Kobo no longer selling eReaders from their website?

Some very strange things have been going on with Kobo lately. First, they guerrilla-launched their new Kobo Mini, Kobo Glo, and Kobo Arc devices on the same morning as Amazon’s September 6th press conference. Then, weeks went by without any indication as to when United States customers could purchase these new gadgets. A month later, the Kobo Mini was in stock at select US retailers like Best Buy, and the Kobo Glow went out to a few Kobo-partnered chains like Indigo Books in Canada and WHSmith in the UK. Strangely, none were sent to the US. Some pundits speculated that Kobo had jumped the gun in announcing their new line before they were really prepared for distribution.

Since Barnes & Noble put out the first “glow light” eReader last summer, rumors have been circulating that the difficulty of manufacturing front-lit E Ink displays had caused their initial shortages after launch. The thing is, the Kobo Glo isn’t really in short supply; it has appeared in stores across Canada and in the UK. Canadian tech bloggers Mike and Peter from Goodereader.com were at the Kobo launch event and easily acquired units for review. International stores have kept them in stock. In the past, all of Kobo’s devices have been available for purchase right from their website. Why haven’t their new readers been listed for sale on Kobo.com?

On August 29th, Kobo and the American Booksellers Association announced that both parties were forming a partnership to bring Kobo eBooks and eReaders to small-time indie bookstores. The following press release was posted on Kobo’s blog:

Kobo, a leader in eReading with over 10 million registered users worldwide, and the American Booksellers Association (ABA) today announced a new partnership to bring Kobo’s world-class eReading platform to independent bookstores across the United States. By partnering with the nearly 2,000 ABA-member stores, Kobo continues its successful strategy of working with booksellers around the world, and America’s indie booksellers grow their ability to discover and deliver great reads, in any format, to their customers.

In partnership with the ABA, Kobo has developed a unique program designed for independent booksellers and their customers. Booksellers will be able to offer a total experience for their customers including a full line of eReaders, eReading accessories, and ebooks from Kobo’s catalog of nearly 3 million titles. ABA members will share in the revenue on every sale. The program includes valuable training, in-store merchandising, marketing, sales, and logistics solutions to help independents be successful. ABA members will also be able to offer ebooks directly to their customers online. Kobo expects to launch with the first 400 bookstores this fall.

This was exciting news for independent bookstore patrons who know just how hard it has been for their local shops to stay afloat in this digital economy. Many readers love their local bookstores, but have been forced to turn to Amazon.com or B&N for eReading needs. The Kobo/ABA deal gives participating independent booksellers the opportunity to compete with the big guys by being able to offer both physical books and eReading devices for sale in their stores. Patrons can also buy Kobo eBooks directly from their favorite indie’s website or with an affiliate link.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, was one of the first American independents to get the Kobo Glo in stock. You can now order one for $129 (free shipping) from Powells.com. Other independent bookstores are also showing the Glo as ready to ship. It seems that a slow supply is starting to cross the border, and that is great for people who live near one of the few urban bookstores that will be carrying the Kobo Glo and Mini, but what about the rest of us?

Why, after more than two months of waiting, can US customers not order the either device from the Kobo website? In the past, Kobo’s eReaders were always available online before they even made it to stores.

Today, the eReader description pages on kobo.com look less like order forms and more like product advertisements. The “COMING SOON” buttons that stood in place of “BUY NOW” buttons have all been removed. A “Where to Buy” tab at the top right of the screen directs you not to the usual Kobo checkout, but to a list of retailers that are supposed to be carrying Kobo devices. After clicking “Where to Buy” on the Glo’s page, six retailers are listed in the United States. None of them currently have the Kobo Glo in stock, and there are no links to the independent stores that do. This is extremely confusing for Kobo customers. It’s as if Kobo is saying: “Here are the details about our new eReaders. Now go out and see if you can find one!” The Sears link doesn’t bring up anything at all (you get a “Sorry, we could not find any matches for Kobo” error message), and another link sends you to a page filled with third-party eReader cases and preorder options.

My best guess is that Kobo is windowing the Kobo Glo to give their ABA partners an edge. By taking away the option to order from Kobo.com, loyal customers will be forced to buy their Glos from independent booksellers, thus driving sales to the indie stores and their websites. The percentage of sales that the booksellers keep can’t be very large, so perhaps the savvy folks at the ABA worked out some sort deal where initial orders for the Glo would have to come from them. This makes sense when you consider the tiny margins of the deal. Shelf and display space at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore is very important. If indies are going to be serving as promotional locations for Kobo, they need to get something good out of it (at least that’s how I see it).

Will you be upgrading to a Kobo Glo? If so, I really do recommend you purchase it from Powell’s. They are an American institution that really deserves your business. I hope that this windowing works in their favor.

UPDATE: I have also noticed that the Kobo Touch is no longer available from Kobo.com. The “Buy Now” link was missing for over a month, and now it just leads to the same “Where to Buy” page linked to the other devices. This is a clear sign that they will be using other retailers to handle the sale and shipment of their devices. Kobo is getting out of the direct sale game, most likely to save costs. B&N and Amazon can afford a massive shipping and handling service, but Kobo is a lot smaller. Since Kobo’s new parent company, Rakuten, owns Buy.com and has a number of retail ties, this move makes sense, but the number of options on their “Where to Buy” page must be quite confusing to customers.

Image: screenshot of kobo.com’s “Where to Buy” banner.

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