For the true bibliophile, the book shop is one of the few retail experiences impossible to replicate online.

Yes, there are hundreds of extremely competitive ecommerce sites that offer cheaper-than-high-street books with free delivery, but what they're missing is the sensory experience of browsing a book shop's shelves; the touch, the smell and most importantly, the conversation.

I spent seven years working as a bookseller, and as my learned colleague Ben Davis will agree: once a bookseller, always a bookseller. It's impossible not to shoehorn one's innate love of books into most conversations. 

Part of the joy of working with books is the interaction with the customers. It was extraordinarily easy to load up a customer with armfuls of recommendations when all they came into purchase was the latest Maeve Binchy. 

This is where online book stores can match the offline experience: Conversation, interaction and engagement, all through the art of social proof.

I've previously gone into greater detail about social proof here: Whitbread and the power of social proof; this post mainly concentrated on the food, drink and leisure services as well as describing how social proofing works. 

Here I'm going to use the examples discussed in that post and the examples in our 11 great ways to use social proof in ecommerce article to see how online book shops compare.

I'll be using Morrissey's recent autobiography, cunningly titled Autobiography, and controversially published under Penguin's Classics imprint, as the control throughout this article.

I figure this book, as widely covered by the media and as polarising as it is, would be prime conversation bait.

Waterstone's has little in the way of social proof evidenced on the homepage. There are no customer recommendations, comments or 'previously bought' links.

Let's see what the product page has to offer…

Again, not an awful lot of chatter.

Below the fold you can see a list of four books that customers also bought.

There's little to suggest much in the way of consistency of theme (crime books and Bridget Jones?), so this is clearly a random selection.

When you click on the review tab, there's one single review. 

Well, one person has rated it four stars and not written anything.

Waterstone's runs a blog, which is a really attractive and regularly updated page.

However there's little advantage taken with customer interaction. There are very few comments, and there is little encouragement to provide them. This seems like a shame as blogs are a perfect way to encourage conversation and engagement.

Here's our trumpet blowing article about the importance of blogging and how it's added to Econsultancy's success.

Waterstone's knows exactly what its doing with social, so it's a shame this personalisation, and personality, isn't replicated on the website to encourage more interaction.

The Book Depository

The most notable feature on The Book Depository homepage is the 'watch people shop' widget.

We've covered this in a previous social proof post but it's worth mentioning again.

Here in real time you can watch books being purchased across the globe. It's a strangely compelling and addictive experience, and as our editor in chief Graham Charlton points out "if someone in Hong Kong feels confident in placing an order, why shouldn't other customers?"

Let's check out Morrissey's product page.

There's very little social proof here, with no customer reviews. Below the product info there's an unwieldly titled 'other people who viewed this bought' section.

Again, this isn't targeted particularly well. Tony Visconti is a good shout, but I would assume the Venn diagram of Morrissey fans and Miranda fans consists of two completely separate circles.

The competition page fairs much better. The Book Depository runs a regular 'win all the books of the week' and here there's loads of customer engagement.

There are hundreds of comments like this. Surely this community can be harnessed and spread throughout the website, especially the product pages, rather than hidden away here.


Kobo is an ebook download site. The homepage is notable for having a similar layout to most VoD streaming websites

Kobo seemingly wants to provide a contemporary user experience for digital in keeping with other new technology. There's no room for human interaction here.

Morrissey's ebook product page is as clinical and unemotional as the record industry he routinely lambasts in his ramblings. 

There is a section called Kobo Cafe, which brings to mind Parisian coffee shops, where the literati gather to discuss the latest work by Camus or Satre.

Or at least a place where users can discuss their favourite books in a social media setting.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Kobo Cafe is a collection of corporate bore, empty sloganeering, press releases and the CEO's latest thoughts. The lack of sharing and tweeting as evidenced underneath the articles should be a clue as to how much of a waste of time this is. 

Kobo makes Amazon feel like an Oxfam book shop. 

Speaking of which...


Oxfam has introduced an ecommerce book site to its web presence. Centralising their second hand book distribution service, creating convenience and affordability for the customer and making some money for charity.

I wasn't expecting anything too spectacular here, but as evidenced from the Catch-22 product page (there's no Morrissey autobiography just yet, clearly people are still wading through that mighty tome) Oxfam could certainly utilise its huge network of shops and volunteers to provide reviews and recommendations, creating an online community of book-lovers similar to the in-store experience.

Foyles has a similar lack of social proof on its homepage and its product pages.

There are no customer reviews or 'other customers purchased' links. Morrissey remains a perpetually lonely soul.

There is an intriguing looking area called Encounter Culture though.

This is full of Q&As, competitions, staff written blogs and other interesting articles on writing. Unfortunately there's no customer engagement; it's all staff or author based. This isn't a place for user discussions or recommendations.


The Blackwell's website is possibly the most austere example here. There's nothing in the way of social proof or interaction. 

The product page is as unappealing as a plain text document in Word.

The review tab reveals a review written by professional music critic, not a user or customer.

Every recommendation comes directly from its staff. 

There's no room for outsiders here. 

In conclusion...

Amazon is the king of ecommerce social proofing. There is nowhere on the Amazon website where you don't see 'customers bought this' or 'customers recommend that'. Each product has hundreds of reviews and a thriving community of commenters.

If other online book shops even hope to touch Amazon they need to harness exactly what makes their offline retail stores so successful in the first place: the customer's passion for books.

Use their reviews and recommendations. Build communities out of them, tie these communities into your product pages. Get customers to write blog posts. Start a book club, get customers talking about books, use this discussion everywhere on your site.

People love books. People love spending money on books. People love discussing books. People love being recommended books they've never heard of… Use these truths and your online book shop will become an experience that can't be replicated by Amazon or even on the high street.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 6 November, 2013 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (5)



Is it possible that when heading online to buy books people almost exclusively go to Amazon?

I am an avid reader and a big fan of printed books and brick-and-mortar stores... I've worked in a few myself! But to be honest I go to Waterstones or Foyles or wherever because I can't wait for a book to be delivered. Or because I have some free time and I feel like browsing and sitting in a comfy chair reading jacket covers for an hour in peace.

My point is... are there other points of differentiation these sites can offer, other than just trying to beat Amazon who they'll never beat? I work in social media and obviously believe in the power of community building etc. But as you said, these shops should think about what make their real life experience what it is and take it from there. Every company has a point of differentiation. The trick is, creating one online.

Most brands are so tempted to do what everyone else is doing that they overlook what will work best for them and their customers. I see it all the time.

Thanks for the read!

over 4 years ago

Arjan Haring

Arjan Haring, Cofounder at Science Rockstars

Thanks Christopher, very nice article again!

over 4 years ago



totally agree with you.. Great article

over 4 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

Great article, Christopher. As a marketer and lover of books, I've been so frustrated that no one has been able to step up to Amazon on the social proof front. There are millions of people talking about books every day online and all retailers have to do is tap a little bit of it.

Now that Amazon have bought Goodreads, they've combined the largest retail site with the largest social book site and effectively ended anyone's hopes of competing on the social front. It's a real shame as it was Amazon's achilles heel until then.

I still think there's some hope, however. Like you have said, it's a simple job to recommend a book to a booklover and we regularly impulse buy after reading positive reviews and recommendations, even buying more books than we have time to read. There are some interesting things being done by Anobii (backed by HMV Group, Penguin Random House etc) and a couple of major supermarket chains but no one has yet really delivered on the last few years of talk.

Soaring tablet ownership has opened the door for the rest of the market too, meaning customers can have several ereaders on their devices and divided loyalty.

I've nothing against Amazon but we'd all benefit from a much more open market.

over 4 years ago


tarun goyal, seo trainee at tarun foundation

It is a very nice article posted by you but as a customer i would like to buy book from bookstore because paper printed book is effective than downloaded books. we are also non-profit organization

about 4 years ago

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