Online Shopping Raises Ethical Dilemma

When consumers browse in person and buy online, local bookstores suffer.

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My friend Nader Iskandar, co-owner of the Book Cellar & Café bookstore in Plymouth, Mich., was recently complaining to me about the customers who browse his shelves, especially the political section, which he spends hours arranging, only to leave the store without buying anything. They often write down titles as they walk around, and Iskandar assumes that they go home and order the books off the Internet.

To him, this behavior is unfair and takes advantage of him and his hardworking staff. I have to admit that I have been guilty of doing it in the past and never gave it a second thought. After all, I want to buy what I need at the cheapest price possible, and if that means browsing in person only to buy online, why not? But speaking with Iskandar made me question the ethics of that approach. I asked him more about his views and would love to hear your own take on the subject as well. Is it wrong to glean information from local stores and then buy online? Please post your comments below.

Does it bother you when you see customers come into your store and write down titles that you have displayed, only to go buy them online later?

I can't help but be bothered by it, but I definitely don't let it frustrate me. Part of me wishes that these people would see the value in my bookstore and understand [the impact] of their actions. What can you do to prevent this from happening?

I view my business in terms of the value of my product and services. If my customers are not purchasing my product, that means they don't see the value—at which point I would have to reduce prices or improve the service. So I simply continuously improve the service and the "convenience factor" for my customers. For example, I maintain an excellent selection, deliver special orders within two business days and free of charge, provide a comforting atmosphere, and, most importantly, provide friendly, helpful service. In addition, I always stress the role that the bookstore plays to prop the image of downtown Plymouth in an effort to induce loyalty.

How can independent bookstores like yours survive when so many people buy books online?

We are increasingly becoming selfish, cultureless, bargain shoppers. Independent bookstores may only be able to thrive in high-income areas with culture and tradition. Also, independent bookstores have to offer a high [level of] service in addition to selling books. Offering a cafe is one of these services. Are books usually cheaper online? If so, why is this?

Books are cheaper online if they are bought in volume. Buying one book at a time online could be costly because of shipping costs, but most online retailers offer free shipping when purchasing multiple books. The biggest reason that online retailers can sell books more cheaply is because of their volume. They can order directly from the publisher in bulk and stock the books in warehouses. A small, independent bookstore has to go through a middle vendor and has a 7 to 10 percent disadvantage due to the lower volume. Before you owned a bookstore, were you guilty of using stores to do research before making online purchases? Would you ever do it today?

I never did that and never will. My favorite bookstore was Borders on State Street in Ann Arbor. Of course, that was before Borders became corporate. At the time, it was operated as independently owned store. One thing for sure is that now I have immense distaste for corporate retailers, specifically in the coffee, restaurant, and book industry. Corporations might provide cheaper service, but it comes at the expense of service diversity, culture, and economy. The position of an independent business owner, who might be middle class, own a house, and spend his money locally, has been replaced by a manager who earns $10 an hour, who can barely afford a living. Profits only benefit a central corporation and savvy investors. Imagine if every Starbucks was independently owned or franchised. There would be thousands of new millionaires in the United States.