Buying Habits: Brick-and-Mortar vs. Online


I recently moved to a new city, and I’ve had trouble finding a solid brick-and-mortar bookstore (possibly because I know hardly anyone here, so it’s difficult to ask). Many of my book purchases have moved online, and I’ve had a great experience so far. Most of the books I order are pre-orders, and buying them online and having them shipped as early as the release date allows is a low-hassle way to get my books.

But I’ve realized that no matter how easy buying books online is, I buy different books, and in different quantities, when I’m in a physical store. Below are my findings about my different buying habits:

  1. Online I buy one book at a time. If I’m looking for The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, I buy The Rook. Online stores make this a very simple transaction.
  2. In brick-and-mortar stores I’m more open to books I’m not seeking. As an example, I visited my home town last week, and while at the local Barnes & Noble, I bought a book I’d never heard of, Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente, because the cover caught my eye and the back cover copy intrigued me.
  3. In brick-and-mortar stores I buy more books. Especially if, while on my way to get what I’m looking for, I stumble across a book I’m not actually seeking (e.g. Myths of Origin).
  4. I prefer online stores for books I anticipate. Refer to my earlier statement about my pre-orders. If I know about the book in advance of the release date and it’s something I’m interested in, I buy it online. I’m guaranteed to get it faster than I would if I waited to go to a brick-and-mortar store.
  5. I prefer brick-and-mortar when I want to discover a book.

The last point is one I’d like to linger on. Online stores are easy, convenient, and have frequent discounts (I am particularly fond of the discounts I get for pre-ordering). But I’ve never found them compelling as a method of discovery, nor do I enjoy trolling review blogs and websites to find my next read (this is the method I often hear touted by ebook and online gurus). Discovering a book worth reading is almost as pleasurable as the read itself. With most books I “discovered” buried in the shelves of a bookstore or library, I remember what appealed to me first, what emotions I felt when I chose the book, whether the glue smelled uniquely appealing, and what rationale I had for purchasing it or checking it out in spite of the stack of books I already had in hand. I remember what was next to it on the shelves, and I remember those books when I next need to discover something new.

That experience, for me, has not been equaled or even approximated by the online buying experience. Despite all the doomsayers, some have predicted that brick-and-mortar stores won’t disappear, and I certainly hope that’s the case.

Given my thoughts and experiences, I wasn’t surprised when Digital Book World 2012 posted an article stating that ebook “power” buyers buy less than their print counterparts. I was surprised by DBW’s explanation for why—i.e., ebook buyers scout for cheap and free ebooks—though in retrospect it makes sense (especially because I still buy print books, so my experience doesn’t directly translate to ebooks). But in my experience with buying more books, and more unknown books, at brick-and-mortar stores, it makes perfect sense that online ebook purchases would generate less revenue.

Then again, maybe I’m a bizarre nostalgic offshoot who evolved an unnecessary need to smell a book to form a bond with it. What are your experiences with online and brick-and-mortar stores? Do your buying habits differ based on the setting? Do you still “need” brick-and-mortar stores to find your next read, or do you rely on other methods of discovery?