It’s official. After a long struggle, bankruptcy protection, and restructuring, Borders has announced that they are closing all 399 of their remaining stores. The problem: the industry changed and Borders failed to change along with it. We are living in a time of fast-paced transformation. Never in our history have so many advances come so rapidly. Where the 20th century brought dramatic change over the course of decades, the 21st reconstitutes almost yearly. Think about it. Five years ago how many of us had ever sent a text message? The first smart phone (the iPhone) was introduced only four years ago. Now, nearly every phone on the market has “smart” capabilities. Even three years ago, Blockbuster was the king of the video rentals hill. Now, between Redbox and Netflicks they’re about as dated as a T Rex in a speakeasy. And eBooks. Three years ago electronic books were barely a blip on the radar with sales of about $30 million. Now they outsell print copies in most segments (sometimes by a ratio as high as 5 to 1) with estimated 2011 sales topping $300 million. Add to this the fact that even most print books are purchased online and one must wonder do any traditional brick and mortar booksellers stand a chance.
The answer: yes. I believe they do.
The complication: dramatic changes must be made – and soon.
In such a rapidly-changing environment every business must be willing to reinvent itself over and over in order to remain viable. With more and more commerce flooding to the internet, brick and mortar outlets must find ways to keep customers coming back. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to sit at ones computer in gym shorts and a T-shirt while ordering merchandise than it is to get dressed, hop in the car, fight traffic, go into a retail outlet, and then stand in line to make a purchase.
That said, shopping malls still exist. When almost anything can be bought online, why are malls still flooded with shoppers?
Because many people still enjoy the act of shopping.
Now, take the mall concept and apply it to the bookseller. I, for one, love perusing the bookshelves at a book store. It’s a great way to find new authors that I otherwise might have missed. I’ve not yet found a way to match this experience online. There’s also a sense of community in a bookstore. It’s fun to be amongst other book enthusiasts, to discuss books read and favorite authors. But, these things alone will not keep customers coming back. So, what can booksellers, both national chains and independent locations, do to keep customers coming back during this digital age? There are no easy answers, no guarantees, but here are my personal thoughts on the subject:
LOOK AT WHAT’S COME BEFORE: Both the music and home video industries have already gone through the same changes. Nearly all music and video content is now available online. Tower Records is a fossil, Hollywood video extinct, with Blockbuster teetering. And yet people still buy CDs, DVDs, and Blue Ray. There are still plenty of people who like to hold a product, to own it, to look at the cover. Booklovers love the smell of books and the feel of them. They like a full bookshelf in their homes. I know many people who will buy an e-copy of a book and then, if they really love it, buy a print copy just to have or to share with fellow book enthusiasts. Today’s booksellers should gain hope from these other markets and look to the survivors of the music and video revolutions for clues. What did the survivors do that kept them afloat? Do booksellers need the equivalent of Redbox or Netflix? What could booksellers learn from these industries that would help to keep them in the game?
LOOK FORWARD NOT BACK: Any industry wanting to be competitive in the 21st century needs to keep an eye on developing technology not with fear but with the mindset of utilizing the advancements to bolster their sales. The book industry has done this by making eBook readers available on iPads and smart phones, by bringing the prices down on eBook readers. But technology continues to move forward. A large segment of video content is streamed right now from sites like Netflicks and Hulu. Could books be streamed? Is there a market for that? What new technologies are on the horizon? How can these be embraced and utilized at the bookseller level? Could booksellers, large or small, develop apps that would allow loyal customers to purchase books directly from their phones? I’m not talking Amazon here. I’m talking Joe’s Book and Lube. One of the great things about new technology is that it often levels the playing field. The small independent bookseller has access to the same technology as Barnes & Noble. Recognizing emerging trends and technology and utilizing these first could give both small retailers and publishers an advantage. Think of an app that targets a loyal customers interests. Local bookstores could alert customers of upcoming releases or specials that fit their past purchase patterns and allow them to buy electronic or print copies FROM THE LOCAL STORE directly from this app. I’m sure there are dozens of such ideas floating around out there.
Now, the question could be posed, “Isn’t this putting more business online rather than bolstering brick and mortar booksellers?” Quite possibly, yes. But, one needs to think big, not small. In today’s environment even a ma and pop bookshop needs to have a national or even international mindset. Allow me to site an example from another industry: Pawnshops. Yes, pawnshops, about as far removed from the book industry as any retail establishment might be. But I think there’s something to learn from them. One normally thinks of a pawnshop as a relatively isolated storefront. Customers come in to pawn, sell, or purchase items. Let’s look at the purchasing customers as they’re our parallel. Time was when all goods sold through a pawnshop were purchased on site. Customers came in, perused the shop, and either bought something or left. Now, most successful pawnbrokers not only offer their merchandise in house but online as well. They sell on their own websites, on eBay, Craig’s list, etc. They’ve embraced current trends and enhanced their profitability. Booksellers have these same opportunities.
HOW ELSE CAN TRADITIONAL BOOKSELLERS INCORPORATE NEW TRENDS? Selling eBook readers and offering download stations are a great start, but don’t go quite far enough. Electronic readers and eBooks can be purchased online. The customer needs a reason to make the effort to come to the store. Price is an obvious factor. If book stores offered eBooks and readers at discounted rates below those offered online, this could draw customers. But prices can always be undercut and Amazon’s discounts make them difficult to beat. Major chains might be able to purchase the rights to eBooks not available anywhere else and even independent stores might offer a catalog of niche offerings (both print and electronic) that are rare or difficult to find. Chain booksellers or coalitions of independent booksellers might be able to enter into exclusivity agreements with smaller publishing houses, gaining exclusive rights to certain titles and/or authors.
MIX THE OLD WITH THE NEW: Many people still love the feel and smell of a print book. They like having something tangible to hold and to own. Retail outlets can offer this while still catering to the eBook trend. How about a package deal? Buy the print copy and get the eBook for free (or at a drastically reduced rate).
EMPHASIZE THE EXPERIENCE: Online buying is quick and easy, but there is no ambiance, no atmosphere. Traditional bookstores have the opportunity to offer the customer much more than can a website. Helpful booksellers can guide shoppers to new authors they might enjoy. Reading areas and coffee shops within stores are still popular and can be emphasized all the more. Author signings and readings offer an additional dynamic and even if authors aren’t often available onsite, carrying autographed copies in stock is a great selling point. People like holding a book that the author held in his/her own hands.
DON’T ROLL OVER AND PLAY DEAD: Change can be scary. The future is vague. Things look much different out there. But, with such times come new opportunities. And those who look forward, who embrace new ideas and technologies will be the ones to prosper. Future bookstores may not look the same as they did in the past, but I really don’t believe they don’t need to go the way of the dinosaur either.
Thom Reese is the author of THE DEMON BAQASH and 13 BODIES: SEVEN TALES OF MURDER AND MADNESS. Upcoming releases include the novels, DEAD MAN’S FIRE, CHASING KELVIN, and THE EMPTY. Thom was the sole writer and co-producer of the weekly audio drama radio program, 21ST CENTURY AUDIO THEATER. Fourteen of these dramas have since been published in four collections. A native of the Chicago area, Thom currently makes his home in Las Vegas.
READ THE 1ST CHAPTER OF MY SUPERNATURAL THRILLER, THE DEMON BAQASH: http://demonbaqash.wordpress.com/
SEE ALL OF MY BOOKS AND AUDIO DRAMAS: http://speakingvolumes.us/authors_ebooks.asp?pid=40
Copyright 2011 Thom Reese All Rights Reserved.