Borders Grasps at Circuit City Gameplan

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Can you help me find that new book on corporate seppuku?"

The Borders clerk wanted to be helpful. "You might find it in business." She thought a moment. "Or in our suicide section."

"Thanks. Did you folks really get rid of your New Non-Fiction table?"

I had noticed about a year ago that Borders had removed the two seemingly basic features of any self-respecting bookstore: the New Non-Fiction table and the New Fiction table. It just didn't make sense to me. That's the whole reason I drop into bookstores in the first place. To browse. I figured it was a temporary aberration.

But it wasn't temporary. The clerk confirmed that they didn't really have a special single place for new books anymore. Instead they sorted them into their categories throughout the store. New books were hidden among the old. Now if Easter egg hunts are still your most favorite thing in the whole world, you might like it.

Just to be sure this was really Borders' plan, I called their Ann Arbor headquarters and reached an official spokesperson. Pleasant as she was, she inadvertently answered a question that had been nagging me ever since Obama had taken over the White House: To what obscure corners had all the little Rovian word-wranglers gone? Now I knew. Right there in Ann Arbor, Borders had managed to hire one for themselves. Mary assured me that what I had noticed was not simply intentional. No indeed. They had discovered, contrary to all common wisdom, that "Customers want to browse in categories." So removing the two most important elements of a bookstore was, in fact, a "significant enhancement to enjoy the art of browsing." I don't know about you, but when someone uses "enhancement" like that, I instinctively shift my wallet from my back pocket to my front.

So there's the new deal at Borders. If you're just interested in what's new, you now need to visit twenty or thirty categories all over the store to see what's new in each one. Behold the art of browsing, enhanced.

And war is peace.

I remember when Circuit City invented their "racetrack" design and changed all their stores so that buyers were forced to view the entire store no matter what item they had come in for. The racetrack design was a great success for a while, slowing consumers down, increasing spontaneous purchases, raising Circuit City sales in the short term. Then along came Best Buy, and Circuit City customers fled in droves. They much preferred to walk into a Best Buy, go straight to what they wanted, and get out. Circuit City soon opened a new chapter. That would be Chapter 7.

Borders is trying the same tactic this year. Make it really hard or just downright impossible for their customers to browse what's new. This enhancement may increase sales per customer in the short term, but before long the customers will become tired of the runaround. Having destroyed the quality of the browsing experience, Borders has abandoned their single greatest advantage over Amazon, which can't offer us much in the way of serendipity. How will Borders weather this tough holiday season? Is there a new and exciting chapter in their future?

I don't enjoy watching a once great component of the marketplace for ideas disappear. But maybe Borders is so driven to enhance the browsing experience that they simply must go to the next and ultimate step: the blow-it-out-to-the-bare-walls going out of business sale. Oh, by the way. Got shelf? Nothing held back.