Rating the 'bricks and clicks'
09.05.08 | Anna Richardson
It was quite a straight-forward brief: review the best "bricks and clicks" websites. Easy! But a cursory surf on the WWW reveals there isn't actually that much to choose from.
There's Amazon, AbeBooks, The Book People - plenty of clicks, but no bricks of course. Crockatt & Powall? Great bricks, great blog, but no transactional clicks. Same with Daunt Books. Many use the identikit model provided by the Book Partnership, which means they all do the same thing, albeit with a local emphasis.
Oh, and Borders was still dragging its heels - no site in sight - so, despite David Kohn's tantalising nuggets about unique, never-before-seen search functions and the like, nothing to review.
Thank goodness for Waterstone's which launched its transactional website more than a year ago, and redesigns from Foyles and Stanfords. In the end, the bunch of bricks and clicks looks mightily impressive and varied.
Below are the reviews, but in a nutshell: I would go to Stanfords for travel inspiration; to Waterstone's for fabulous and thoughtful recommendations; to Foyles to dig for backlist gems; and - it has to be said - to W H Smith for offers, offers, offers.
I reviewed a selection of high street booksellers’ sites, rating them on browse-ability, user experience and online offers (with help form e-commerce consultant Ross Beadle). From each website, I ordered a copy of the then chart-topping book, Penny Vincenzi’s An Absolute Scandal.
Waterstone’s struck a deal in 2001 with Amazon to use the e-tail giant’s e-commerce platform, but ended the agreement in 2006. The website currently uses Bertrams for fulfilment, but will begin using Waterstone’s new central distribution hub later this year.
Look: Clean, simple and uncluttered. Core elements of store environment and brand imagery are used.
Offers: Reflects instore deals, including 30% off “life-changing books” (selected by Waterstone’s booksellers and card-holders); 30% off Visit Britain guides; “half-price offers of the week”; “this week’s best buys”.
Community/recommendations: Has ventured into blogging with its Book Club. Other features include “what’s on at Waterstone’s”, advertising more than 250 instore events across its branches for April; “read all about it” daily book news and gossip; “bookseller’s choice”, where a different bookseller reviews their 10 favourite books every month.
Delivery: Free delivery to store; free UK delivery
Best feature: “Ask the Bookseller”: friendly, extremely knowledgeable recommendation on children’s books from a bookseller within 24 hours—the personal touch was a very pleasant surprise.
Beadle’s view: “Well constructed, and ticking many boxes. Various bits of interaction, a strong price message, and they have begun to build a deeper site. But for a literate brand, with a self-proclaimed love of the written word, Waterstone’s seems reluctant to trust its customers to read anything. Everything is sold by images, but actually words are often more precise and much more space-effective. As such, it did not engage me much at all, and that is crucial to making me return.”
Vincenzi Test: £5.59 (free shipping); book arrived the third day after ordering.
W H SMITH
One of the first internet bookshops, whsmith.co.uk was launched in 1999, after the company bought the Internet Bookshop. The last comprehensive change to the offer was made at Christmas 2007. The website offers approximately two million books in print, and in addition it offers second-hand books, rare books, personalised books and e-books through third-party relationships.
Look: Prominent offers on the homepage grab the user’s eye.
Offers: Change daily, responding to customers and reflecting what’s available in its high street stores. Range from “£5 off when you spend £25 or more”; 10% off CGP Revision guides and practice papers; “buy one, get one half price”; up to 60% off cookbooks; “buy one, get one half price kids’ books”; and “money off top 30 audiobooks”.
Community/recommendations: Books are reviewed by customers, and the website’s books editor writes introductions to recommended titles.
Delivery: Free delivery to all high street stores and to UK addresses.
Best feature: Offers, offers, offers—it was selling An Absolute Scandal for £3.99—the cheapest price of all the websites used for this feature.
Beadle’s view: “The website has moved in a very good direction that reflects what it’s about as a business. The way it grabs your eye is very good, and much better than most. They’re not trying to be a bookseller; they’re trying to be W H Smith—lots of offers, lots of promotions. It works pretty well. “
Vincenzi Test: £3.99 (free shipping); book arrived on third day.
“The knowledge retailer” launched its website in 1997 and now describes it as “the online bookshop with a difference”. Blackwell specialises in academic titles, with a great choice of categories and a huge range of stock from its store to fall back on. It is currently revising its e-commerce strategy.
Look: Clean and very easy to read, although it uses a lot of images, such as book covers, which add little and take valuable space.
Offers: Oxford World’s Classics exclusively at Blackwell online with 20% off; “£s off law”; “20% off medicine”; “20% off science top 50”; “£s off revision guides”.
Community/recommendations: “Our top 50 favourites—from one book lover to another”; free weekly email newsletter, signed first editions and rare books email notifications; “Blackwell recommends”; instore events, with around 27 signings and exhibitions; “readers’ corner”: a book club formed in 1999, which meets once a month in an Oxford pub and posts reviews online.
Delivery: Free delivery on orders over £20 in the UK; £2 on standard delivery; reserve online and collect instore.
Best element: Readers’ corner: thoughtful and in-depth reviews and discussion from the regular book group.
Beadle’s view: “Blackwell specifically appears not to price for the online channel. Their strategy is to have selected promotional offers to convey the impression of value sufficiently to be able to trade on their core strengths of range and service. The focus of the site, rightly, is academic and extended range, as exemplified by the ‘new and used’ titles, now listed via a partnership with Alibris. This is supplemented by a good ‘collect from store’ offer that includes the extended range of Broad Street, Oxford. But without a good price offer, does the customer ever get as far as discovering these strengths? Only Blackwell will know the answer to that one.”
Vincenzi Test: £9.99 (full r.r.p. + £2 shipping); book arrived on third day.
Foyles.co.uk originally launched in 2000; an extensive relaunch was completed last year. The website uses wholesalers for fulfilment but also offers access to the Charing Cross Road branch’s vast stockholding.
Look: Wide layout with lots of space. Well-displayed basket and search area.
Offers: “Books of the month”, with up to 40% discount; learn a language and up to 30% off; ‘Richard & Judy’ Book Club, save 30%; save 30% on top 20 teen reads for spring; ”see it, read it”—save up to 24% on film tie-ins.
Community/recommendations: “We at Foyles have eclectic taste—we’ll try anything and everything,” states the website. Elements include “Foyles recommends”, “Foyles favourite fiction”, “staff picks”, “events at Foyles” and a monthly newsletter.
Delivery: Free postage and packing on all UK orders over £10; free delivery to store; standard delivery £1.50; choice of currencies.
Best element: The “recommended reading” section offers a glimpse of Foyles staff expertise and idiosyncratic tastes.
Beadle’s view: “Foyles rightly trades on key assets that fit with the brand and the web. It has a range of available titles that are in Charing Cross Road but not stocked by Gardners. This gives them a unique selling point—range. The quirky bestseller list positions the brand clearly as a range retailer. They have also added the interesting non-book ranges such as sheet music and jazz from the shop, again products not readily available elsewhere. Unlike Waterstone’s, they are prepared to trust the customer to read stuff, which to me at least seems the right thing to do with a literate audience.”
Vincenzi Test: £7.57 (£6.07 + £1.50 shipping); book arrived on third day.
The Peak District’s Country Bookshop, housed in a former railway station, launched its website in 1997 and was one of the first online book retailers. It offers more than 3.2 million UK & US titles, 300,000 German books, plus magazine subscriptions, cards and games. Orders are fulfilled through third party and its warehouse.
Look: Four-column website. Not as slick as others, but a large amount of information on the homepage.
Offers: No clear price offer. “Bestselling bargains”; money off in food, drink and cookery; special offer gift books; prominent promotions on 27 Peak Festival books.
Community/recommendations: Social network site Booksconnect; local bestsellers; details and emphasis on the Peak Festival, which the shop runs, and its book awards; email newsletter covering a range of books.
Other elements/features: Signed copies; new books from independent publishers; “Buy on WAP”; “The Journal” with links to author interviews, events and awards, but not much content there; out of print/used books links; services for schools, libraries and businesses.
Delivery: Free UK delivery on orders over £19; £2.50 for first book, £1 for second book.
Best element: The emphasis on local community.
Beadle's view: “Lots here. Much better designed than it used to be. They have survived as a dot.com, which is an enormous achievement. They have extended the offer—schools, signed copies magazines and focus on the Peak District [connection]. I like the map bit, and I would return to their site for that—which is the key acid test.”
Vincenzi test: £8.89 (£6.39 + £2.50 shipping); book arrived on the 14th day.
Matthew and Sarah Clarke have opted to run their site using the Book Partnership template. It promises “two million titles, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.
Look: Using the Book Partnership template means the site has a certain “identikit” feel.
Offers: Not much in the way of discounts.
Community/recommendations: Torbay Bookshop photograph album; list of local titles; local author events.
Delivery: Collect from shop or postal service; standard postage & packaging £4.25; Book Tokens exchanged and sold.
Best element: The photograph album—what independent bookshops are all about.
Beadle’s view: “I really like this home-grown effort. Faithful to the character of the shop and the brand. It majors on events and authors, and acts as a news site for the shop. I’m not sure how often I would visit it, mind you.”
Vincenzi test: £10.64 (£6.39 + £4.25 shipping); book arrived on third day.
SamedayBooks used to be the owner of the Methvens book chain, but is now a subsidiary of ArgentVive’s Retail8. It sold several shops last year, and now has two left, in Worthing and Chertsey. The company wanted to shift its focus from the high street to e-commerce, and has recently launched the beta version of BookRabbit.com.
Look: Clean, pleasant graphics, but a high emphasis on individual titles. Not much to grab attention, save the gimmicky countdown timer for the “deal of the day”.
Offers: “Deal of the day”, offering money off a different title every day; further offers on six titles on the home page; £4 off Delia Smith’s How to Cheat at Cooking.
Community/recommendations: Events and promotions email; “books with buzz” (currently The Gathering by Anne Enright).
Delivery: Free delivery with standard UK shipping; option of free text messages when order arrives in store.
Best element: The ticking clock.
Beadle’s view: “There are three big variables that matter to customers: speed/reliability, value and range size. SamedayBooks has firmly hung its hat on speed. It’s a very narrow focus if you have not covered the other two areas.”
Vincenzi test: £7.99; book arrived on fourth day.
Site launched 2000; redesigned 2006. The online catalogue includes approximately 25,000 titles, but will increase to 60,000 by the end of the year. It has a unique range of specialist titles, and the best range of specialist maps online.
Look: Unique navigation menus at the top of the page for search by destination and product type. Graphic features include mapping detail and map coverage, as well as book covers and product images.
Offers: Three-for-two on different publishers’ walking guides; permanent special prices for products, such as £51 off The Times Atlas of the World; soon to offer online three-for-two on major publishers to tie in with instore offers, which change monthly.
Community/recommendations: Email newsletter; events vary, with 12 currently advertised; “Stanfords’ tales”, with articles from well-travelled staff that regularly road-test maps and guide books.
Delivery: In-stock titles are delivered within 48 hours from Covent Garden flagship store. £1 packing charge; £2.20 Royal Mail first class.
Best element: “Famous travel”—a lovely feature that makes you want to re-discover classic travel literature.
Beadle’s view: “This is really good as a site, but I am less convinced by the consumer offer. It is a bit jumbled—the navigation in the middle top is tough to see straight away. However, there is a lot to do, and there is a good ‘range offer’. You feel encouraged to go into the site further.”
Vincenzi test: (for The Bookseller of Kabul) £11.19 (full r.r.p. + £3.20 shipping), book arrived on second day (NB as a travel bookshop, Stanfords did not stock Vincenzi).
Accompanying the independent bookshop in Edinburgh, which opened in 1994, the website aims to be “an alternative to corporate bookshops that refuse to allow their workers to join trade unions”.
Look: Nice use of colour, reflecting the shop’s strong logo and highlighting the search function and news/community section of the website.
Community/recommendations: “Platform”, a regular debate forum; notice board; Word Power events and link to Edinburgh Book Fringe festival and the Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair.
Beadle’s view: “This shop shows how difficult it is to do a good site. They have done an awful lot here and yet it doesn’t quite work. If the site is about being ‘alternative’, they need to do more to reinforce that message.”
Delivery: Cost £2.14.
Vincenzi test: £8.53 (£6.39 + £2.14 shipping); book arrived on third day.