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Amazon's 'showrooming' tactic the latest to enrage booksellers

Kobo head Mike Serbinis with his ereader device in Toronto, April 28, 2010.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Many independent booksellers across the United States went a little nutty earlier this month when their online nemesis,, offered discounts to customers willing to scan products in retail stores with their cellphones – and go on to buy the same things automatically from it instead, often at a lower price and free of sales tax.

No matter that Amazon's latest "Price Check" promotion didn't apply to books, or that the company first enabled bar-code-scanning of competitors' products more than a year ago. Long-simmering anger at the "scorched-earth capitalism" of the world's largest online retailer boiled over with Amazon's blatantly parasitic promotion.

Appropriating competitors' showrooms for its own use "illustrates what virtually every bookseller, small business owner and sales-tax payer in multiple states already knows," St. Louis, Mo., bookseller Jarek Steele blogged in a typical outburst. "Amazon's culture of corporate sleaze knows no bounds, and it will not rest until it is the only retailer left standing."

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The Retail Industry Leaders Association pounced on the promotion to complain about Amazon's notorious sales-tax exemption, calling the promotion "a stark reminder of why Congress needs to act to protect retailers on Main Street." Author Richard Russo polled literary celebrities and published their denunciations in a New York Times article headlined "Amazon's Jungle Logic." A new Twitter account, #Occupyamazon, began buzzing with activity. Even business-friendly Forbes magazine admitted that Amazon had committed a "rare strategic blunder" while employing a "brilliant tactic."

As the last of what were once more than 500 Borders bookstores disappeared, along with hundreds of independents, Amazon helped to add a new word – "showrooming" – to the fast-evolving digital lexicon.

The latest scandal also helped re-animate the fear and loathing that erupted following last fall's news that Amazon was aggressively expanding its own publishing program, signing bestselling authors directly in an effort to eliminate the analog middlemen still lingering at lunch in New York. Which itself followed a sensational exposé of appalling working conditions at a huge Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania, where pre-arranged ambulances lined up on hot days to deal with workers expected to drop on the job.

By year's end, the online giant found itself surrounded by snarling Davids, including Kindle Fire buyers complaining that their $200 Amazon computers do little well except to process orders from Amazon.

But it was the endangered booksellers who landed the most effective potshots. "It's a matter of making people aware that the choices they make in buying books and e-books have social and cultural consequences," said Bruce Dadey, a project manager at The Bookshelf in Guelph, Ont., explaining his own effort in the cause: a widely circulated graphic extolling the benefits of non-Kindle e-readers.

"Fans try to portray [Amazon founder]Jeff Bezos as the Steve Jobs of the book world," Dadey said. "For me, he's the [Walmart founder]Sam Walton of the book world."

Showrooming is nothing new, according to Mark Lefebvre, president of the Canadian Booksellers Association. It's a fact of life in the cutthroat digital economy, easily detectable by booksellers whether or not they see browsers actually scan bar codes. A recent U.S. survey by the Codex Group reported that 40 per cent of Amazon customers had used a bookstore to browse the books they ultimately bought online.

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Lefebvre suggests that traditional retailers turn the tables by "showrooming" Amazon – giving customers discounts on books they find on Amazon but buy from them.

"We all know Amazon has a great search engine," he said in an interview. "So why not say to customers, 'Go find the books you want, support your local bookstore by buying them from us, and we'll give you a discount."

Some customers are taking the initiative without monetary inducement, according to Lefebvre. "Everyone focuses on the negative – how Amazon is taking away from us," he said. "But there are those customers who are already doing the exact opposite. They are taking from Amazon and giving to independents.

"And God bless those customers," he said.

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