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Online shopping for books

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Founded in a Seattle garage in 1994, Amazon.com, which bills itself as ”earth’s biggest bookstore,” has become one of the few successful retailers on the World Wide Web, with sales of $16 million in the first quarter of this year, and a recent public offering that sparked a buying frenzy. But with the May launch of BarnesandNoble.com, ”the world’s biggest bookstore online,” Amazon.com faces serious competition for the first time.”It’s a real David and Goliath battle,” says Adam Schoenfeld, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. It’s still too early to tell who will prevail, but for now the consumer is the clear winner, since both sites offer convenience and low prices. Here’s how we size them up.

Amazon.com

AMBIANCE

Utilitarian. A nearly text-only page welcomes the browser — a bit like visiting a warehouse, but handy for anyone with a slow modem.

WHAT IT OFFERS

2.5 million titles. Every listing includes an uplink, with not-always-favorable review quotes, mini-essays from Amazon editors, and pithy pro-and-con responses from readers. A free search service for hard-to-find or out-of-print titles.

SHIPPING COSTS

For best-sellers and other prominent books (500 titles in all), Amazon is cheaper — 40 percent off list price. There are 20 to 40 percent discounts on a few ”staff favorites”; all other titles are 10 percent off. Shipping costs $3 plus 95[cents] per book, with delivery in three days.

VERDICT

With its extensive out-of-print listings and search service, Amazon offers a more complete book-buying service. Its database also doubles as a research tool: Looking up the late cultish thriller writer Patricia Highsmith, we found 50 titles, including one (The Mysterious Mr. Ripley) we’d never heard of before.

BarnesandNoble.com

AMBIANCE

Clubby yet corporate. Bright graphics announce online chats with authors, interviews, even book-related joke boards.

WHAT IT OFFERS

1.5 million titles. Covers are on view with some listings but the books lack descriptions — a shortcoming that should be partially remedied by fall, when the site hooks up with the New York Times Book Review. B&N does not have a search service.

SHIPPING COSTS

B&N usually offers the better deal on books that are not best-sellers — 30 percent off all hardcovers and 20 percent off all paperbacks. Shipping costs are the same as Amazon’s, though in the fall B&N plans to offer next-business-day delivery on more than 400,000 titles.

VERDICT

For those addicted to online browsing, there’s much more going on at the B&N site. And for the less hard-core reader, the site’s emphasis on mainstream titles — Jan Karon’s Out to Canaan leads off the fiction and literature selections — may be a plus. (Looking up Patricia Highsmith, we found only 24 selections.)

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