Books Celebrates a Decade of Innovation in Online Bookselling
28, 2004, PORTLAND, OR This summer, Powell's Books
will celebrate its tenth anniversary online. The Portland-based
independent bookseller launched its first web site in 1994, before
e-commerce behemoths Amazon or eBay had served a single customer.
In the decade since, Powell's experimental venture has grown into
one of the most successful underdog endeavors in the industry, remaining
profitable through the dot-com fallout and even thriving in its
Powell's launched its first website, powells.portland.or.us, in
the spring of 1994. "We lost sleep, couldn't eat, and looked terrible
on at least one year of P&L statements because of this Internet
thing," Kristen Berg, a longtime Powell's employee, remembers. But
David Oury, the site's creator and original programmer, adds, "The
sense of purpose in making all those books, and the expertise of
our employees, available to the world - that was worth fighting
Powells.com now drives nearly forty percent of the bookseller's
overall business. Moreover, 85% of online orders ship to customers
outside the Pacific Northwest, most of whom have never visited Powell's
thirty-three-year-old brick-and-mortar stores. In March, the company's
online business expanded into a new, sixty-thousand square foot
facility to accommodate more inventory and improve fulfillment and
"People like to ask if Amazon and BN.com are competitors, and of
course they are. But, really, what we offer online is very different,"
notes Dave Weich, the company's director of marketing and development.
"In our view, those other sites are generic retailers. We're booksellers,
first and foremost. There's a difference, a singular dedication,
and it's evident in everything we do."
One of Powell's most distinctive features is its innovative use
of original content. A much praised interview series introduces
readers to such luminaries as Salman Rushdie and Annie Leibovitz.
Many authors now pen exclusive essays for the site - one contribution
even stirred an international controversy when representatives of
a Brazilian novelist read Yann Martel's essay and claimed that the
Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi plagiarized an earlier
In addition, more than a dozen respected content partners, including
the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Salon.com, and the Sierra Club, provide
timely news, book reviews, and reading suggestions. And it's all
provided free of charge. Forbes rated Powells.com "Best of the Web"
three years in a row, applauding its "huge selection of new, used,
and rare books, all swathed in smart content."
Unlike most online booksellers, Powells.com does not sell promotional
placement of books or merchandise. The policy has earned Powell's
a loyal customer base that swears by the site's trustworthy recommendations.
Consumer advocates, led by The Electronic Privacy and Information
Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., laud the site for its strict
opt-in email and privacy policies. Meanwhile, comparison search
engines drive new shoppers to the site daily, as Powell's unique
pricing structure often undersells the competition.
"It's no easy task to maintain a high-volume, international business
and still make each customer feel that he or she is having a unique,
meaningful encounter," the company's founder and president, Michael
Powell, acknowledges, "but at heart our mission remains the same.
We've always aimed to be the best full-service bookstore in the
neighborhood. The neighborhood has just gotten a lot bigger than
we ever imagined."
Powells.com plans to begin its anniversary festivities with an
essay contest this summer, in which readers and authors alike will
be invited to answer the question: "What was the most memorable
reading experience you've had in the past ten years?" Special offers,
giveaways, and promotions will follow through the remainder of 2004.