Monday, December 28, 2009

IndieBound for the Holidays - How Did It Go?

I like to think I put my money where my mouth is most of the time, literally so when it comes to my support of independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores over the chains and Amazon. When it comes to my day to day book shopping, there's no question that I shop indie- or at least, bricks and mortar- over online. But then there's the question of the holidays. Every year our family shops online for gifts for my husband and me, and books represent a large proportion of what we all buy- several hundred family Christmas dollars. He and I buy bookish gifts at indies without question, but given that they prefer to shop online, in years past we've both made up wish lists at Amazon to make things easier for them.

This year though, both of us switched our wish lists to #Amazonfail was the last straw for me, and I closed my account at Amazon and eliminated my wish list; he continues to use Amazon for videos and games but has also stopped buying books there. We decided to use's wish list feature, which you can save to and search on; the site links to independent bookstores all across the country and you can choose the bookstore you want to buy from and then either pick up in-store or have them ship the books to your home, just like an online bookstore. It sounds like it should be simple, and while overall it was a good experience, there's room for improvement.

The ordering process itself could have been smoother. First, you search for the wish list and select a book to order; you're asked to choose a bookstore to shop from and then you're taken to that store's site to place the order. After I ordered a book from my husband's wish list from the store I chose, I had to go back to IndieBound to select the next book and then go back to the store's site to add it to the cart; then go back again to IndieBound for the next book, unless I happened to remember what it was. It worked out fine, but I was worried that the books wouldn't all show up in my shopping cart because it wasn't clear to me that IndieBound was communicating to the store that everything was part of the same order.

I wish the process was streamlined somehow so that users could specify a preferred bookstore and so I wasn't switching back and forth. I wish the IndieBound site would also delete or hide the books as they're bought, like Amazon does. I had to ask my husband for his password and then manually delete what I bought so that no one else would buy the same books. But I checked out and chose my shipping method (store pick-up), paid and got an email from the store within the hour telling me that most of my books were in stock and held for me at the checkout counter.

Pick-up was simple; only one book was out of stock, and the bookstore got back to me within two or three days to say it had come in. I picked up everything at once and that was that. They had a record of my prepayment and I had no problems. My husband used a different bookstore and had some issues with their record keeping. They didn't have a record that he'd paid for one of several books ordered; he paid at the counter, realized he'd paid twice and then had to get it corrected. Later, after I'd picked up my entire order, I got a call that one of the books had come in; thinking maybe I'd overlooked something, I went back to the store but nothing was held under my name. It took more checking to figure out that that call had been made in error. Meanwhile the clerks at my store were indifferent-to-difficult to deal with; as much as I love the store for its selection and history, they really need to work on their customer service!

Neither of these snags were a big deal, and neither had to do with per se, but I felt like both reflected a little lack of preparedness on the part of the bookstores and made me question whether or not I'd do my holiday shopping through IndieBound again. I know that some of my family members were a little uncomfortable with IndieBound's interface and needed assistance to use it. I got the message that they would prefer not to use it again, or at least not without someone to help them. The shuffling back and forth, the lack of clarity with respect to shipping and just the sheer number of layers between IndieBound and the actual order process made it difficult for them.

I think IndieBound has a good, if imperfect, system for helping people order online which could be improved by a smoother interface and a streamlined ordering process. Participating bookstores also need to ramp themselves up a little bit to handle the online business- if they want it. At the end of the day, would I shop indie online again? Yes, I would, but I would only use one of the two stores we dealt with and I would lower my expectations a little. Which I shouldn't have to. I'm committed enough to shopping indie that I'm willing to put up with a few snags but most people aren't, and if indies are going to make a go of online selling they need to make sure their bricks-and-mortar resources are up to the task. Otherwise people just won't use them.