Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) and Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS ) have joined forces against Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN ) by offering same-day book delivery in Manhattan, San Francisco, and West Los Angeles. Google will deliver Barnes & Noble's books through its delivery service, Google Shopping Express. The delivery fee will be $4.99 per book, although Google is waiving the fee for the first six months.
While the partnership between Google and Barnes & Noble is unique, same-day book deliveries seem much more expensive and less convenient than downloading an e-book from Amazon. Let's take a look at the logic behind this strategy to see if it can actually work.
Who needs same-day book deliveries?
Despite the rising popularity of e-books, print books are still more popular. According to Princeton Survey Research Associates, 70% of Americans read print books in 2013, and only 4% exclusively read e-books. The average American reads five books a year, and half currently own an e-reader or a tablet -- a 7% increase from 2012.
While Americans continue reading both print and digital books, it's hard to ignore the differences in price and convenience. Gayle Forman's If I Stay, currently the best-selling book on Amazon, costs $5 on the Kindle but $11 for the print version. Veronica Roth's Divergent costs $5 on the Kindle, versus $10 for the print version.
Meanwhile, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program, an "all you can read" subscription program for $9.99 a month, is an economical choice for anyone who reads more than two e-books per month. E-books can also include built-in dictionaries, have social sharing features, and can be automatically synchronized between multiple devices.
Even for Americans who still love print books, it's hard to justify the future $4.99 delivery fee from Google Shopping Express. Since a print book can be twice as expensive as the e-book, the price of a same-day delivery fee could triple the price. Moreover, $5 in fuel at today's gas prices is worth approximately 35 miles of travel in an average car -- making it a silly option compared to simply driving to a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
What this partnership means for Google
Despite these pricing issues, the company has invested up to $500 million to expand Google Shopping Express nationwide.
The idea is simple -- shoppers orders things from local brick-and-mortar retailers through Google, which delivers them the same or next day via a fleet of branded vans. Google's partners include Target, Walgreen, Costco, Whole Foods Market, and others, which offer the same prices online as they do in brick-and-mortar stores. Google is absorbing the costs of hiring contract drivers and covering fuel costs for now, but it will eventually decide on a subscription rate after the six-month trial period. Therefore, the $4.99 per shipment price could simply be a placeholder rate until Google accurately gauges demand for the service.
Amazon's rival service, Amazon Fresh, charges Prime ($99 per year) members $5.99 and other customers $9.98 per same-day delivery. Amazon recently expanded same-day delivery to six more cities -- Baltimore, Dallas, Indianapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Amazon also offers Prime Fresh, a $299 per year package, which merges Prime benefits -- free two-day delivery on select items, the free Kindle e-book lending library, and unlimited video streaming -- with free same-day and early morning delivery on orders over $35. However, Prime Fresh is available only in metro areas in northern and southern California.
When the six-month trial ends, it could be hard for Google to price its service competitively against Amazon, since it can't offer comparable benefits to Prime. Yet I believe that Google is probably willing to run Shopping Express at a loss to keep pace with Amazon and collect data on shopping habits.
What this partnership means for Barnes & Noble
It doesn't really matter to Google whether or not same-day book deliveries take off, since it simply handles the deliveries. But for Barnes & Noble investors, anything is worth trying at this point. The company closed 63 stores in the past year, and will spin off its slumping Nook e-reader unit, which Microsoft unsuccessfully tried to revive.
In fiscal 2014, revenue at Barnes & Noble's retail business fell 6% over 2013. Its college textbook business fell 0.9%, while its Nook business plunged 35.2%. Barnes & Noble's full-year revenue of $6.4 billion represents a 6.7% decline from fiscal 2013 and 10.5% decline from 2012. By comparison, Amazon's fiscal 2013 revenue rose 22% to $74.5 billion. In other words, Americans might be reading print books, but they're likely ordering them from Amazon instead of Barnes & Noble.
On the bright side, Barnes & Noble's presence as Google Shopping Express' only bookstore could help it brush off its reputation as the musty has-been more commonly associated with Borders than Amazon.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, Google's partnership with Barnes & Noble is an interesting attempt to compete against Amazon's book and same-day delivery businesses, but it will probably succeed at neither.
Google might be the king of search, but Amazon is still the king of product searches and e-commerce. It's going to take much more than a handful of brick-and-mortar partners and contracted vans to compete against Amazon. In the short term, free shipping for physical books could help Barnes & Noble, but I doubt that sales will keep rising after the trial period ends.
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