Friday, November 4, 2011

browsing, books and shops

there are many who proclaim that online shopping has altered consumer patterns. no doubting that. the bone of contention lies in whether people think it has done so for the better or for the worse. i don't care about either. but what i would like to dwell on, perhaps, is in what way has it changed my shopping experience.

lets take my absolute favourite exercise in shopping - online or otherwise. books.

i've always bought books. it was the one thing my parents never hesitated to spend on. in fact, going to a book shop was a major shopping experience for us. there would be weekends when before we'd go out for lunch, we'd stop at a book shop on the way, browse, and most usually, buy. most of my pocket money also went in buying books. so over the years, i bought, read, and piled.

so when i became financially independent - yea i'm saying it with such nonchalance, but wait a second! is there an undertone of bragging? hell yea! - imagine the thrill in being able to buy books...

of course, my ways of stopping by book shops had drastically changed once i moved out of home. plus, with the newer, bigger book shops, which despite their physical size contained only select books, i lost interest in buying books. mistake me not, i rarely went to a book shop with the precise intention of buying a specific book. it was the experience of browsing through rows of books that thrilled. and of course, this is precisely what criticisms of American supermarkets and hyper-malls and giant stores are all about - that the monumentality of their stores, the sheer quantity of products they house, and their display strategies all are meant to allure us into staying within the premises. yea, we can just stay and browse. and not shop. bottom line, eventually we will.

anyway, i hated their ideas of stocking only bestsellers, which by the way, i like to read. but a shop stocked only with bestsellers, no thank you! i like to know i have a choice. and this is where i think indian book shops, of the crossword and landmark variety, get it wrong.

and this is when i made the discovery of online shopping. the requirements of online shopping are pretty much the same as a good book store.
1. a large collection of books.
2. a good pattern of display.
3. a good system of payment.

and if one thinks browsing experiences have changed, i would fervently agree. but to my mind, it has changed such that a good online shopping site, induces one to buy more books than one would have bought at a book store.

allow me to explain.

the point is not that they too categorize books, or have discounts and sales. but the point is that online shopping is part of the internet. and while it is unchallenged that the internet has radically redefined the production of knowledge, it is precisely this phenomenon that shapes an online shopping experience. that you have the internet as a resource that comes to inform your purchases.

to get specific, let me give you an example. i hunt online for books on vampires. i get to know there's a genre called speculative fiction and within that, a sub-genre called paranormal fiction. i know there's a related genre of urban fantasy. within these genres and sub-genres, there's thematic categorizations. there's forums online that catalogue books, provide book excerpts and summaries, product description and information; they discuss books, compare them, have book reviews by columnists and readers and fans, and reader ratings based on multiple criteria. you have access to websites and blogs that contain articles and essays on entire genres, books and authors, raising issues in their fullest possible depths.

you don't have to rely on the blurb on the back cover of your paperback; you don't have to stumble upon the few books that your book shop avails. you can hunt out books detailed to suit your uber-specific interests. moreover, your interest in a book is no longer merely limited to your liking a single book or author or genre. it comes to be shaped by all these new forms of knowledge.

and this, is the redefinition of book buying that online shopping has made possible.

of course, this is precisely the logic of consumption that capitalist enterprises aim at fostering; and these are exactly the kind of specificities that management professionals spend their lifetimes trying to nail. and yet, you try to reconcile yourself by thinking that these are reader-forums or fan-discussion-threads; or that at the end of the day every purchase of a book is a personal decision that not even the most aggressive form of marketing can convince you of, if it weren't for your agentive decision-making ability.

i guess, at this point, all i can say is, if buying or reading books means investing yourself with/in a form of knowledge and entering a domain of imagination that you know even the most feral form of capitalism cannot capture, then, its well worth it.

another debate that interests me hugely is the surge of e-books, and e-book piracy, and its impact on reading habits and the sale of books. but, i'll leave that debate for another time.

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