Once upon a time there lived a woman named Autumn who, sadly, killed every houseplant she owned. Determined to turn over a new leaf, she drove to the nearest Borders Books and Music store to buy a book on how to make her garden grow. Her green-thumbed friend suggested she choose What Houseplant Where as her growing guide. But since she could not remember the author's name, and was too embarrassed by her lack of horticulture knowledge to ask for help, she browsed the bookshelves hoping she would locate it herself. But there were more titles on plants than rocks in her rock garden. She tilted her head and scanned every plant book binding from Bonsai to Vegetation of Wisconsin to no avail. In a fit of frustration and utter defeat, Autumn left the bookstore looking as wilted as her potted fern - and Borders lost a sale.
In an effort to ban this story of woe from Borders retail shelves, the company recently installed self-search kiosks in its 335 domestic stores. Appropriately called Title Sleuth, each kiosk provides search-engine access to a wider range of titles than can be stocked in any one store. Even though an average Borders bookstore stocks over 150,000 titles, that is just the prologue of what is available to its customers. The company has access to more than 3 million products via its partnership with Ingram Book Group (LaVergne, TN), the primary provider of book fulfillment services for Borders' special order and online sales. But prior to the kiosks, a customer had to either inquire about fulfillment center stock at the information desk or log on to Borders.com to conduct a search. Now, the same database that Borders employees and Internet surfers use can be accessed by store customers via Title Sleuth kiosks. And in the subjective environment of a bookstore, self-help is more than just a section of shelves. It differentiates Borders in the retail world.
Online Features In A Brick-And-Mortar World
If Autumn had typed the title What Houseplant Where into the search box of Title Sleuth, she would have discovered that, although her local store was out of the particular title by Roy Lancaster, one was available to order. She could have printed the full title information and taken it to the information desk where a Borders employee would have ordered it for her. She could have picked it up at the store in a few days. "Today the ability is to look one step deeper into the supply chain. A future enhancement would be the ability to look into the inventory of other stores in a local area," said Paul Mozak, director of convergence and business development at Borders Group, Inc.
Title Sleuth is more than just a search engine for books, music, and movies, however. Customers can read and print reviews, local store events, maps of in-store book locations, or lists of best sellers. From the kiosk, customers can even register for genre-specific e-mail newsletters such as Borders Tractor Beam, a newsletter on the latest science fiction books. If a book is hard to find or out of print, the kiosk indicates that Borders does not carry it, but that the Harvest Book Search Company can locate it for them. This partnership positions Borders as not only a bookstore, but a search engine service for bookworms. These are services that are also available to Borders.com surfers.
Since a company survey found that the majority of its customers also have Internet access, Borders wanted to make sure that the online features paralleled those available on the kiosks. "In considering the Internet as an additional channel for us, we made a constant effort to bring the best of what we have in our stores onto the Internet," Mozak said. "Now we want to be sure that the capabilities that customers use in the online world are also available in the offline world." This strategy will further position Borders as an integrated multichannel retailer.
Another Chapter Of E-Commerce
Title Sleuth has only been in the stores for less than a year, but already Borders is looking to expand the kiosks' capabilities. "Title Sleuth, in general, is developed to be an evolving platform so we can meet our customers' needs in the future," Mozak said. Seven Borders stores are currently testing e-commerce kiosks, and the company will decide in the next year if it will roll out the ability to order titles directly through the kiosks to all its stores.
If Autumn had been in one of the stores equipped with an e-commerce version of Title Sleuth, she could have seen that her plant guide was available through the Ingram Book Group service and ordered it right at the kiosk. She could have typed in her mailing address and credit card information just as she would have if she had ordered online, since the kiosks and Web site share the same inventory database.
In Borders' back end system, Autumn's order would have been transmitted via Borders' WAN (wide area network) to its fulfillment partner. Borders' alliance with Ingram Book Group strictly deals with special order books. Multimedia and stationary special orders obtained through the Web site, e-commerce kiosks, or the stores are shipped from one fulfillment center located in LaVergne, TN. This fulfillment center is separate from Borders' nine domestic distribution centers that stock the 335 stores. The sales information from any of Borders' sales channels is transmitted each night via Borders' WAN to the Ann Arbor, MI, headquarters. Each sale is flagged according to its source and credited as a store, kiosk, or Web sale.
Supporting Characters Bring Kiosks To Life
During the initial kiosk rollout, Borders found that one out of five customers used Title Sleuth, and the system averaged about 1 million searches per week. Mozak said those searches resulted in enough of an increase in special orders - inquiries that go through the information desk - that the store saw nationwide value in the technology.
The Title Sleuth project was mainly developed in-house by Borders' development team, but some aspects of the system required outside assistance. Title Sleuth is a Web application that runs on Internet Explorer, but Borders had to be sure that its customers were not using the kiosks to access Internet sites - it had to be sure its customers were using the kiosks to search only Borders' inventory. Its customers had to be blocked from the applications that were intended for Borders employees such as human resource information. For this, Borders worked with Netkey (Branford, CT), a software company that specializes in self-service technology. "The Netkey software acts as a security package that requires a password to exit the Title Sleuth application. This prevents customers from moving into other applications or accessing sales data, for example, in the Borders system," said Kate Harding, senior manager, IT consumer systems project office at Borders Group, Inc. Other partnerships include IBM, which maintains the company's Web servers; Microsoft, provider of the proxy server software that runs on each store server; and AltaVista, creator of the search engine that powers Title Sleuth.
When A Kiosk Is Not A Web Site
Even though Title Sleuth is a Web application, the Borders IT team was careful not to duplicate Borders.com. "The user interface of Borders.com is quite different from that of Title Sleuth because the customers are in a different environment," Mozak said. "It is a much different experience for one to be sitting down at a PC versus standing up at a kiosk in a store." A Web site approach might discourage customers who are unfamiliar with Internet navigation from using or even approaching the kiosk. Customers are standing at the kiosk for a limited amount of time, so it shouldn't take them any longer to identify how a kiosk will help them than it would to scan the inside flap of a best-seller.
Borders worked with Kiosk Information Systems (KIS) (Broomfield, CO) to design and manufacture Title Sleuth's physical aspects. One way Borders ensured bulletproof navigation was through user-friendly search terms. For example, instead of "forward" or "back" buttons to move from screen to screen, the kiosk allows the customer to choose from "start over" to exit a search or "return to previous page" to go back a step.
Certain hardware features also played an important role in designing Title Sleuth. The kiosks run on Deskpro EN Series Small Form Factor commercial PCs from Compaq. Borders placed the track ball in the center of the kiosk to make it easy for right- or left-handed people to direct the cursor on the screen. Any printed information comes out directly below the screen on a Swecoin 112 mm thermal receipt printer rather than an 80 mm receipt printer. Since customers can print book and music titles, store events, or reviews from Title Sleuth, Borders wanted the wider paper so that customers would find it easy to read, yet small enough to stick into their pockets.
All of these kiosk features, combined with Borders' large title database, make Title Sleuth a valuable addition to the sales floor. It acts as a computerized salesperson who is always on the floor and ready to search. "Almost 75% of our customers viewed the kiosks as something that differentiated us from other bookstores," Mozak said.
But Borders isn't ending its latest commerce strategy story with the phrase "The End." The company will continue to investigate new technology to make shopping a better experience for its customers. On the horizon is a CRM (customer relationship management) system, from E.piphany, Inc., that will be incorporated into all the Borders Group, Inc. operations. In the end, when the Autumns of the retail world walk into a Borders bookstore looking for a self-help guide, the kiosks will enable customers and Borders to live happily ever after.Questions about this article? E-mail the author at StephRD@corrypub.com.