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Why Did Borders Fail?

By Mary Schmidt, Marketing Troubleshooter

I admit, I LOVED Borders last, last days.  80% and 90% off? That meant I got some really great reads for all of forty cents.  But why did the Big Box Bookstore fail?  In addition to over-expansion and under-innovation (Hello? Web sites?), I'd submit the following from a customer viewpoint:

1. Generic, big box ambiance. That is to say, no ambiance.  True, the stores were chock-full of books...but...gosh, the stores were SO BIG, the ceiling so high, the lighting so cold...it all seemed so impersonal.  I LOVE books; I'll even pay full price at times (more about that in a sec), but a book store should be jammed, crammed, and overflowing with fun, interesting and different titles.  Preferably with at least one cat in residence.  It should exude the love of books, the joy of reading.  Cool quotes painted on the walls aside, Borders never did that for me.  I never felt any personal connection to the store, much less "the brand." (Yep, we women, particularly us women book addicts, are all about that personal connection.  We'll buy a book simply because it looks beautiful and it's being recommended by the nice lady in a fuzzy sweater...)  

2. $35 for a book? Really?  Personally - and this is just me - but I think publishers have to own some of the "decline of traditional media."  Why are hardback prices so high? Even when Borders discounted, I could still get the book cheaper online...or at my local library.  I'd have to think long and hard before I paid full price for any book.  If all I wanted was to buy the book (See #1 about ambiance) I can do it faster and cheaper online. 

3. Yech. The restrooms. (Regular readers may think I've got a toilet fetish, but...really, when you have to sit down...). Now, am I saying that Borders failed because they failed to keep their restroom sparkling? Of course not, but restrooms are noticed, particularly by us women, for the aforementioned reason. However, the sloppiness there was a symptom of sloppiness elsewhere - in everything from management thinking (and they also had high turnover high up) to inventory management.  (There were still STACKS of Scott Brown's book available on the very last day Borders was open...when books were going 2 for $1.00.  And, I bought several books that had apparently been in the warehouse for two years or more.)  

And, maybe it's as simple - when all is said, done and dissected - as there is such a thing as too big.  


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Ayesha Mathews-Wadhwa

I agree, Mary. It’s different when companies design brand experiences for their customers. You walk through the front doors and your wants and needs are reflected everywhere you look. www.pixinkdesign.com


I loved Borders, but I think their demise came when they refused to adopt to change. Kindle or Nook were other companies way of responding to how people were beginning to read books. There were no strong online presence until it was too late. Borders did not have an e-reader. When you can buy books cheaper via Kindle or Nook Borders days would be numbered.


I so agree, there is such a thing as too big. I think you completely lose the personal side of business that way sometimes. That is something of the struggle of a small business when it begins to grow, knowing what is most important to their customers and clients. How do you keep your clients happy and make them feel valued even when you grow to a larger size business and you have less time to devote to each client?

Caren Gittleman

I completely agree with what Kelly (above) said. There were FAR too many times that the Border's staff was "unhelpful & even rude"

There was an incidence the summer before last where they LITERALLY chased my husband (who BTW was a DAILY Borders visitor at the one that was located within walking distance of our home) for...ready for this????? READING A NEWSPAPER in the store and not folding it properly when finished. YES you read correctly.

He was literally CHASED down the street by a Border's staff member.

My mild mannered husband promptly reported them and we both stopped shopping there immediately.

Barnes & Noble actually CARES about their customers...gee what a concept!


Having read a bit about this online, Borders also really failed in getting online in any significant way until way after B & N (which continues to lag behind Amazon. Additionally they had really no influence with e-readers. My fears about B & N are that they aren't selling many books any more--it's all other stuff (oh and a few books) and relying heavily on the online part to sell BOOKS. I just wanna go browse and I really don't want to have to travel all the way to Portland to hang out in Powell's!

Kelly Kautz

I think your assessment is right on. I used to love my neighborhood Borders, but it went steadily downhill the past few years. They never changed up their displays, their store was unorganized and the staff was often unhelpful or even rude. I can only guess that this was due to bad management. By the time it announced bankruptcy, I had stopped going altogether.

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