Amazon.Con

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Jan. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Amazon.Con

"Earth's Biggest Bookstore"? Pshaw. Cheaper, faster, and more convenient? Pshaw again.

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Total online time from when we accessed Amazon's home page to when we completed the book order: 37 minutes and 12 seconds. It would be shorter once you got the hang of it.

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Speed? Turow's book arrived in three days from both Borders and Politics and Prose, in plenty of time before Christmas. Politics and Prose wrapped the book perfectly. Borders wrapped it attractively, but left the receipt inside. The Turow didn't arrive from Amazon until Dec. 27--more than a week after the conventional stores. Furthermore, the wrapping looked as if it had been done by a fourth grader. However, it came bundled with the obscure psych book (which still hadn't arrived from the conventional stores as of New Year's Day). Eleven days for that one is pretty good. As for the Turow, we had checked a box asking that each book be sent separately, as soon as possible--so, either Amazon ignored these instructions or it really needed the full 11 days to get the Turow to us.

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By the way, let's not forget that in a conventional bookstore, you can also--if you choose--acquire books in zero days, by "going to" the store in the pre-Internet sense of actually going there.

Price? Amazon and Borders both offered the Turow for 30 percent off the list price. Politics and Prose offered 20 percent off. All three wanted full price for the psych book. Amazon charges $3 plus 95 cents per book for standard shipping. Borders charged $4 to ship the Turow, and Politics and Prose, $3.50. Amazon charges $2 a book for gift-wrapping, which is free at the other two stores, but Amazon accidentally charged only $2 for wrapping both books. Finally, stores with local outlets must charge sales tax on shipped items; Amazon does not (unless you live in Washington state). In all, the Turow cost $23.72 from Borders and $26.30 from Politics and Prose. If Amazon had sent it separately as we had instructed, it would have cost $24.82. Gift-wrapped and sent separately, the psych text would cost more at Amazon than at the other two; unwrapped and bundled, about the same.

There is a third category of books (besides those that everyone has in stock and those that no one has in stock). These are books that Amazon doesn't have in stock, but a normal bookstore does. (Barnes & Noble's 170,000-strong inventory, sniffed at by The New Yorker, is a good example.)

This category is Amazon's greatest weakness. It includes hardly obscure current books that aren't best sellers, like The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, produced by the Boston Women's Heath Book Collective. Borders' had three copies on the premises. Amazon needs two to three days to obtain this one, plus between three and seven days to send it to you. Likewise for a classic like the Penguin paperback of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which any Borders or Barnes & Noble will have on hand.

Then there's a semiobscure book such as Robert Marr Wright's Dodge City: The Cowboy Capital and the Great Southwest. This hardcover book about cowboys is on Borders' shelves. At Amazon it is listed as a "special order," which means it might be available to be shipped in four to six weeks, but, our computer informs us: "PLEASE NOTE that it might not be available at all. Publishers do not always notify the book community about changes in the availability of their titles." Not available? So much for the pretense that Amazon's list of 1.1 million books makes it "Earth's Biggest Bookstore" in even a metaphorical sense.

Jonathan Chait and Stephen Glass are on the staff of the New Republic.

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