Borders: Death by Not Crossing Experience Parity


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A great deal has been written in the business press in the past week, at first anticipating the bankruptcy of Borders Bookstores, and then reporting on it. Borders, one of the largest and presumably most successful booksellers of our time is closing, or at least, downsizing into oblivion. The changing markets, the on-going shift to digital, and consumer demand for convenience as much as price, and ultimately, the lack of strategic differentiation and customer-focused innovation appears to have done in the once leading chain.

While I’ll say I’ve been a fairly loyal Borders customer, my loyalty, if in reality at all is largely a function of laziness. My local Borders is approximately 8 minutes closer to my home than the nearest Barnes & Noble. I frequented Borders because the one nearest to my house is also joined at the hip by another large, favorite retailer of mine, Best Buy. And, if truth be told, the third store in the same plaza is a favorite of my wife’s who I can often have join me on shopping junkets by suggesting she can visit her favorite while I visit my own.

The point I’m raising is not an unimportant one, and as such I do not want to simply gloss over it. There is nothing unqiuely special about Borders that causes my apparent loyalty. The shopping experience has been profoundly “me too” in terms of merchandising, pricing and marketing, and even the inclusion of a magazine laiden coffee shop which, if you simply transposed the B&N logo, you’d never know you weren’t in one. Borders, it seems, succeeded significantly because of luck, proximity, and being a good imitator, and not because they created a sustainability strategy driven by superior shopper experiences. They simply were convenient and met expectations set by competitive sellers which at least allowed them to be as good as the others and as such, because of the other reasons mentioned, had my loyalty.

As it turns out, the Borders nearest my home is being spared, and while the others in the area are soon to be shuttered and turned into either large empty spaces with “For Rent” signs in the windows or worse, another Pet superstore or similar.

What could Borders have done to cross the parity line of simply meeting my, and other shoppers’ expectations through flattering amounts of competitive imitation? They could have invested in becoming much more customer aware and consumer centric, and by which, chosen a go to market strategy built around differentiation as opposed to imitation. They could have listened better to customers who cried out for a “Kindle Killer” 3 years ago and not just entered the digital delivery markets this past holiday season with an also-ran ebook reader that nobody wanted, which by the way had its own launch delayed by months due to technical snafus. They could have organized their stores to not look and feel like the competition, but considered reinvention of the book buying experience, if, they even chose to remain focused on books and music as 95% of their product selection at all. The possibiities, it seems were endless. Instead, they struggled to imitate and found instead that competitive imitiation only seems to lead to an inescaple deathspiral and along the way, substantial profit and customer loyalty erosion.

The key lesson to take away from the imminent failure of Borders is we must innovate and not imitate. We must be much more customer aware and customer centric in our daily business lives, and through such centricity become more nimble in setting and executing strategy. We must be able to capture people’s imaginations and even cause people to dare to dream again about the experiences possible. Future carbon copy merchants will struggle to keep up and the differentiation will drive flocks of buyers to spend increasingly larger wallet share at the most innovative, cutting edge stores while others languish and ultimately face the same fate as Borders.

It’s not too late for many to change and in doing so, not only sustain their businesses but thrive. It’s a choice that needs to be made now, because the longer we wait, the wider we open the door for the other guys to make the same decison and execute a day faster, or even just a little better.

Marc Mandel, part of the team at Strativity Group ( invites you to join him and Lior Arussy, Strativity’s founder and President for the Customer Experience Boot Camp program – a series of free instructional webinars geared for anyone with an interest in Customer Experience excellence. More information about the upcoming February 2011 boot camp is available at>

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Marc Mandel
Marc Mandel is a Regional Sales Director at Allegiance, Inc.


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