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Sunday, October 17, 2004

What's Selling, Where -- Amazon's Micro-Bestseller Lists

It's like open-sourcing market research. Like psychographics for the masses. It's Amazon's new "What's Selling, Where" lists.

Not only can you get bestseller lists for certain locales by geography (states, cities), but also (if enough data are generated) specific organizations, businesses, and university campuses.

A quick peek at what the kids at UT Austin or the University of Wisconsin are buying indicates that they're interested in politics, weight loss, and popular page-turners... not necessarily in that order.

A bit more research reveals... that's pretty much what everyone else is interested in, too. (Check out Dallas, for example.)

To get additional insight, one can click on "uniquely popular" as opposed to top-selling, which presumably highlights books that are considerably more popular in a certain subgroup than they are everywhere else.

A peek inside the federal judicial branch's buying habits suggests that while they're as happy to guffaw along with Al Franken as anyone, and do enjoy a good page-turner, they're feeling the middle-class pinch, being uniquely interested in a book called The Two-Income Trap by a Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert and her daughter, a former McKinsey consultant.
Overconsumption is not blamed for the current squeeze on middle class and upper-middle class cash flow. Rather, it's the "ferocious bidding wars for housing and education" that are causing a cash crunch in America's suburbs. While lower income earners might run up the credit card for nice-looking "stuff," and get into trouble that way, the two-income "achievers" find themselves underwater because of their insistence on living in status neighborhoods so that they can send their children to better schools. Probably a book that takes on magnified significance in a credit-boom time where an unprecedented number of gainfully-employed middle-income earners have had no trouble finding a bank to help them buy "too much house," and then find themselves facing bankruptcy when unexpected costs or job loss crop up.

But that's neither here nor there. I think I'm supposed to be making a point about what might be significant about Amazon's initiative. In keeping with the way Amazon has always worked, the micro-bestseller-lists release us from the shackles of the Big Bestseller List or the Anointed Book Reviewer, allowing one to browse what people are buying in different circles, and being offered peripheral recommendations to related books as always. Reading real people's reviews, and possibly reading other reviews by those reviewers, allows one to probe a topic deeply in the space of a couple of minutes. And you can, of course, search inside the book. In a word, the buyer is empowered.

By comparison, most of the bookstores I visit seem almost embarrassed by books. I mean they carry so few of them. Unlike most people, I don't find the process of visiting today's bookstore soothing or retro or quaint. It's just a lousy user experience. Most recently I had time to kill before a party, so browsed the business area of a Chapters. I couldn't find any of the titles I'd been considering buying, and, of course, there was no *context* in the form of reviews, rankings, and other information. But I did buy some chocolates to bring to my hosts.

Amazon's practice of displaying these various consumer tastes to the world in such a "micro" way might raise privacy concerns for some, especially those whose purchases are clearly identified with their place of work. It will be interesting to hear that debate.

All in all, a tour around what's selling on Amazon.com is heartening in its diversity and richness... until you realize that the sample is restricted to people who actually buy and read books.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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