Why it promises to be a silly season in the online bookshops

As the busiest time of year arrives for online retailers there are signs that some big names on the web are struggling with the effectiveness of their sites. Common sense and attention to detail are not always on display.

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You would have thought that the big e-commerce operators would have got their act together by now. They have not. And mighty Amazon is worse than most.
There is nothing magical about producing a retail website that works: let customers find what they want easily, and take them on a “journey” to the check-out. But the devil is in the detail. Customers can leave a shop with one press of the forefinger; at the slightest annoyance or ambiguity, many will.
I have been looking at that cliché of e-commerce, the online bookseller. Wanting to stock up for Christmas, I confined myself to UK retailers, though I doubt I would find much difference elsewhere.
My first surprise was that retailers are still searching for a better business model. While some, such as WH Smith, follow King Amazon in providing an ever-greater range of products (not just books), Blackwell’s and Bertelsmann-owned BOL are trying to carve out niches. Blackwell’s sources books from the US, which are often cheaper, while the relaunched BOL UK is hawking a limited range of low-priced bestsellers.
Once in the site though, the game is the same, and it is a game of two halves: finding what you want, and paying for it. I found silly mistakes throughout.

The trouble with suggestion lists

I wanted England’s Thousand Best Houses, by Simon Jenkins, as well as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and book suggestions for myself and the children.
First to Amazon, where the search engine brought me quickly to Mr Jenkins’ work, but rather flummoxed me with 17 variants of the Potter book, mixing audio with paper versions. The first three listed were an expensive special edition and two audio books: it took a while to find the standard one I wanted.
That wasted a little time, but not as much as my hunt for suggestions. Amazon is obsessed with providing recommendations. But those it makes – coming under the twee ‘David’s Store’ tab – reflect the tastes of a 10-year-old grandmother who has just separated from his wife. This is the problem with personalisation: it cannot distinguish between things you have bought for yourself and for other people. The result is often absurd. I signed in again as a first-time user, and was offered “today’s featured recommendations”, followed by a note that “We were unable to find titles to recommend after looking at your purchase history”. Fancy that.
I am baffled that booksellers do not use a much simpler recommendation device: you provide a profile of the person for whom you are buying, and the bookseller makes suggestions. In toys, the Early Learning Centre does just that. But there is nothing similar on any of these book sites – which is curious because I recently received an e-mail from WH Smith pointing to an interactive Present Picker. It was clearly a Christmas special, but why not put it on the site? The Book Place has a curious feature called “Fractal Browse”, which is designed to help you home in on suitable titles, but is too clever by half.

The limitations of mechanisation

Some of Amazon’s features – such as “People who bought this also bought…” and reader’s reviews – can be helpful. But I would prefer rather more attention on good content and less on mechanised cross-selling. What about excerpts, which it used to carry, or press reviews?
Similar problems elsewhere, though none of Amazon’s rivals has invested so heavily in mechanisation. The Book Place quickly located the Jenkins book and offered a better review than Amazon, though it, too, offered a confusing brood of Phoenixes. BOL has the crushing commercial advantage of offering Jenkins at a huge discount and sells only one version of the Harry Potter. Blackwell’s needs to tweak its mechanisation: people who bought Mr Jenkins’ book, we are told, “also bought The Pain Relief Handbook”. Helpful.

The fall-out from registration

In a physical shop, paying is the easy bit. Not online: more people drop out during the check-out process than anywhere else. Here, surely, the established players should have got it right? Well, Amazon offers lots of help and allows you to change your mind whenever you want. But it demands that you log on unnecessarily – I had to enter my username and password four times in a recent ramble round the site. And its obsession with self-service means that you cannot phone a human being. I have spotted an unAmazonian lack of certainty here over the years. Sometimes you can find a phone number, sometimes not. Similarly, it blows hot and cold on its once-vaunted “One click” ordering system, which must account for huge numbers of unintentional orders and wrong addresses. Right now, the site is playing it down.
The Bookplace makes silly mistakes. It demands a 10-character password, against the common six or eight characters. I predict many people will make up a new password, forget it, and forget about The Bookplace, too.
BOL and Blackwell’s show how it should be done. They wait to ask for a user name and password until after you have bought. They offer phone numbers or a call-back option. BOL in particular does everything it can to stop you making mistakes, not least incorporating a postcode look-up, to ensure the address is accurate. Carefully done and simple to use.
Why do experienced operators make so many mistakes on their sites? I suspect that despite clever tracking software and endless ‘usability’ testing, they often fail to apply the two most valuable attributes: common sense and a relentless attention to detail.

First published 03 December, 2003
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