Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A tale of two online bookstores

     Now that Borders Books is defunct, I’ve been spending more time at Barnes and Noble bookstores. I even paid to become a Barnes and Noble “Member,” with 10 percent discounts on all purchases (or 10 percent additional discount if the item is already discounted or I have a coupon). The membership also grants me benefits with BN.com, its online store.
     Recently I received a coupon good for 50 percent off a purchase at BN.com to get me to try the service. I believe it was sent to all former Borders Rewards customers (they bought the email list, I think).

  Cover of Steampunk Poe from BN.com
         As it happened, there was a title I was curious about but hadn’t found in any store: “Steampunk Poe,” a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems with steampunk-influenced illustrations by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac. It sounded like the type of high-concept title that bookstores would be sure to carry, but I’d been looking for months with no luck. I hadn’t ordered the book yet because I already had several Poe collections; the number and quality of illustrations would determine if I wanted another one. (You can see some of the illustrations online at BN.com,  if you have or create a BN.com account, or at Amazon.com without the rigamarole.)
      However, 50 percent off was a strong inducement, so I decided to order the book sight unseen.
     The book has now arrived, and it is an attractive volume. It measures 8-1/4 by 7-1/4 inches on high quality paper with 37 colorful illustrations. Common to most of the illustrations are gears, goggles and a man with a tall stove-pipe hat. Each of the seven stories has between three and five pictures, the six poems have one or two apiece.
    The selections are a mix of Poe’s greatest hits with among his most obscure. I miss “The Cask ofAmontillado” and “Annabel Lee” in particular. I’m sure Basic and Sumberac selected the tales and poems based on their steampunk possibilities, but even so I wonder why “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” gets five illustrations, since it’s a fairly static story, and four of the illustrations are awfully similar. Likewise, I don’t think the illustrations for “Murders in the Rue Morgue” depict a steampunk vision per se. 
     Despite these quibblers, it’s a fine book and I’m happy to have it at last.

Video from Youtube featuring images from “Steampunk Poe” 
     However the getting of it was a travail, and so we come to the tale of two online booksellers: BN.com and Amazon.com.
     At first, the BN.com experience was pleasant. It was no more difficult to order from than Amazon.com. Even better, the 50 percent seemed to apply to the online discounted price, not the publisher’s list price, so I was getting an $18.95 book for less than $8.
Then I made my first mistake. When it came time to pick a shipping method, I chose “Standard Delivery,” although my membership entitled me to free express shipping. (This was the first time I placed a BN.com order and I hadn’t noticed this.) I wasn’t in that much of a hurry to get the book anyway, and standard delivery was supposed to be between two and six (business) days from the time of shipping (express delivery was between one and three). I was told the book was shipping by UPS, and they also included a tracking number so I could check on the package’s progress online. I placed the order on Feb. 10.
     On Sunday, Feb. 12, I received an email informing me that the book had been shipped, so I expected the book by the end of the week (since UPS also delivers on Saturdays, that covered the six day estimated maximum), that is Feb. 18. 
     Midweek I checked tracking to see how it was going, and received my first glimmer that things weren’t going as advertised. The package had been transferred “at the shipper’s request” from UPS to USPS for final delivery. Basically, UPS takes the book as far as a local post office (Detroit, I think, though I live to the north of the city), then they let USPS deliver it to my doorstep. That sounded crazy to me. Why complicate the process by changing delivery service midway? I thought that sounded like a sure way to delay delivery and increase the odds of the package being misdelivered, misplaced or lost. I was a little reassured by the information on the tracking site that stated this usually meant the package would be delivered in another day or two. The package was transferred on Feb. 15, so I still expected it by Feb. 18.
On Feb. 16, I decided to order some other books, this time from Amazon.com. I had a credit with them, and in addition to a new book by one of my favorite authors, they had deeply discounted one of his older books as well. At this point I wasn’t thinking of this as a comparison of the two services.
     By Feb. 18, the BN.com book hadn’t arrived. OK, Valentine’s Day fell during this time period. Maybe that slowed things down a little. And, by the most lax definition of six “business days,” it wasn’t yet late really, since Saturday isn’t a “business day” (even though the USPS also delivers on Saturday, so for all intents and purposes it ought to be so considered). Still, I sent an email to service@BN.com. When my orders to Amazon.com had gone missing in the past, Amazon.com had responded by resending the order and asking me to return the original package or the replacement if both turned up. I thought BN.com would either locate the package and give me an estimated time of arrival or send a replacement.
     When  BN.com replied, the rep said it “expected” the package to arrive on or about Tuesday, Feb. 21, which could be construed as six business days after shipping, since Monday, Feb. 20, was President’s Day.
     On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the package did not arrive. BN.com had suggested I check with the post office at this point, so I did. They could not tell me if the package had arrived, if it was lost, or anything except that if it was shipped when claimed, it should arrive by the end of the week, Saturday, Feb. 25. (Maybe USPS was backed up due to Valentine’s Day and the President’s Day holiday, or by budget and staff cuts.)
     On Wednesday, Feb. 22,  BN.com sent me a customer survey, wondering if its customer service department had resolved my problem or been helpful. I decided to respond in the negative.
Meanwhile, the Amazon.com package was also in transit, via USPS alone, and I was curious as to which package would arrive first. Amazon.com’s tracking predicted its would arrive on Monday, Feb. 27. Both packages were now allegedly at the local post office.
     On Friday, Feb. 24, both packages arrived.
     So, to recap: An order to BN.com arrived after 14 days/9 business, three days later than its estimate, while an order to Amazon.com only took eight days/five business days, three days earlier than its estimate.
     Was this the fault of BN.com or of the USPS? It seems to be the fault of BN.com's demented practice of dividing shipping between two separate shippers. I asked service@BN.com why this was done, but received no answer.
     How long would the BN.com order have taken if I had known to choose express delivery? If I get another 50 percent off coupon, I might give it a try, but I’ll still “expect” it to take two weeks. That way, if it arrives any sooner,  I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Otherwise, as long the costs are equal, I’ll choose Amazon.com.


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