using a bookstore as a library would have infuriated managers and employees. Remember when you had to buy a book to read it?
Nowadays, retailers understand that selling books takes more than stock: It’s about creating a literary space, a place where people can experience books — and not just read them. One friend talks about being able to smell the books. Physicality is important. Browsing — exploring physical space — is vital. So is comfort. The more time you have, the deeper you can get into a book and the harder it is to put down.
The importance of physical space is ironic, given Amazon’s success. How can a disembodied virtual space hope to compete with this living, pulsing environment?
Steve Talbott has reservations about shopping at Amazon.com. Talbott is author of Netfuture, a weekly e-mail newsletter on technology and human responsibility (www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/). I expected him to home in on this community aspect of the bookstore, and he does, but in a much more profound way.
“When I buy something,” Talbott explains, “I am not merely paying for a discrete object or for a single, precisely delimited service. With my transaction, I step into a complex, ongoing dance, and the effect of my entry ripples through the entire pattern to its farthest edges as the other participants adjust to my activity.”
Price is not the only issue involved in a purchase: A whole set of values is packaged in the deal. Body Shop customers, for example, support an environmental consciousness that is not part of the typical conbini shopping mentality. For years, Japanese trade negotiators told the world that the locals wouldn’t buy foreign rice even if it was cheaper, because consumer decisions reflected a national security mind-set that price alone did not capture. (Experience suggests they were wrong, but the argument is relevant.)
Talbott doesn’t shop at Amazon because it doesn’t fit into his commitment to “community economics.” “Its scale of operation, its decontextualization of its businesses, its cultivation of a consumer and entrepreneurial mind-set that sees economic products as isolated economic entities whose attached numbers (prices) represent the only thing about them relevant to our buying choices — this strikes me as unhealthy in the extreme …”
If you share Talbott’s concerns, then you should be worried, too. Amazon.com is considered the Internet success story, its model touted for others. It’s buying up other businesses — CD and video retailers, and branching into unrelated products and services, most recently online auctions. Business gurus consider this a portent of the future.
Let Talbott explain: “We are reducing markets to formal abstractions. Goods and services are viewed, in familiar atomic fashion, as discrete, self-contained and neatly transportable entities without regard to context. … Everything that would ground commercial activity, everything that would bind it in an orderly fashion to the structure and meaning of our lives tends to disappear.
“This negates what is most important in our economic life.”
He is talking about values. Talbott is right to be concerned, but he poses the alternatives as either/or propositions: Amazon.com or mom-and-pop shops. A few years ago it would have been Borders vs. the small indies. (Seen “You’ve Got Mail” yet?) I’m not sure it’s that simple. Niches may survive. Talbott says he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him, but does want shoppers to look at the big picture. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Oh, and while you’re paying for your books at the Seven-Eleven, don’t forget to pick up an onigiri for your late-night reading session.