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BarnesandNoble.com Takes to the Road With Grass-Roots Truck Tour

BarnesandNoble.com is continuing its grass-roots marketing strategy to build the online bookseller's brand with the advent of BarnesandNoble.com On Tour, a one-year promotion that visits 42 cities in the United States.

An 80-foot truck — equipped with 14 desktop computers, two video walls, six notebook computers and six hand-held personal digital assistants — parked at highly trafficked, popular events is designed to introduce BarnesandNoble.com and its tour's co-sponsors to consumers.

“We're beginning to step up our grass-roots marketing presence because getting the buzz about the brand is very, very important,” said John Rindlaub, vice president of brand marketing at BarnesandNoble.com, New York.

“It's one thing to connect with people online but putting a face behind the brand and actually reaching out to customers or people where they live and where they work is, we think, the next phase of what we're trying to do,” he said.

Other sponsors of the tour, which was organized by M3 Marketing, Birmingham, MI, include online broker Ameritrade, home improvement site OurHouse.com and Microsoft Corp., for its forthcoming Microsoft Reader software that will allow consumers to read books on computer displays.

The tour follows quickly on the heels of BarnesandNoble.com's decision last month to offer same-day delivery of books and music within Manhattan. It is also back-to-back with the BarnesandNoble.com Lounge series, which puts authors face-to-face with their readers in trendy nightclubs across the country.

Emblazoned with the Barnes & Noble name, the truck will visit cities such as Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, MO, Seattle and Houston.

The vehicle will park itself near venues hosting upscale events or popular fairs and festivals that attract crowds. For instance, Sunday, during the New York leg of the tour, the truck was in the middle of the Silicon Alley Festival, which was held in Union Square, an area of big-box stores and trendy restaurants.

BarnesandNoble.com's reliance on grass-roots marketing is in line with a new trend popular with online marketers seeking to put a tangible face on their brands by directly talking to customers in their environment.

Some of the new adherents of grass-roots marketing include Garden.com, whose green trucks troop through major metropolitan cities during its busiest spring season; Edmunds.com, an auto information site that will allow consumers to test drive 50 different cars in special arenas; and hrblock.com, which set up tables at selected colleges to lure online tax-filers.

BarnesandNoble.com is owned by the bricks-and-mortar chain Barnes & Noble Inc. and German media and publishing giant Bertelsmann. Each has a 40 percent share, and the rest is owned by the public.

The online bookseller reported first-quarter 2000 sales of $78.2 million, up 142 percent from $32.3 million in the same period last year. And although it lost $27.1 million this past quarter, it managed to add 850,000 more customers in that period to now total nearly 5 million.

In a sign of increased customer retention, repeat orders for the first quarter reached 68.1 percent, the company said. This was up from 56 percent recorded in the first quarter of 1999.

But BarnesandNoble.com's truck tour goes beyond just injecting a physical element to its online entity — or simply adding more customers.

The company also wants to test the public response to the Microsoft Reader. In a couple of months, consumers will be able to buy books from the site through digital downloads. Both the bookseller and Microsoft are working together to develop the eBook Superstore on barnesandnoble.com.

“It's less focused around customer acquisition; it's around customer education,” Rindlaub said. “This way people are exposed to the site in a nonthreatening environment. They can browse the first chapter, they can chat with an author, they can see and do all these things with people there to help.

“But eventually, they'll become customers,” he added. “It's like the first step to customer acquisition.”

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