Was Amazon Outfoxed?

Why they held it back so long is a mystery, but finally, Barnesandnoble.com and Barnes & Noble, Inc. have brought out the secret artillery they’ve had since this whole Internet thing began.

The online bookseller and its offline affiliate have decided to mesh their operations completely, becoming a formidable force in what has arguably become the biggest slice of the e-commerce pie.

It was Amazon.com that made books the original e-tail touchstone. But first-mover advantage is about to go up in smoke.

Deployment Issues

If e-commerce is war, then Amazon surely fancies itself a superpower. No, Amazon has no doomsday device to wipe competitors out of cyberspace, but it certainly has troops — in the form of capital, employees, brand identity and so on — deployed in more battlegrounds than anyone else.

Analysts who look at these things all day long have said that merging bricks-and-clicks and finding new channels is the way of the future. All it really takes, though, is some common sense to see that Amazon has been so busy extending its forces all along the vast e-commerce front that it’s vulnerable to attack at its core.

BN.com, meanwhile, hasn’t really ventured too far outside the book and CD world. It has chosen to fight a war of limited scope. And for that reason it might actually win.

Merge Ahead

The bricks-and-clicks initiative announced by BN.com and Barnes and Noble isn’t anything earth-shattering. It just makes good old-fashioned common sense that majority shareholder Barnes and Noble should lend its considerable ammunition to its army in the online book battle.

The opportunity to boost sales overall is the prize. For example, let’s say a 15 year-old girl with no credit card wants to buy a hard-to-find book for her parents. Online, she’s pretty much out of luck and until recently, faced a heady challenge getting someone in the store to locate, order and ensure timely delivery of the obscure title.

Now, that kid can hit a Barnes and Noble store at the mall, order from BN.com’s much-larger Internet inventory, and pay by cash or check at the store counter. That’s pretty good cooperation: each side of the business bringing its best asset to the table. It’s another small e-commerce battle won.

Outnumbered in Battle

Still, BN.com does have an uphill fight on its hands, as Amazon’s 25 million customers make an impressive ground force. The task for Barnes and Noble and BN.com is to encourage some of those Amazon footsoldiers to trade allegiances.

I’m not sure, but the company might have the formula to make it happen. It’s about choices and customer service, after all. In other words, the online bookseller war will be fought on the battlefields of friendliness and convenience as much as it is on brand-name awareness.

Barnes and Noble and BN.com waited a long while to form an alliance with the potential to be victorious, but they certainly have done so with time to spare.

The Maginot Line

Amazon gave us the Internet book revolution. Then it turned its sights on revolutionizing everything else the same way, but that attempt at Net domination has proven more difficult than expected. Concerns about cash flow and stock valuations reflect the hard road that still lies ahead. And if Amazon’s market share were to erode in good-old books, what then?

Meanwhile, the alliance with Barnes and Noble won’t turn BN.com into a moneymaking machine overnight. But there is no talk about leveraging customer bases into any other fields or expanding product offerings. BN.com knows it can’t win if it fights on every battlefield. The company is picking its spots, and doing so is going to pay off handsomely.

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