Sunday, October 30, 2011

Barnes & Great Selection/Shipping/Service, Less Great On Price.

The Good: Good shipping, Good selection, Generally decent service
The Bad: You have to pay to get the best discounts, Generally higher prices.
The Basics: Pretty much until I started using, Barnes & was my steady source of books, c.d.s and DVDs and now it offers the occasional deal for those who pay for the privilege.

Tonight, I have chosen to undertake a review of an online store. I have only done this once before, when I went on a rant about eBay some years back. I have been remarkably hesitant to write about websites for several reasons, largely because it seems like whenever anyone has a lousy experience with a webstore, they pop on here and rant about their one bad experience.

I've been doing business with Barnes & Noble online for over a decade, so when I decided to give myself a writing challenge, this seemed like the most natural online store for me to write about. Barnes & - or - is the web-based incarnation of the popular chain of bookstores, Barnes & Noble. They share a common corporate headquarters, a common frequent shopper discount card (the Barnes & Noble Member Program) and items ordered through Barnes & may often be picked up at a local brick and mortar Barnes & Noble. However, Barnes & has far more competitive prices than the physical store counterpart. For me, this is a bit irritating; Barnes & ships out of Manhattan and being so close to the City and the warehouse, I tend to resent that when I go into the stores the prices are so drastically different from the on-line store.

Barnes & is all about the books. Actually, it is all about the books, music, DVD, Blu-Ray and electronic download of books in addition to having a smattering of games and gadgets. This store has one of the most extensive libraries of media of any company and it rivals for selection of media items. As well, because it has remained focused on books, music and movies (instead of diversifying outside media like Amazon), Barnes & tends to have a very quick interface that is up-to-date with all of the latest items in print. Once an item has an ISBN number, it seems like it appears in the Barnes & database available for preorder, if not outright sale.

When visiting (I always type that in because I tend to transpose the "l" and "e" in Noble and end up at the wrong place and only having to type in two characters before my browser knows where it is going is nice), the visitor is brought to an image-rich front page. Using the latest media players, the current bestsellers scroll across the top of the front page with dizzying speed. Barnes & is a graphics-rich website and it immediately tries to overwhelm the visitor with a plethora of current, trendy, releases. Usually on the front page there is also a banner which includes the current promotion going on at the site.

First-time visitors to Barnes & are encouraged to open an account, though anyone using the shopping cart will be able to register after they find the items they are looking for, if they don't want to "risk" it. Barnes & keeps credit card information on-file on secure servers and in the decade since I started doing business with the company, I have never had a problem with identity theft. When accessing my account information, only the last four digits of credit cards on file show up (along with expiration dates) so when I'm using my library's high-speed connection, I don't have to worry about anyone who might be peering over my shoulder. Customers at Barnes & may have multiple shipping and billing addresses stored in their account and I've found that useful for when I was in the process of a move or shipping items as gifts. If I've ever sent a person a gift from Barnes &, their address is there in my profile and a click of a button allows me to ship to that house (or, conversely, redesignate shipping items to my house as opposed to whomever I sent a gift!).

One of the nice things about placing orders with Barnes & is the friendly customer service and the way they are on top of the information they have. More than once, I have placed an order and my credit card temporarily did not have the money I needed for the order. Under those circumstances, I have had to call the company when the funds were available and never once has Barnes & denied me the use of coupons, promotions, etc. that might have expired in the meantime. Actually, the irony is that more often than not, I discover my credit cards are out of date from Barnes & than any other way!

In addition to a graphics-intensive interface, Barnes & has an incredible search engine which makes it very easy to navigate the site. The search engine deftly looks up items by author, book title, DVD title, genre, Musical artist, c.d. title and several other ways. The search engine is intuitive and after a few characters are typed, assuming one has selected a category first, an additional box will open beneath the typing box with possible topics one might be looking for. Clicking that completes the form and takes the user to a page with products that match those criteria. This is a nice bonus when one is in a hurry.

Product pages at Barnes & include at least one image of the product (which may often be enlarged) as well as details about the product. This includes the basic information (i.e. what the product is), special features (lists of bonus features, for example with DVDs), and editorial reviews, if they exist. One of the minor problematic aspects of Barnes & is that for those who have not used it the alternate versions of video media may be harder to find. So, for example, each title has its own listing, but alternate forms of the same title are found through the details page on the product page which comes up first. So, for a DVD that has two different versions plus a Blu-Ray available, going to the listing that comes up from the search results would usually be for the least expensive (say, one-disc) version. Underneath the title there will be a hyperlink text field for other options, like "This title is also available on: (linked) 2-Disc Special Edition, (also linked) Blu-Ray."

Why do I so enthusiastically recommend Barnes & It's simple: in addition to having an amazing selection, the prices are very competitive, especially for Barnes & Noble Members. The program, which unfortunately one has to pay to join, always entitles shoppers to an additional 10% off merchandise. For me, that basically eats the sales tax, but I am happy to save any amount of money. The reason I purchase so much via Barnes & is because the prices are so much better in the store. Take, for example, the hardcover graphic novel Lost Girls (reviewed here!) which bears a $70 cover price in stores. On-line, at Barnes &, it is $32.99 before shipping (or, at least, it was when I picked it up there, it is currently back up to $50 - before discounts - for a new, mint, unopened copy).

The thing is, Barnes & Noble has frequent promotions which offer things like free shipping on all orders over $25. As a result, a big, heavy, expensive book like Lost Girls (or your college text books!) can be less expensive and shipped for free. One of the little, esoteric quirks I've noticed about Barnes &, though, is that frequently even if I click "ship all items together" in the check-out, when I order three or more items, oftentimes two will be shipped and the third will arrive in a second package. While this is baffling, I have never been charged for the weird shipping practices of Barnes &

Check-out through Barnes & is simple with a shopping cart interface which is as easy as clicking buttons (after one has established their account). Shipping usually occurs within twenty-four hours and Barnes & e-mails an update to users as to the status of their order. More often than not, my e-mail alerts come after the product has been en route for a day, but I'm not obsessive about that sort of thing.

Barnes & remains a favorite place for me to shop, because I tend to spend more than $250 at Barnes & Noble and on-line at Barnes &, which easily justifies the expense of the Member card which entitles me to some pretty hefty discounts and deals at various times of the year!


© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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