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Bookstore seating, pros and cons

Via edrants: The Baltimore Sun reveals an interesting difference between Borders and Barnes & Noble in this feature about bookstore”soft seating”:

Just a decade ago, the trend in the bookstore industry was to fit nooks and crannies with big chairs for browsing, which, it was hoped, would spur buying. The idea was to recast the bookstore as a community place or an extension of the home. Out with sterile bookstores where customers stood at attention to check out a book; in with warm, sinking chairs where book lovers could be by their lonesome.

But now the availability of so-called “soft” seating – overstuffed chairs and sofas – is on the decline at some bookstores, done in by various complications: homeless squatters, overly enthusiastic young lovers, food trash left behind.

“We were finding people staying for hours and hours and not necessarily buying books,” says Juliana Wood, district marketing manager for the Borders chain. “We obviously hope browsing turns to purchasing, but that’s a chance you take when you offer people a really comfortable setting.”

In recent years, Borders has cut its soft seating by as much as 30 percent. Backless seating – magazine benches, step stools – no longer takes the back seat. Also, given the choice between book space and seating place, books win every time. As Wood says, “You can’t sell a chair.”

There was early skepticism about the trend to bookstores so comfortable that a visitor might simply relax but not buy, but other factors arose that some operators hadn’t predicted.

“People were falling asleep in the chairs, then spilling their coffee. We want you to be comfortable, but we also want to be able to clean up after you have left,” Wood says. At another store, she once broke up two teenagers exploring something other than a good book – “by the children’s section, no less.”

So Borders’ attitude is something like, “Our chairs are too good for you people.” What about B&N?

Not every bookseller is in retreat on the issue of the comfy chair. Although it’s always assessing store seating, the company is not phasing out soft seating, says Mitchell Klipper, chief operating officer of Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookseller.

Depending on space, the company’s stores have four to 12 of what they call plush chairs. They replace more than 1,000 chairs each year. “We have more chairs now than ever,” Klipper says.

As for browsing, Barnes & Noble banks on it. “It’s a question junior analysts say. They say people sit and read and they don’t buy,” Klipper says. “Let them read all they want. We encourage them to stay a while. They will show up at the register eventually.”

That’s good news. Maybe our local B&N will put in a few more chairs. I hate the waiting-room-like row over by the philosophy section. The chairs over by biographies are nice, but none too plenty.

This subject rang a bell with me. I went over to my own bookshelves (adjacent to some very comfortable seating), and pulled down a book I bought several years ago — Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill. This is a fascinating little book with appeal for anyone who’s a shopper — and that’s pretty much everyone. I remembered that Underhill spent a lot of time discussing bookstores, and sure enough, there are a few paragraphs about bookstore seating:

And now we’ve come upon the other great innovation of bookstores — chairs. If every store provided seating like this, the word of retail would be a whole lot friendlier for shoppers and their companions. Chairs have totally changed the bookstore vibe, making it into the much-sought-after “third place” — the locale that’s not home and not job but still someplace where we feel comfortable spending time. And spending time in a store is usually a prelude to buying. But whoever positioned those chairs did so without sitting in them, for they afford no view of anything worthwhile from the store’s perspective, no signs or displays aimed specifically at these customers. Anyplace where shoppers linger should be a communication opportunity, and this one is perfect for some prolonged sign-reading.

True enough. I generally have two reasons for going to Barnes & Noble. If I’m there to buy a specific book or magazine, I go straight to it, pick it up, and take it to the checkout. I’m in and I’m out. Or, I’m there to research a subject or an author and I want to look at several volumes before choosing one. For instance, say I want a copy of Anna Karenina but I’m not sure which translation I’d prefer. I’ll take down every edition they have, head for the cozy chair, and browse through them all. And I will buy one. But don’t rush me. Let me take a load off my feet for a minute.


7 Responses

  1. I agree with you! Even if I don’t buy a book this time, a comfortable and positive experience will make me come back (at which time, perhaps I’ll be ready to buy!). It gets me into the habit of going to B&N. Plus, I almost always buy some coffee from the bookstore cafe. I do wish they had more seating, though. I often find myself wandering the store, looking for a place to park.

  2. It seems to me that, true, you’re always going to have to deal with a few obnoxious people. But that’s retail — there’s no retailer that I know of who doesn’t have to spend a certain amount of time dealing with problem customers (or in this case, non-customers). But anything that gets people to linger in the store and *pull things off the shelf* will lead to more sales.

    For instance, I work in a store which is so crammed with products that there is simply no place to set a chair. But when a recent customer wanted to take some time to browse through our books, the owner fetched a stool for her. The customer was in the store probably an hour, and ended up selecting several books to buy.

    Other things we do — offer to hold bulky merchandise for a customer, offer them a shopping basket, suggest products to go along with the products they’ve selected, engage them in conversation about their needs, offer to place an order for them, provide a play area for kids, etc etc etc — these are simple things, but the result is that customers spend more time in the store browsing, they are more likely to find something they really like and are willing to spend their money on, and their experience is friendly and comfortable overall.

    Putting out chairs — pish, that’s relatively easy! It’s not like the clerks at Borders are falling over themselves to help you. So what if they have to replace them every few weeks? I bet every chair they buy pays for itself twice over.

  3. I used to live in Denver, and they have a local store called Tattered Cover. It was one of those cozy type places, and while I like having, say, a 1/2 hour or so to sit and look through a few things before I buy them, it really irritates me that others will blow it for everyone by moving in and acting like they’re at home. It’s amazing to me the liberties people will take just because they can.

  4. I don’t like the layout of the B&N in Cville it’s too cramped and you are absolutely correct about the waiting room aspect of the chairs (and their set up). No way I want to use any of them.

    Frankly I’m at the point where I’m considering giving up the local bookstores (all three of them) all together. At BN today I found books by two authors. Their covers advertised a different title by the same author (“Bestselling Author of insert title here”) I go to the shelf and guess what- neither of the titles sited on the book jackets by either author are in stock!

    I’m liking Amazon dot com much better lately.

  5. When I want a book, Barnes & Noble is my first choice only if I want the book today and it’s one I might want to keep. Otherwise, I look first at the library (including interlibrary loan), then post it on Bookmooch or order it online.

    The clerks and B&N always offer to order the book for you if you ask for one that isn’t in stock, but I can do that for myself, and usually cheaper.

    Also, why does Borders have the computer kiosks where you can look up the availability of a book, and B&N does not? Not that the Borders computer is very accurate anyway, but I can look up the book I want faster than a clerk can do it for me.

  6. The JMR library rarely has the book I want to read and if they do then if it’s popular there is a long wait or fee associated. It’s been that way since I was a kid so I’ve always purchased my books.

    I used to check out Daedalus Bookshop They always had a great used selection, but that was when I worked nearby. I find now it’s just a bigger hassle than it’s worth to do anything Downtown.

    I haven’t heard about Bookmooch- I’ll have to check that out.

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