While I feel that the death of brick and mortar stores has often been declared prematurely, a recent experience my father had with Borders Books (which also owns the ailing Waldenbooks chain) has made me reevaluate that belief. In order to compete with online outlets like Amazon (which in this company’s case once included partnering with them), companies like Borders need to keep up with technology. This was clearly not the case when he went into one of their Massachusetts stores to order a book that I wanted for Christmas.
For some reason, the recently released Marvel Comics in the 1960s: An Issue-By-Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon by Pierre Comtois is not an easy title to find. My Dad first went to Barnes & Noble, but they did not have it listed in their system. So he journeyed to Borders, and they did not have it listed either. But when my father did his own search there, he did find it. He thinks that the employees at both stores may have spelled out “Nineteen Sixties” rather than type in “1960s,” hence not finding the book in their systems. No big deal, although a lazy mistake.
The book was only available through Borders.com and not for store delivery, so my father tried ordering it online at the store itself because he wanted to get it done as soon as he could. A weird quirk in the system emerged — when my father entered “Ave.” in his address, the Borders computer said the USPS did not recognize that as valid, and in a second column presented their alternative, “Ave”. Yet it still offered the option of using what he originally typed in. (So it was valid but invalid?) To keep things simple, he used their option. Then, as bad luck would have it, my father discovered that the security code on the back of his fairly new credit card had already worn off, so he couldn’t read one of the numbers and therefore could not order my book online because he needed that three digit code to finish the transaction. He told a manager, who offered a clever suggestion: selling him a gift certificate worth $30 that he could use online (the total with tax was $29.70). It sounded like a good plan, so they did the transaction.
My father went back to try ordering the book again and use the gift certificate he had just obtained. When he fully typed “Avenue” into his address this time, the system again said that was not valid and that he should use “Ave”. Fine, he did that and moved on. Then a message popped up declaring that while his gift certificate number was valid, it would not be used for this order. The store manager was stumped by this; he had never seen that before. It took a couple of more tries at ordering the book, but the gift certificate was finally accepted on the website. Then it took three attempts to print out a receipt.
After 45 long minutes, my patient father (amused by the whole ordeal) had finally ordered my book. Had he been someone in a rush, he would have left. The manager felt bad and bought him a cup of coffee at the cafe. He admitted that the company’s computer system was outdated, and one of the cafe employees divulged that his PC there may have even been running Windows 95! Perhaps the lesson here is to never order through Borders.com in one of the stores, but impulse sales are a good retail tactic, so this option should not be headache-inducing. It makes me wonder what problems the staff has using the system on their end.
It should be noted that the Borders store staff was friendly and helpful throughout the entire process. But their technology clearly failed them. If a large chain like Borders can’t get their act together by staying up-to-date with the technology that’s also threatening to pull them under, then they haven’t learned their lesson. I don’t wish them any ill will — I’ve shopped there many times — but it astounds me when major companies do not keep up with the times. And with Borders UK seeking bankruptcy protection, not to mention potential hardships with the parent company in this country, they need to get up to speed. This certainly isn’t the only reason for their problems, but it doesn’t help them either.
One of the strengths of traditional, brick and mortar retail stores is the live, personalized service you get, an experience that cannot be replicated online. Having an outdated computer system lessens that experience, no matter how friendly or helpful the employees try to be. If such retailers don’t learn to embrace current technology completely — and that means in the stores as well as online — they are simply helping to dismantle their own business.