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Return Trips: Online Customers Can Go Home Again

Shelf Awareness -- July 18, 2006

We all have favorite travel destinations we "discovered" at some point, and to which we return whenever we can. The urge to go back applies even more to Web siteseeing because it's so easy--no long lines, no traffic jams, no lost luggage, no screaming kids (headphones help).  

Why do people visit certain Web sites day after day? Why do you? Why do customers visit certain bookstore Web sites regularly? Why don't they?

In response to my first column for Shelf Awareness, a reader disagreed with this statement: "Presumably, the sites weren't built for current patrons, nor are they there to lure readers into the bricks-and-mortar store." He said a lot of regular customers used his site "as an additional way to stay in touch, and to help them plan visits to the store--both in terms of checking times/dates of events and also to search for books using our online db before driving here to buy the books in person."

I agree, but--if I may paraphrase Miss Peggy Lee--"Is that all there is . . . to a bookstore Web site?" Event schedules and title research are important services, but they're modest goals. You can drive a Ferrari to the supermarket for groceries. Is that the best use of its potential?
Some Web sites do try harder. The July 6 issue of Shelf Awareness reported that at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, "30% of store revenues come from online sales." While the site itself isn't visually striking, it is absolutely packed with useful information for mystery fans, and offers a range of incentives to purchase books online, including discounts and free shipping. I'm currently interviewing owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman. I'll share their thoughts on the topic with you in an upcoming tour stop.

I'll also tell you about Pass Christian Bookstore, which was leveled during Hurricane Katrina and has survived the perilous transition period by functioning aggressively and passionately as an online operation. Author Carolyn Haines called my attention to this effort and suggested I contact owner Scott Naugle. "They've built a great e-mail list," she said, "and stay in touch with their clients in that way, until a new storefront can go up." Scott and I are now discussing his online strategy ("Our Web site has kept us in business," he wrote), and I'll share his thoughts with you soon.  

Ultimately, it's all about return trips. We travel to certain places for many reasons, but we go back out of loyalty and a desire to replicate a pleasurable experience. It doesn't have to be complicated.  

For years, my morning ritual has included a cup of coffee and a visit to Arts & Letters Daily. The site is simplicity itself visually, and hasn't changed much in all the time I've been going there. Each morning, new links are posted for three articles, culled from all over the Web. There always seems to be something worth reading.

So I return every day.

On the other hand, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an intricate, beautiful Web site. Even though I'm a bricks-and-mortar member (if a long-distance one here in Vermont), I seldom visited online until they began posting "Today's Featured Work of Art from the Permanent Collection" on their home page. That relatively simple addition, fresh each morning, has altered my relationship with the museum.

So I return every day.

"By and by I got this idea of a travelling bookstore," Christopher Morley wrote nearly a century ago in Parnassus on Wheels. "I had always been a lover of books, and in the days when I boarded out among the farmers I used to read aloud to them. After my mother died I built the wagon to suit my own ideas, bought a stock of books from a big second-hand store in Baltimore, and set out."

Back then, the notion of a bookshop that went to where the readers were wasn't revolutionary. Traveling salesmen of all descriptions plied their trades from house to house, farm to farm. Maybe a little Parnassus spirit is worth considering again. For different reasons, Mystery Lovers Bookshop and Pass Christian Books have found ways to build their online wagons and "set out." Both are on my "Favorites" list.--

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