Tech lessons from a trip to Borders

On my way home from work today I decided to stop by Borders to pick up a guidebook for my birthday trip to Mexico City.

Step 1: Figure out if the Borders near my house is open. I called 1-800-555-TELL using my car’s Bluetooth to get the phone number. Tellme connected me to my neighborhood Borders. “Thank you for calling Borders… for our store hours and locations press 1.” FAIL. With more people relying on cell phones and increasing legislation requiring hands-free systems while driving, Touch Tone-only systems need to go away. After 2 1/2 minutes and three full loops of the menu I was finally connected to the store.

SnapTell screenshotStep 2: Arrive at the store and look for a guidebook. No one was behind the information desk. Two computer terminals allowed me to search for a book. The search results include books that are only available online, aren’t yet published and a few that are “likely available in store” in a seemingly random order. FAIL. Gee, wouldn’t you want to sort the books that I can walk out with first? Otherwise, why am I here? The screen says my book is in section “B020,” with no indication of where that it is.

Step 3: I notice on my way out of the store a book in the bargain bin on Sonoma wineries. I figure this is the perfect opportunity to try out SnapTell, an iPhone comparison shopping application. Take a picture of a book, CD or DVD and SnapTell shows you how much that item sells for online. (It’s like Shazam for shopping.)

My first picture wasn’t good enough; I got an error message. Second time was a charm, despite taking a picture of a book that was too wide to fit in the frame. I could scroll through a list of prices from online merchants.

While I was impressed with the image recognition, the data quality needs work. The results included older editions of the book; the 1 cent price shown on the summary screen was for an older edition. Even when the current edition was shown pricing didn’t correlate to the merchant. Clicking on the $1.99 link pictured shown showed a price at the merchant of $6.99.

Data errors like this aren’t unusal in large databases, but I suspect will improve over time.

SnapTell is an interesting tool for research. And with access to location information, they could build a nice database of what people are searching for and from where.

That’s assuming that stores like Borders improve service to the point that I’ve got other reasons to come in than “I can’t wait for shipping.”

Disclosure: I work for Tellme, a company that makes speech recognition systems for many large companies. I have a bias against poorly implemented telephone systems.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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