Borders on the Fence?

Thursday, March 26th, 2009, 11:10 am

When Circuit City announced they were liquidating I paid them a few visits looking for bargains. I didn’t find any. Even with their merchandise marked down 20-30% their prices still weren’t competitive with Amazon. And I knew this because every time I gave an item a look-see I’d pull out my iPhone and use the Amazon app to compare prices. For example, I wanted a 4gb memory card for my camera. Circuit City had those marked down 30%, yet at Amazon they were just half of THAT price.

A few days before Circuit City shuttered its doors for good I went back for a last look. The atmosphere was funereal–it was quiet, the lights turned low, a handful of flatscreen TVs flickering in the back. Most of the shelves were bare and some of those bare shelves were broken down and for sale themselves. There were just a handful of people walking around and as the employees had abandoned their bright red polo shirts it was hard to tell them apart from the customers. “I’ll bet this is what shopping in the Soviet Union felt like,” I thought as I walked around the empty displays. “Except that there aren’t any lines.” That was true, no one seemed to be buying anything. Because there wasn’t much left to buy. A few days later the store closed for good.

I do most of my shopping online. Books, electronics, clothes, whatever. And I’m sure oodles of people do the same thing I do–I go to a store, find something I’m interested in, give it a close examination…and then go home to order it through Amazon. Brick-and-mortar stores are the showroom, the testing ground. Once I’m satisfied that this is what I want to buy, I leave and give my money to a competitor. I don’t think you need a Ph.D in economics to figure out that isn’t a viable business model.

The other day I read a post at the Consumerist blog that speculated Borders might be the next big chain to declare bankruptcy. And I let out a little squeal of horror. I love Borders. I’m there once a week, sometimes more. If I’m driving down McKnight and I have some spare time I’ll stop in and browse for fifteen minutes, just to wallow in all those books.

And so I’ll browse and wallow and if I find something that looks interesting I’ll…pull out my iPhone and see what Amazon lists it for. Because I abuse Borders more than any other store. When something new comes out I rush over there, check it out, and then rush home to place my order. I’m a member of their Borders Rewards program and they send me coupons every week, coupons that I only use once a month or so. A lot of the time Amazon’s prices are still much better.

So reading that Borders might be in serious trouble has me feeling both sad AND guilty. An icy pragmatist might say that buying an item at the best price is rational and that I should stop sniveling. OK, fine. But I do have an emotional attachment to Borders. I like going there. If I couldn’t go there anymore I would be sad. I also used to work in the space Borders now occupies–it used to be a sporting goods store, way back when, and I worked there when I was in high school. When Borders moved in I liked the fact that my favorite store just happened to be in the same space where I used to sell shoes and tennis racquets. Borders moving in there seemed like progress. If it closed, well…

I got a Borders coupon in my email this morning. 40% off any item. Got a few books I’m interested in. Think I’ll go shopping.

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