The secret for bookstore survival in the Amazon.com era
It's the tremendously pseudo-masculine voice of Freddie Mercury I hear in my head – "Another one bites the dust! Another one bites the dust!" – when I read that Book World, the fourth largest chain of booksellers in America, is going out of business, due to – you guessed it – competition from Amazon.com.
This fall, at a moment when retailers traditionally look forward to reaping holiday profits, the owner of the fourth largest bookstore chain in the country surrendered to the forces of e-commerce.
Book World, founded in 1976, sold hardcovers, paperbacks[,] and sometimes tobacco in malls, downtowns[,] and vacation areas across the Upper Midwest. It had endured recessions, the expansion of superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then the rise of Amazon. But the 45-store chain could not survive the shifting nature of shopping itself, and so announced its liquidation.
Family Christian Stores, which had 240 stores that sold books and other religious merchandise, closed this year, not long after Hastings Entertainment, a retailer of books, music[,] and video games with 123 stores, declared bankruptcy and then shut down.
Even the largest chain, Barnes & Noble, is slowly disintegrating, dismantling its stores one by one, even putting itself on the market for sale.
The biggest bookstore chain is Barnes & Noble, which has been struggling for many years and has closed about 10 percent of its stores since 2011. Its most recent pivot was to go back to its roots and concentrate on bookselling.
Imagine that – a bookstore deciding to focus on selling books! What an innovative idea! Maybe now they'll stop selling junk toys and phonograph records.
Books-a-Million, taken private by its investors in 2015 after its market capitalization plunged, is ranked second. Half Price Books, many of whose books are secondhand or remainders, is third.
Amazon is now fourth.
"There's no way to compete against Amazon, which doesn't care if it makes a profit," said Erik Sanstad, the manager of the Mequon store.
Actually, Erik, yes, there is.
I worked with the retail industry for years, and learned a few things.
Booksellers can't compete with Amazon.com on selection, price, and ease of use. Therefore, they shouldn't attempt to compete primarily on these grounds. They should instead compete on what Amazon can't provide.
The one thing Amazon still cannot do is to draw crowds for events. Booksellers do this a little bit, but not at all well.
Have a look at the upcoming event schedule for a typical Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center in Boston. Most of the events are readings for children, once every few days.
Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers, should have two or three events every day (especially in the evenings). They should take the top ten bestseller in each category – literature, biography, science fiction, home improvement, or whatever – and have discussions about a bestselling book. No author is required. They should draw in crowds by having constant events focusing on the bestselling books.
They should radically expand their seating area to accommodate more visitors and have a drawing for a free book at each event to draw in larger crowds.
The anemic Barnes & Noble cafés, which are hidden in nooks (ha-ha) and corners, should be front and center, impossible to miss, just in front of the seating area, and should sell candy, soda, and popcorn at outrageous prices.
In other words, bookstores should become movie theaters. Movie theaters make a large chunk of their revenue from concession sales. Bookstores should do that, too, and rely on both concession sales and incidental book sales to boost their bottom line.
Booksellers should also study Amazon's physical bookstores to learn lessons about merchandising and service. I recently visited one in the high-end Time Warner Center in what, as of this writing, is still called Columbus Circle.
The bookstore was, as Ernest Hemingway might have said, a clean, well lit place. The first thing I noticed was how small it was, about the size of the old B. Dalton stores that used to reside in malls before Barnes & Noble exterminated them.
The small footprint (perhaps 20-30,000 feet) was exacerbated by the fact that books were shown face outward rather than spine outward, reducing even more the number of books that could be sold.
But in doing so, Amazon allowed people to get a better look at books. In no other retail industry is one presented with thousands of thin spines and prompted to pull them out, one by one, to investigate further in a rather labor-intensive manner. Seeing a colorful book cover is much more attractive, and Amazon, using its sales data, provides the most popular books in each category.
Customer service is also great. As soon as I stepped into the store, a salesman came up to me and offered to help – something I had never experienced in a Barnes & Noble. Although the book the gently lisping salesman suggested to me, a romance about two young men falling in love and engaging in unsafe sex practices, was not in my range of tastes, the fact that I was offered help proactively was impressive.
So that's what booksellers need to do. To recap:
1) Revamp stores to create greater space for audience events, and install concession stands prominently in back of them.
2) Have several events per day, especially in the evenings, like a movie theater, focusing on discussion of the most popular books.
3) Enhance with book giveaways.
4) Sell more books by slimming inventory, focusing on the bestsellers, and showing covers of books, not spines.
5) Train staff to offer proactive help in book recommendations, but not to project their own sexual-orientation literary bias onto the consumer.
Ed Straker is the senior writer at Newsmachete.com.