Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
By KEIRA LYONS
Last week, Barnes & Noble and Amazon both began selling their first tablet in stores: the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. Since they seem similar, I wondered, which tablet would be more successful? How will each company distinguish its tablet from the competition? I theorize that what will set them apart from each other is the level of customer service they offer consumers. Anyone that is purchasing a tablet and is comfortable buying online will do so. The customers I’m concerned with are the ones who need to see the device in person before making a purchase: to feel it, test it, and learn about it from salespeople. I set out to confirm this theory by performing a series of investigative visits to the retailers of each device: first, Barnes & Noble for the Nook Tablet; and second, Best Buy and Staples for Kindle Fire (note: I’ve allotted two retailers for Kindle Fire because they are secondary sources; Amazon is at a disadvantage as an online retailer, so this will level the playing field). I started off this past Saturday with a visit to my local Barnes & Noble in Framingham.
The store is pretty large (as are most other Barnes & Noble locations) complete with a connected Starbucks and endless rows of bookshelves. As I walk in the front door, I’m greeted by a display devoted to the entire Nook series. For potential tablet buyers, this kind of front-of-the-store attention implies the importance of the Nook Tablet with the Barnes & Noble sales team. However, the display is surprisingly small; a four by eight foot table holding only one of each Nook device and a multitude of Nook device covers is all there is to be seen. A single sales representative is nearby, chatting with another employee.
Further back into the store, I see that one of the acclaimed Nook Boutiques is under construction. A large, circular space at the heart of the store, it will probably host a plethora of Nook devices and accessories once completed. It will also most likely be staffed by an entire team of Nook specialists. Unfortunately for me and other potential Nook Tablet buyers, the Nook Boutique is not finished in time for the device’s release. The personal buying experience that will set Barnes & Noble apart from its competitors is noticeably absent during my visit.
Examining the Nook Tablet
I am able to explore the Nook Tablet at my leisure, touching and perusing its features. It’s comfortable in my hands, though a bit heavier than I imagined it would be for its size. On the main screen, a banner of icons lines the bottom. The icons include every app, movie, or book that is on the device, and I can scroll through them at the flick of a finger. I think it’s odd that the icons are only in a single row; with the narrow screen, I can only view about five icons at once. A large blank space occupies the other 90 percent of the screen.
I also examine how an ebook looks on the Nook Tablet. You have the ability to change font size, style, and backlight brightness. The ebook downloads in about three seconds using the in-store Barnes & Noble wireless network. Though impressed, I am also disappointed by the size of the reading screen. It measures seven inches diagonally, but it’s remarkably narrow, only three inches wide. Using a comfortable font size, that limits the number of words per page.
The particular sales associate I speak with (let’s call him Dave) doesn’t seem invested in the product he’s touting. On several occasions, Dave asks me if I have any questions, and when I do, he is unsure of his answers. For example, I notice that in the Nook Bookstore some books have a “lend me” tag running across the cover. The “lend me” feature allows a user to share those books with friends. I ask if there was a way to look at the entire selection of “lend me” books at once, or to sort search results by “lend me” capability. Dave has no idea if this is possible, and treats my question as unreasonable or unimportant. Not once does Dave offer to demonstrate any special features of the Nook Tablet, and though he repeatedly approaches me to see if I have any questions, his lack of enthusiasm for the product—and for selling it—is obvious.
After I put down the Nook Tablet and thank Dave for his time, I walk around the surrounding shelves to browse Nook accessories. While still in earshot, I hear Dave complain to another Barnes & Noble employee, “I don’t want to sell these. I wish I was back at the customer service desk.” His co-worker replies, “Why? You can sell them. I sold one yesterday.” Dave snidely remarks, “Then you should be over here, and you can wear this stupid shirt.” Dave is wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Nook Expert.”
Check back next week for installment two of this two-part series, chronicling my visits to Amazon retailers.