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BookRabbit is a recently launched website which combines book retailing with some very useful social network features. Users can upload their bookshelves and compare these with other users.
We recently talked to MD Kieron Smith, who has previously managed e-commerce operations at both Waterstones and Game Group....
Where did the idea for BookRabbit come from?
The idea for the site was born out of several different frustrations. I have worked in book retail before and enjoyed the contact with customers, talking to them and recommending books.
However, the experience can be different online. When I launched Ottakars' first e-commerce site in 1999, I didn't find the online experience as engaging as offline book sales.
I look at books as a piece of art as well as a commodity product, and feel that Amazon and other retailers don't do enough to engage with customers about the products.
Was this the reason for the bookshelf feature?
The bookshelf idea, where the site's users can upload the contents of their bookshelves to compare their tastes with other users, is meant to make the site more engaging, and allow people to connect and talk about the books they have read.
Another key feature of the site is that we allow users to create their own categories for books. Most online booksellers use BIC (Book Industry Communication) for this, but this system is rigid, and doesn't always do the best job.
Users on the site have created some useful categories and sub categories which can help shoppers find a subject of interest.
For example, science fiction is a huge category with many titles, but our users have created some useful categories such as 'time travel sci-fi', which helps shoppers find the specific area they want.
How do your reviews differ from Amazon?
Amazon's reviews are very useful but they lack context. On BookRabbit you will be able to see other reviews by the same users, the discussions they have taken part in, as well as taking a look at their bookshelves.
All this helps shoppers make a more informed decision about the book and the reviewer.
How big is the team behind the site?
We have a team of 14 working on the site, including customer services. I have recruited people I used to work with in previous roles. For instance, my IT Director used to work at Waterstones, while the Design Director previously worked for Game Group. Others have been recruited through word of mouth.
How is BookRabbit funded?
This comes from ArgentVive, an e-commerce group which is backed by entrepreneur Charles Denton.
You seem to have a lot of titles on offer for a new site - how have you managed this?
We have more than 4m books on sale on BookRabbit. While booksellers like Borders and Waterstones use only one wholesaler for their stock, we use two, Bertrams and Gardners, which enables us to offer a wider range.
Also, being established in the bookselling industry has helped us to clear hurdles which may have hampered other startups.
While we don't want to compete on price alone, we decided to offer the best prices on the top 100,000 titles, so we are cheaper than Amazon for these books.
Tell me about the 'Automatic Bookcase'
This is something we are developing at the moment, though we don't have a version ready to use on the site yet. The idea is that, when users upload photos of their bookshelves, the technology will recognise the book titles and automatically populate the information onto users' profiles.
The problem is in recognising the four corners of books, when they are often packed in tightly, or displayed next to other books of the same colour. We are continuing to work on this feature.
What is BookRabbit doing that is different from other online booksellers?
The main thing is in getting people involved and engaged with the site. We are looking to build a book website that helps people discover new books.
I don't think that online booksellers are using their websites as effectively as they could. While sales figures are healthy on many such sites, they could still do more to make the experience more appealing for readers. I like to think of it as next generation e-commerce.
Have you had many users so far?
We had a six week beta trial before launch, using people in the book trade to test the site, but we have had a good response so far,
In the first few days since the launch, we have had 300 users uploading their bookshelves, which is promising.
Why did you decide to offer PayP al, something many other UK etailers don't do?
We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to buy from the site, and include as wide a potential audience as possible. Many people have money in their PayPal accounts from eBay selling, and will be looking for a way to spend it.
PayPal is actually using BookRabbit as a case study for the IMRG, so this is useful as it gives us more publicity, while we hope to pick up traffic from PayPal's promotions.
Site review: BookRabbit - Last.fm for readers?