Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My guide to online book shopping: Mint blogs

The author covers books and business for Lounge, the weekend magazine of business newspaper Mint.
Source: Mint Blogs

When I moved to Delhi a year and a half ago, Strand Bookstore did not move with me. The consequence of that and the fact that my parking skills are dodgy under the best of conditions is that my book shopping is almost entirely online now. The good part of this is that it’s easy to find books online. If you are reading say the Guardian’s top ten list, you can in ten clicks or so, locate and buy all of them. The difficult part starts then.

Author's Rating: 

Indiaplaza: 15.5 points
Flipkart: 13 points
Landmarkonthenet: 12 points

I have, so far, tried to buy books from three websites – (what was formerly known as Fabmall), and To make it all scientific and marginally less floozy, I’ve classified the process into 4 categories and assigned a grade from 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) to each of these.

1.    Availability
2.    Ease of ordering/cancelling
3.    Price
4.    Customer service , in my view, has the largest range. Barring one or two obscure titles that I searched for, after reading the review on some website or some vague references in some interviews, I have been able to find pretty much most books here. They may not have it in their stocks, but they will source it for you. Full 5 marks.

The site is fairly intuitively laid out and the process is quite easy to follow. Also, since all they have are books and music, there is no clutter and no random things that trigger off other pursuits that help you easily waste time, money and if done in office, earn you the editor’s wrath. More on that later. Orders can be cancelled online (before they are shipped) and the money refunded to your credit card, bank account or whatever. Score! 5

Just when it seems they can do no wrong, you see the price tab. Most books, when compared on price across the three sites, were most expensive at landmark. This holds good for Indian and international publication. Some “bestsellers” that are on offer are slightly discounted, but if you pick three books, your bill is likely to be highest at landmark. Mine were. I’d say 2 points here.

When I called a month after my order to find out when I could expect the book, the call was answered by a hesitant man who gave me a vague reply. Before I could press him for details, a loud, interpersonal scuffle broke out and rapid Tamil words were spoken, after which a lady picked up the phone and scolded me for calling before the 45th day. People I have nearly run over have been kinder to me. Points – zero!

Indiaplaza has a wide enough collection, but I find quite a few of the titles (especially books that do not have an Indian edition) sold out. In all, my hit rate with the site is about 70%. So that’s 3.5 points.
The site is packed to its neck with stuff they want to sell you. If you are focused and clear about what you want to buy, there’s no problem here. Cancellations are allowed before shipping. 3 points.

Indiaplaza makes up for wasted time with saved money. Prices are seriously low. And if you join their book club (when I signed up, they gave me a gift voucher for the equivalent of the membership fee), then you get a further discount. Awesomeness. Full 5 points.

The customer service staff seems to be on a Prozac diet. They are polite, helpful and wonder of wonders even called me back the one time they promised to get back to me. I’ve only once had an issue that involved slightly annoying back and forth but the issue was settled favourably. I’ll give them 4.5 points.

My colleague Krish recommended Flipkart. So I logged on and was delighted that not only did they have the first two Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, they were also rather cheap. Overall, 4 points on availability.
There were no condoms to distract me, so ordering was an easy enough process. They promised delivery in 10 days and before the 10 days were up I visited the Delhi book fair and happened upon the books there. Because I believe in instant gratification (and aided by Krish’s assurance that the order can be cancelled) I bought the books there. When I logged on to the site, I realized they don’t have a cancellation option. Krish decided to save his life and offered to buy them from me. 2 points.
Price: Cheap. Cheap. Full 5 points

Customer service: I receive a call some 12 days after my order regretfully informing me that the books aren’t available and my order is cancelled and Flipkart would return the money to my credit card. I suspect Krish had something to do with it. If I hadn’t bought the books earlier I would have given them 0 on customer service but since I had, I shall be magnanimous and offer 2 points for the nice boy who called and sounded reasonably apologetic.
So then,

Landmarkonthenet: 12 points
Flipkart: 13 points
Indiaplaza: 15.5 points

Ta-da! Tell me if your scores are different.

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