Borders opens bookshelves to digital services

Landon suggests that Amazon's splash into the book retail market has leveled out and that the most robust independent stores will survive. More than 100 independents have opened nationwide in the past three years, he says.

Yet, the major chains wield an advantage in technology. By the end of April, Borders plans to launch its own website and take back control of from Amazon, which has been operating the Borders site for nearly seven years. Under the arrangement, orders on Borders' website are filled by Amazon with Amazon's inventory and staff. Amazon gets credit for the sales, though Borders gets a percentage it won't disclose.

Once this change is completed, the interactive kiosks in Borders' stores will allow customers to do more online shopping in a store and even buy books, if they prefer.

Because it can't rely only on retired bibliophiles to carry sales into the future, Jones is betting that the changes will attract new, younger customers who are interested in music, movies and books.

A 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the proportion of 18-to-24-year-olds who had read a book in 2002 was 52%, compared with 59% for the 35-to-44-year-old group.

While some older adults may have little interest in owning a digital music player, Jones says others may have gotten them as gifts but don't know how to use them. Still others lack time to navigate websites to put music on their players.

Jones, 57, says he falls into the latter category. "I'm an old guy," he says. Having a trained staff ready to help, he figures, will appeal to people like him.

While the move to digital has been fastest in music, Borders is applying the technology to books, too. It teamed with Sony during the last holiday season to launch a website selling 25,000 e-books that can be read on the Sony Reader Digital Book, which costs $299.

The Reader competes with Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, which lets users wirelessly download books, newspapers and magazines from Amazon without having to connect to or pay for a separate digital device. At Borders' new digital centers, customers will be able to download books to read on the 9-ounce Sony readers.

Landon, of the independent booksellers' group, has a different view. "I don't think that people who work on computers all day long want to go home and read a computer screen," he says.

A book's singular experience

Some shoppers agree that there's no replacing the sensory experience of an actual book.

"I feel like I'm at work reading a report," Jessica Zeigerman, of Cleveland, says of digital reading.

Sue Zacek, of Concord, N.C., says she loves "to curl up in a stuffed chair with a good book. Turning the pages just feels right," she says.

At the same time, Francisco says she also loves her Sony reader.

"I travel a lot, and on trips around the world, I have lugged books all over the place," she says. "I just purchased four or five books and loaded them onto the Reader for my next trip. It's nice to have several books available so I can switch books whenever I want."

For Borders, the move toward digital is, in large part, an attempt to leapfrog Barnes & Noble, the industry leader. Though Borders was first to add a cafe to a store, Barnes & Noble made a bigger splash when it added Starbucks sbux in 1990. Borders has Seattle's Best Coffee cafes, also owned by Starbucks.

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