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Senior Correspondent

The Death of a Bookstore…Any Lessons for Us?

Satisfying Retirement

For 40 years Borders was a major force in Americans' reading habits. Its big box style stores anchored shopping malls and power centers. Readers, or simply browsers, found comfort in the aisles crowded with books on any subject. Music CDs and DVDs satisfied those looking for music or movies. Often a coffee shop and comfortable chairs offered a none-to-subtle enticement to sit and read a book or scan a magazine while sipping a latte. Buying the reading material became almost secondary to the experience. In fact, picture a library with better lighting, a wider selection, and a coffee shop, and you have a Borders bookstore.

Earlier this year Borders gave up the fight and closed down the final 400 stores while laying off its last 11,000 employees. For book lovers the death of Borders was a sad moment. It seemed to be the clearest signal yet that brick-and-mortar bookstores were not going to be part of our future. After this 1,250 store business disappeared, could Barnes and Noble be far behind?

I am not going to detail the future of book selling in America (and the rest of the world, for that matter). I'll leave that to others. Rather, I have been wondering if there are larger lessons to be learned from this business failure. Are there a few elemental truths that we can uncover? Obviously, the answer must be yes, since I am writing this post. Consider the following:

Change is a powerful force. There is little disputing the fact that Borders was unable to keep up with the transition from printed to electronic distribution for many readers. Figures released by Amazon from earlier this year show that e-book sales are now besting printed versions by two to one. Unable to compete on price and selection with Amazon, Borders steadily lost printed sales. Since 1999 they have suffered a 44 percent drop in sales, while Amazon has seen Internet sales explode by over 800 percent.

The company was also quite late in deciding to produce an e-book reader. By the time they did, Kindle and Nook owned that category in the consumer's mind. Barnes & Noble was bigger and had more clout in the industry. I have always thought having two major bookstores with similar names was not a recipe for success for one of them. Time has proven which one.

The quip that change is the only constant in life was proven again in this case. To protest against it, deny it, or dig in your heels and be the last man standing is a losing strategy, whether you run a chain of bookstores or your life. The old days and old ways are not coming back. You must adapt to changes in technology, financial planning and expectations, health care costs and availability, and what your retirement lifestyle will look like. The plans you made may not be viable anymore. You can whine about it, fight it, or change.

Serving others serves you. The Borders store near my house never equaled the close-by Barnes & Nobles in friendliness and having a constant presence of employees to help. That may have not been true in other situations, but I was more comfortable to be in a B&N. With the coffee shops, the huge selection of magazines, and the book, music, and movie sections being almost identical, I usually choose the store with better service.

Another personal example involves Home Depot and Lowe's. For the longest time I would never go into a Lowe's Home Improvement Center because they had invisible employees. I never could find anyone to help me. On the other hand, Home Depot had folks in virtually every aisle eager to find that sprinkler part or perfect shade of blue for the home project.

A few years ago, Home Depot decided to save money by cutting back on employees, at the same time Lowe's started hiring more. Within a very short time period, my loyalties shifted. Realizing the error of its ways, Home Depot's experiment in poor service ended quickly and once again, service was given a top priority. I'm back to the folks with the orange aprons.

The point is obvious. People respond to other people being helpful. It doesn't matter if you are in the business world, trying to build a happy family, or volunteering for the local food bank, serving the needs of others provides direct benefits to you.

The perception of value becomes the value. In most cases the price of a paperback or hardcover book was virtually identical at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Amazon was almost always cheaper, as was Walmart on occasion. But, if you were the type of reader who wanted to hold the book and sample some of it before buying, you were likely to choose one of the "B" stores. As noted earlier, customers may have established a greater value to Barnes & Nobles than they did to Borders on something other than price. Customer service may be one reason. Certainly the number of stores and location had some bearing on the outcome. B&N had a better website with easier navigation.

But, something else in our collective mind said B&N was better. I contend that "something else" was the wholehearted acceptance of changes in reading habits. Barnes & Noble's rapid deployment of the Nook reader left its direct competitor in the dust. It also helped validate the entire concept of e-readers. If B&N and Borders had both been slow to develop such a device, I wonder if Kindle would have become the force it is today. With two devices on the market, each supported the other to grow the market for downloadable books. That perception of the value of e-books became a self-fulfilling prophesy when they became mainstream.

Early in my radio career I was taught that perception is reality. If the radio station I worked for said it was the number one choice for the latest hits often enough, then eventually that perception became true, even if another station across town actually played more.

In life you are perceived a certain way. A post from a few weeks ago on your legacy made the point that we want to believe our time on earth means something to someone else. The value you have in your relationship with others is directly affected by the perceived value you bring to that relationship.

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