Tuesday, February 12, 2013

‘Pay to Peek’ Is Not The Answer For Bookstores

It is often hard to see the opportunities when we look at the threats to book retailers today. Many just see dome and gloom and create what some would say is an environment of self prophesying decline.

Geographic markets are different and within the UK there are clear government and civic challenges of higher rates, rents the unfair status afforded to charity shops manned volunteer staff. That’s without the corporation tax avoidance advantage achieved by many internet stores within the EU boundaries and the current EU digital VAT fiasco.

There are the challenges of competing not just the physical book market but with an increasing digital market. This is not just about people adopting the technology, or the convenience of ordering online, but also the lack of coherent pricing which today can result in the 20P bestseller and a general devaluation of all books.

There is also the limited range and keenly priced increasing supermarket offer. They may just want the bestsellers and safe bets, but in doing so they effectively cream off those titles with mass appeal at the expense of the bookstore.

This week we read about Foyles, who at the time that they are planning their big move and the store of the future, are having to make staff redundant in their existing business. Today, everyone is looking hard at their costs and trying to cut their cloth accordingly.

Also this week Victoria Barnsley discussed the idea on BBC radio 4’s ‘The Bottom Line’, that bookstores should consider charging customers to browse. If it’s ok for shoe store in the US to do it, why not bookstores in the UK. Well we could say that many jewellers lock their doors to control entry, but you would seriously advocate that for bookstores? You could point to the refund tickets for parking in many supermarkets and ask why not pay for customer parking on the High Street? The point is that book buying is different, much of it is impulsive and it requires a ‘hands on’, not ‘hands of’ hand selling approach. It would be easy to envisage empting bookstores and book ‘discovery’ moving further online and the customer contact becoming virtual. ‘Pay to peek’ is a barrier to buy and therefore not the answer.

If we look at the alternative shopping experiments and practices, one that may lend itself to some larger stores and chains, is the personal shopper, that assistant that doesn’t sit behind the counter, but actively hand sells off the floor. Many will say we do it today, but many customers may question that. It isn’t about steering customers to the obvious, but adding value and helping them discover that ‘hidden gem’. A friend recently related an experience about being introduced to a quirky book by our local store and what a difference that made. The choice was perfect, the relationship forged and the repeat business and respect flowed. Straight forward, but is it truly an experience we all share?  

Then we have the great giveaway with the inducement of yet more’ free’ books. Has the ‘give away’ policy really worked? Has it lead to a significant rise in reading and growth in the market and have the bookstores that have backed it really benefited in a sustainable way, or have we merely created a costly blip which is flattened out over the year? We even those who have supported the idea that to promote 15 million £1 books on the back of giving kids junk good is good PR. It may bring more kids into reading, but at what expense and who will have ‘ketchup’ on their hands if the PR turns like it has with horse meat? More importantly will it build the marketplace, or just further drive buyers away from bookstores?

The glass is not half empty and opportunities do exist, but often change is required to leverage these. It may be no longer good enough to only sell ‘safe’ front list on a sale or return basis. It says ‘bookseller’ over the door and by that it surely means a variety of new, backlist, classics, bargains, used and even rare. Obviously each store has to build around its community and market proposition but looking past the latest release would help. After all how many consumer pick up a book and look straight to the publication date to see if it’s new? Books don’t have a sell by date.

We were recently told about a publisher who celebrated a healthy pre Christmas order that turned to disappointment when after Christmas the entire stock came back and still all in its printer’s packs. Bookselling is a two way street.

Bookstores have discovered that coffee may work and can increases footfall and interest. The same could be said of other goods and services. Ask yourself whether the Works a bookshop, stationary store, gift shop, craft shop or just a bargain store? What the product and demographic mix difference today between say, WHS and the Works?  

We look at the many excellent examples of bookstores that continue, despite the odds , to deliver in their community. We read of the success and enthusiasm of new ventures such as Philip Downer’s Calliope. What we see are bookstores changing and adapting despite the challenges and using their skills to make themselves appealing and different. What we must do is find ways to support these further, improve hand selling and reward excellence. 

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