When I was 14 years old, when the Internet was still ARPANET and “Amazon” was a female warrior from Greek mythology, I discovered science fiction. Satisfying my craving for new and exciting stories each week meant riding my bike to the nearest bookstore, which was just over three miles away, but felt more like ten. Soon, however, the ache in my legs (and posterior) began to pale in comparison to the joy of getting lost in a bookstore. An hour or more of searching the shelves for “just the right book” was all part of the experience, and the discovery was at least as satisfying as devouring the book once I got home.
But along came a wife and family and with it, less free time. My trips to the bookstore became fewer and further between, eventually becoming an exercise in frustration, as there were far more books to read than time to read them. Still, I managed to slip in the occasional trip. But in the late 90’s, things began to change. I watched as Amazon went toe-to-toe with retail booksellers like Barnes & Noble, and I discovered that online bookstores were wonderfully convenient for the time-strapped working man with 2.5 kids. Then ebooks became all the rage; but somehow, reading a book on my computer wasn’t all that, despite the novelty. Even when devices like the Kindle and Nook came out, I stuck with my good-old-fashioned paperback. Although I have an iPad and use it mostly for online reading, given the choice between a printed book or its electronic counterpart, I’ll opt for paper and ink every time.
I realize I’ve become a minority. The tipping point came in May of this past year, when Amazon announced they were now selling more ebooks than printed ones—105 for every 100 print copies. For the majority of consumers, price and convenience has trumped the bookstore experience, and brick-and-mortar retail bookstores have become an endangered species.
James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, one of the U.K’s leading book chains, thinks otherwise. He says that people who shop for books online are “denying themselves the pleasure of browsing in a bookshop.”
The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that “If you read this, you’ll like that”—it’s a dismal way to recommend books. A physical bookshop in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books is the environment you want.
So sorry, James. For at least 51 percent of consumers, a physical bookshop “in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books” is not the environment they want. Steve Jobs was fond of Henry Ford’s quote, If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’. And while that philosophy worked well for innovators like Ford and Jobs, with vast amounts of capital, high-rolling investors, and the brightest minds in their employ, you and I (and perhaps Mr. Daunt) might be well-advised to discover exactly what our customers want.
I’m not making a case for the death of printed books, or that bookstore lovers like me will disappear from the face of the earth. But telling 51 percent of your market that they should “want what you want them to want” doesn’t seem like an effective marketing strategy.
A design teacher of mine once told us, if you come up with an idea that no one’s ever thought of before, you’re either a genius or an idiot. I would issue the same caution regarding your customers. If you think you know what they want without asking them … well, you can decide which of the two you are.