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Let Your Fingers Do Your Book Shopping

Services: Customers are raving about online bookseller Amazon.com., which can send you any tome in print. One drawback: You can't get a cup of cappuccino.

December 11, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's sort of the anti-bookstore.

No cappuccino. No couches. No author signings. And despite a selection of more than 1 million titles, no actual books, either. Well, none that shoppers can immediately put their hands on.

At Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com), the book browsing and buying is done strictly via computer. Online customers cruise the store's aisles electronically, searching by title, author, subject or keyword.

If they find something they want, they pay by credit card and have it shipped to their doorsteps. (There's even a gift wrap option--in such patterns as "Holstein" and "snowman.")

The Seattle-based service has attracted hordes of consumers, loads of media attention--and a few jitters among traditional bookstore merchants, whose own inventories pale next to Amazon.com's "If it's in print, it's in stock" promise.

To fight back, Crown Books launched an experimental Internet site a few months ago (http://www.crownbooks.com), and Barnes & Noble plans to join the fray next year.

The UC Irvine campus bookstore was one of the earliest to adopt online technology.

After nearly three years of operation on the World Wide Web, the UCI Internet Store (http://www.book.uci.edu/) is considered an unqualified success.

"We're servicing thousands of people all over the world and getting some real nice increases every month," says Mike Kiley, associate director of the campus bookstore.

Online browsers can sift through UCI Internet Store's inventory of about 100,000 books, records, CD-ROMs and other items. Kiley says they are shipping 400 to 500 orders a month to customers as far away as Japan and Australia.

"It's the best thing we ever did," Kiley says, "simply because it's allowed the store to reach a whole new audience."

But few observers expect the online bookstore phenomenon to drive mall and street corner shops out of business.

"Book lovers are still tactile beings," says Linda Urban, promotional director at Vroman's, an independent retailer in Pasadena. "They like to touch the [product], flip through the pages, sit down and read before they buy. . . . And they like to drink coffee. You can't get coffee on Amazon.com."

Maybe not, but the 1 1/2-year-old service still seems to have tapped into something.

From humble beginnings in a garage, it now occupies a 55,000-square-foot warehouse with a staff of 125. And although company officials won't discuss revenues or customer totals, they say sales have jumped 34% a month for the past 16 months.

Nevertheless, the venture isn't yet profitable--and many employees have to work at "desks" made from doors laid across sawhorses.

Amazon.com, which was founded by a former investment banker, also isn't the first or necessarily the cheapest online book merchant. Others include Cleveland's Book Stacks (http://www.books.com) with 425,000 titles, and Britain's Internet Book Shop (http://www.bookshop.co.uk) with 912,000 titles.

Book Stacks offers most of its hardcovers and paperbacks at 15% off list prices, whereas Amazon.com typically discounts 10%, with bestsellers and selected other titles 30% to 40% off.

Even so, shipping fees can cancel out savings. Amazon.com tacks on $3 per order plus 95 cents per book (more for speedier deliveries).

Yet customers rave.

For one thing, its million-plus catalog dwarfs even the largest chain superstores, which carry 200,000 or so titles. Some shoppers report finding books they spent years hunting elsewhere.

The company keeps only several hundred bestsellers on hand, says spokeswoman Jennifer Cast. The rest are ordered either from major book distributors (and are shipped within two days) or from publishers or authors (in which case delivery can take weeks).

Other features at Amazon.com's Web site include author interviews and customer-penned book reviews. If a shopper calls up a particular title, the reviews appear too.

Online browsers can also sign up for free e-mail notification when new books come out by by author or subject.

Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Lisa Herling predicts online book peddling will be a boon to the industry. Rather than siphoning existing customers out of stores, she says, "we expect it to attract new customers--people who aren't shopping in stores. We see it as exciting . . . and we expect many competitors in the field."

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