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The Battle of the Bookselling Behemoths

By Alex Gordon   June 11, 1997

Located within an eighth of a mile of each other in my Chicago neighborhood are a Borders Books, a Barnes and Noble bookstore and a Super Crown. I live right on the frontlines of the book wars. The three megastores have already driven a number of independent bookstores out of the neighborhood by offering some combination of deep discounts, coffee and pastries, music sections, author readings and comfy chairs. And though at swank parties I'll take the correct stance and bemoan the death of the independent bookstore, the reality of the situation is that if I'm going to buy the latest John Grisham, I'd much rather save 40 percent than save face.

Recently, a virtual version of my neighborhood book wars has come to the Internet. Where before was the only serious player in the virtual neighborhood, Barnes and Noble recently moved in and things are getting hot. While Seattle-based Amazon, even from its humble beginnings, has always had a liberal discounting policy, this week they upped the ante. "For more than 400,000 titles, every hardcover is at least 30% off and every paperback is at least 20% off. Specially featured books are discounted 40%," the site shouts. The new discounts were just the latest salvo in the war that's been raging since Barnes and Noble's Web site debuted last month.

But hyperbole aside, the real winner in this war is the consumer. Just as in my own neighborhood, where I can comparison shop by just crossing the street, on the Web its simple enough to visit both sites while looking for the best price on a book. Take, for instance, the aforementioned latest from the book factory that is Grisham, Inc. At Amazon, The Partner costs $18.87, a savings of $8.08 (or 30%) off the $26.95 list price. Curiously at B&N the book costs $21.66, a savings of $9.29 (or 30%) off the $30.95 list price. I called a non-virtual Barnes and Noble where the book was listed correctly at $26.95 and costs $18.86 (the standard 30% discount) plus tax. Wait a second, why is the book listed for $4 more at Barnes and Noble? Well, that was the $30.95 price that I got came up when I did a search for the book, but when I went to The Partner link via the Bestsellers section I get the correct price of $18.86. Of course, the hidden cost in all this is the dreaded "shipping and handling," which is $3.00 per shipment plus $.95 per book at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The price snafu illustrates how shopping online can be just as frustrating as shopping in real space (as anyone who's ever been submitted to the old "I need a price check on Trojan condoms" can attest). But unless, you have stock in one of the companies, I encourage you to shop around for the best bargain. Of course there's more than price to consider when choosing where to shop. Both stores offers loads of virtual amenities, some of which make the experience of cybershopping a pleasure. Obviously the search engines at both sites are a great resource; a marked improvement over waiting at the help desk for someone to lead you to the very same spot on the shelf you've just came from so they can tell you that that's where the book should be. The sites also offer much more in author interviews, bulletin boards, staff recommendations, picks of the day, notification services and above all, incredible selection.

Like their real world superstore cousins, the sites offer many ways for bibliophiles to while away the hours without actually buying anything. Now, if they could only figure out a way to let you get a good cup of joe while reading your favorite magazine for free, they'd really be on to something.

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