A trip to the local bookstore on a warm fall Sunday morning revealed a good way to improve the retail shopping experience in our digital-first era.

On a warm fall Sunday morning, my wife and I went for coffee and a walk in downtown Davidson while my mother-in-law watched our daughter. There were at least two places we wanted to visit unencumbered by the need to keep our baby fully covered: Summit Coffee Co. and Main Street Books.

We parked the car about ¼ mile away from Main Street to give ourselves time to enjoy the weather. We bought two chai lattes and found a picnic table in the shade where we could see other people while keeping distance.

Covid-19 has affected nearly every aspect of how we live in the world. Yet, it hasn’t taken away our human desire to be social. We reconnected to that humanity by merely sitting in the open and watching people laugh, parents waddle behind toddlers, and cyclists enjoy a post-ride coffee.

We took our last sips of coffee and set out to the bookstore next door. They wouldn’t open for another 10 minutes, so we took our time. For all the challenges the small town has faced over the past year, it was teeming with life: couples waiting to be served brunch at patio tables, joggers gliding across town and through the adjacent college campus, families making the most of the weekend’s short time together. People are eager for normalcy — and somewhere outside their homes.

Before we knew it, the bookstore’s door was propped open. We were early enough to be the first customers. We were greeted by two college-aged women working behind their plexiglass-guarded register, a large container of hand sanitizer, and the nostalgia-inducing scent of a great bookstore.

Surprises and Novelty

I’ve picked up a reading habit this year. Every book I’ve read has been on my Amazon Kindle. Sending Amazon more of my money isn’t ideal, but I also don’t have the space to store all the books I have or plan to read. Yet, that doesn’t negate the guilt I feel reading this way. So, before even walking in the store, I planned to buy something.

The first thing I noticed when we walked in were a row of books on top of an eye-level bookshelf that were wrapped like gifts. On the outside was an index card with a few handwritten bullet points. A sign next to them read, “Blind Date Books.” Intrigued, I read the bullet points written by employees of the bookstore on each of the books. “A thriller you won’t put down.” “A collection of essays about the importance of empathy.” “Winner of multiple fiction book awards.

This isn’t an experience that Amazon’s Kindle Store can create. This felt novel and spontaneous. I picked a book from the row. The mystery was compelling. I thought to myself, “Would the book even be good? Would I want to read it once I see the cover and read the summary? How much weight should I give the opinion of the person that wrote the accolades on the index card?” I had no answers, but it didn’t matter. Genuinely excited, I added the book to the stack my wife had accumulated.

This was not like buying a book on Kindle, which is a quick, transactional experience. There was emotion — excitement and joy — in buying a “Blind Date” book. To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter if I like the book. Though, so far the book, The Empathy Exams, has been a pleasant surprise. Retail has been hit hard by Covid-19. To survive, they’ll need to find ways to differentiate their customer experience. Engineering surprises and novel ways of shopping is an amazing way to do that.

A Trip to the Bookstore