Jeff Ward: What Killed Borders Bookstores? An Entitlement Mentality

It wasn't the Net or the economy. Your local Borders bookstore didn't have to go belly up.

There are times I really don’t like being right. In a February two-part Geneva Patch series on Borders bookstore’s first round of closings, I predicted the rest of their chain would close within two years. Not even I thought they only had six months!

Reuters reported that, due to lack of interest from prospective buyers, Borders had canceled an auction and instead will sell their remaining inventory to liquidators. That means 400 more stores will disappear and 11,000 employees will join the ranks of the unemployed at a time when jobs aren’t easy to come by.

Also according to Reuters, “less than 50” Borders locations might be picked up by “Books-A-Million,” who bill themselves as the third-largest U.S. book seller chain.

Of course, Borders’ St. Charles and Bolingbrook stores are already gone, and now the Oak Park, Naperville, Wheaton, Oak Brook, Schaumburg, LaGrange and Geneva locations will soon follow.

As of Thursday, the Tribune and other media reported that Borders could go ahead with the auction in the hope of attracting a last-minute buyer, but other than Barnes & Noble, whose stores already cover the same markets, it’s an unlikely prospect.

When I first moved to Geneva 12 years ago, our Borders was so busy I’d frequently mutter about the long checkout lines under my breath. So, how does an enterprise go from a small 1971 independent Ann Arbor book store, to chain that pioneered the “superstore” concept, to gone in a little more than a decade after that apex?

I know what you’re thinking. Amazon! But the Internet didn’t kill Borders. Then it has to be the economy, you say? Nope!

Borders' wounds were self-inflicted.

In those previous Patch columns, I asserted the instant-gratification nature of brick-and-mortar stores was a vast advantage that Borders had thrown away by slashing staff and inventory.

While those weren’t the best business decisions, they were only the final nails in the chain’s coffin. What killed Borders is what’s killed so many businesses that made it to the top before them—entitlement.

And by entitlement I mean the belief that your mere existence is enough to get people to walk into your store. You can see that mentality in some of baseball’s best free agents. Once Cubs’ outfielder Alfonso Soriano and the White sox’ Adam Dunn got their massive contracts, their stats went into an immediate and steep decline.

We frail humans tend to harbor the fantasy that when our ship finally comes in, our best efforts will no longer be required. In fact, “making it” is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a human being. And when that malady infects an organization, it’s even worse.

During the initial Borders closings, a Tribune columnist lamented the demise of her Tinley Park store. She described herself as a one of a group of petitioners that incited Borders to build in that city. She also believed that Borders betrayed them by closing that location.

The only people Borders' muck-a-mucks betrayed are their employees and themselves.

The problem starts when you’re so successful that customers literally beg you to grace them with your presence. That can be a heady thing, but exactly when you begin believing your business model is foolproof, you open the door to the kind of karma that makes lesser men tremble.

The “unsinkable” Titanic wasn’t. Good or bad, you never want to put too much stock in your own press. Once you think you’re invulnerable, bad business decisions become inevitable.

The best example of this phenomenon was Borders’ complete disregard for upstart Amazon. They weren’t the only ones that dismissed the Net giant early on, but they were the ones who could least afford to do it.

Rather than stake out their own Internet brand, Borders was so dismissive of the new technology, they sent their online customers through Amazon! The day they made that decision was the day Borders decided to go out of business. It just took a few years for it to finally catch up with them.

Not only did the Borders brain trust miss the Net boat, but they gave what would become their fiercest competitor some much-needed credibility.

Then they compounded that mistake with the failure to recognize and counter discounters. Back around the turn of the century, Borders didn’t really discount books or CDs. That worked when they were the only game in town, but even though they instigated the big-box mentality, they never seemed to realize that superstores and retail prices go together like peanut butter and liver.

They never grasped the explosion of digital media. From the demise of the CD to the rise of the Kindle, they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Eventually Borders did start discounting, they offered memberships (which I’ve never liked) and came up with an inferior digital reader, but it was too late. By that time, folks like me had gotten out of the “habit” of shopping at Borders.

There is a bricks-and-mortar market for books. The mere existence of Books-a-Million proves it. I’m no fan of the Kindle—the digital stuff is way overpriced, and you can’t resell an e-book. But Borders, who’s initial success was due, in part, to tailoring store inventory to their community, couldn’t figure out how to exploit that market.

And now they’re gone. The fact that I predicted their demise doesn’t make me happy, because it didn’t have to happen. We don’t need longer unemployment lines.

Dear readers, if you take nothing away from my columns please remember this: Entitlement kills. And that’s what killed Borders.

The minute you start to believe you can’t fail you already have.

George Swimmer July 23, 2011 at 03:42 PM
This world is changing way too fast. Even the smartest of the smart have trouble figuring out all the right moves all the time. The economic moat that many businesses once enjoyed is starting to disappear, Did Borders take their success for granted? I don't think so. They just made some bad decisions in a very changing world, and in doing so, didn't give many of their valued customers a good enough reason to keep shopping at Borders
Darlene Heslop July 23, 2011 at 05:40 PM
i, for one, won't miss it. i think that now this is the perfect opportunity for smaller bookstores (are you listening elmhurst city center grant people) that would be able to cater to their community. while i love, love elmhurst's library, however, i don't like having to sit on a waiting list for a book on the nyt best seller's list, i can't write notes in the margins or rabbit ear the pages, and i can't hi-lite, which i have a tendency to do. the problem that borders had is two-fold, yes, for lack of a better term, a very poor corporate vision (blind, actually) to such a rapidly changing world that it's mindblowing - the iphone is only 4 years old and the first e-readers came out less than 3 years ago, and the ipad is less than 2 years old, complete underestimation of the ability for bezos to change the way people shop for everything from food to fords, and as a consequence, the inability to adapt it's business model to what the customer wants, or better yet, make him or her, think it not only wants, but needs. as technology becomes more and more a part of the publishing world, a book, in it's hardcover form, will be the exception rather than the rule, in particular, in the mass market of the middle class adults. kids, i can still see with picture books (how to you read "good night moon on kindle before bedtime?" - i can't imagine that going away.
Darlene Heslop July 23, 2011 at 06:09 PM
libraries are already doing downloaded books to kindles and nooks that you check out and then return, like a book, so even libraries are adapting to this constantly evolving technology savy world. the techno-teen of today in 10 years will be an even bigger techno adult. do you realize there is an entire generation that has never seen a phone with a dial on it? has had the ability to e-mail their friends, family, lover, whomever instead of having to wait by the post-box for a letter? has had access to the world wide web their entire lives and so therefore, has no clue as to what we really are talking about when we discuss using the encyclopedia to write a report, or a dictionary to use correct spelling? in the next 5 years our way of buying everything from soup to saabs will rapidly change. it will no longer be about "going shopping" to a "brick and mortar" store...it will be about sitting in your p.j.'s using your technology to get whatever it is that you want...and then have it delivered, either to someplace very close by that specializes in "holding purchases" from anyone and everyone, or directly to your home. for example, car dealderships are mearly going to be places that you go to "test drive" the various models and then decide from there, looking at a nationwide inventory, choose it, pay for it, then have it delivered to your home in a few days.
Bob Primak July 27, 2011 at 04:45 PM
Borders did exactly what the recorded music industry did. They failed to recognize and get on board with the Internet. One of the many differences between Borders and Barnes and Noble is that B&N came out with their own e-reader, The Nook. While it is no Kindle, it may have been partly responsible for saving the Barnes and Noble brand for another generation. Likewise, newspapers realized way too late that their web sites need to be much more than reprints of their print news articles and ads. So it was ignoring new technology more than anything else which doomed Borders.
Bill Angel July 27, 2011 at 05:27 PM
Lots of idle chatter about big box book store failures. 1). horrible economy , stagflation & recession 2). the shift to ordering on-line, smart phones and kindles 3). dumbing down of America


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »