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The Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore of Tomorrow

BinocularsWiley colleague John Helmus posted a comment that's been stuck in my head ever since.  How should brick-and-mortar bookstores evolve for the future?  I've taken his comment and added a few thoughts of my own to come up with this vision:

Fewer books, smaller footprint -- This part seems pretty straightforward.  How long can these mega-stores continue to produce acceptable margins, especially when considering the "sales per square foot of real estate" metric?  Superstores took off in the '90's because they had so much more selection than a mall store, but now they can't compete with the inventory of an online giant like Amazon, for example...unless...

Technology, Part I: Print on Demand -- Print on demand (POD) represents a key for the brick-and-mortar world.  Who cares if the physical store becomes smaller as long as the inventory becomes virtual and you can buy any book on the planet there?  And don't forget the instant gratification advantage this would provide over the online retailers.  If I can get the book today at a reasonable price I'm less inclined to wait a day or two for it from an online store.

Technology, Part II: Kiosks/Web Terminals -- Have you ever wondered why your local bookstore doesn't offer free kiosks or other PCs to access the web, right in the store?  It would be a great way to do a bit more research on which book is best, what the customer reviews say, etc.  One reason they don't do this is the concern that you'll flip through the book in the store, find a better price online and order it there.  In the POD world noted above that threat diminishes, especially if the brick-and-mortar gets competitive on discounts/pricing.  Those kiosks would also be useful to show interiors and give customers a sense of the book's look-and-feel, a critical step before someone is willing to commit to a POD solution.  (Btw, the POD products I've seen are often indistinguishable from the standard print version of the same book.)

The online experience with that physical store becomes even more compelling in this model: I can search for the right book from home or office, order it as a POD product and pick it up later that day.  Even Amazon's overnight delivery option can't beat this same day deal.

OK, those are my predictions.  Do you agree or disagree?  Do you have any ideas of your own that you'd like to share?...


ajit Sharma

Dear Joe,
I am one of the several fans you have and i follow every post that you write with same dedication as of a student who wants to master the art.Inspired from learned and experienced people like you i also do a little bit of blogging. May i add some comments on your well expresed thoughts?
Technology, Part I: Print on Demand -- Print on demand (POD) I agree but even POD will work only when there is a demand because low volume publishing can never meet the demand of the P&L Excel sheet. and what about the profitability?
Technology, Part II: Kiosks/Web Terminals -- I beleive the change has already started and book stores in India have started to offer the online search faciliies. If a B&M book shop adds the online serch facility they have a dual case of making a business deal.I was thinking that a smaller book store with select titles to cater to the walk-in customer and bulk stock can go in the virtual inventory so that in effect books are avilable but the Per/Sq Ft sales cost should not show a dent in the P&L.
The online experience...delivery option can't beat this same day deal.: Well In India POD doesnt seem to work due to higher cost of production. Please correct me if Iam wrong and suggest corrective methods.

Joe Wikert

Hi Ajit. You raise good points that can be addressed. First of all, there's no doubt the unit cost for a single copy of a book produced via POD is more expensive than one created via traditional print methods. Even though technology will continue to make POD less expensive, it's hard to imagine it will ever be as low as traditional print. That said, the cost is still low enough for this to be a viable model today and it will only become more attractive in the future. Can publishers make as much margin with POD as they can with traditional print? It's doubtful, but the lengthening of the long tail for book sales should more than make up for that, which leads me to your other point...

I'm not intending POD as a solution for all types of books. It's often used today as a way of lengthening the life of a book that was printed the traditional way but doesn't have enough annual sales volume to justify one more reprint. This will undoubtedly continue and, as costs continue to come down and POD solutions become more widespread, we'll see them used on a broader scale. Again, I'm not suggesting traditional print goes away...POD simply continues to encroach on it more and more in the future.

Susan Helene Gottfried

Hey, Joe. My issue with POD is a simple one: quality. If publishers can give me the really good quality, where books won't fall apart after a reading or two -- even some traditionally printed books have fallen apart in my hands relatively quickly -- I'd be there for it, to a degree. Having too much left up to POD sales means there's less in-store to browse. I hate walking into a bookstore and seeing only the best-sellers. Let's give mid-list and new authors a chance to shine.

But do you know what I most want to see in the bookstores I frequent? Knowledgable staff. I HATE walking into those chain stores and trying to engage one of their bored employees in a discussion where all too often, I know more than they do. This is why I stop in one of two indies (a mystery store and a children's) and do all my new book ordering through one of them. Even if I'm talking about an author they don't deal with, they listen with a real love of books and the book industry. Discussion with them is quick and pointed and I come out learning tons -- about new authors, about how the industry works, and so on and so forth.

As long as I get those interactions with my indies, I'll keep shopping there. If I want a cold, impersonal transaction, I'll open a new tab in Firefox and shop online. The brick-and-mortar chain stores can close for all I care. (of course, I realize I'm the minority, but you asked MY opinion, not that of the people around me)

Anthony S. Policastro

Hi Joe,
I believe you idea about ordering books online then picking them up at the brick and mortar store will come to be.

One industry where this is already happening is in digital photography. Sony's Imagestation is an online digital photo printing service that offers to mail your photos directly to your home or you can pick them up at a local store like CVS or WalMart after you've ordered prints online. Wolf Camera also has this service.

If I choose to have the prints sent to my home, I have to wait up to 13 days (most times it 3 to 5 days) for the prints to arrive unless you pay for overnight shipping, which is usually more than the print order.

If I choose to pick them up at the local CVS then they are ready in an hour and I paid a slightly higher price for each print, but it was worth it.

Although Amazon's service is spectacular most of the time, I still hesitate to order from them because I don't like paying the $3.99 shipping per book. If the book is at Borders or B&N for the same price, then I will go there and buy it off the shelf because I don't have to wait for it to arrive.

Abraham Greenhouse

Joe, when you mentioned POD in your response to John's earlier comment, you spoke about instant gratification. Making a customer wait a day or more while their book is printed at and shipped to the store from a regional distribution center, while presenting a major improvement over the status quo, still falls short of satisfying that (growing) demand. However, I don't see my local B&N sticking a couple of HP Indigo presses in a back room any time soon.

But what if someone, as an experiment, were to graft a storefront onto an existing POD facility, instead of the other way around? Retailers might gain the necessary proof of concept to invest in point-of-sale POD much earlier than if it were left to evolve from a more centralized distribution model.

Joe Wikert

Susan, the POD products I've seen didn't seem to have quality issues but "your mileage may vary", of course, and I'm sure there are varying degrees of POD suppliers out there. My assumption is that the good ones will weed out the bad ones. Great point about the store personnel. I ran into a similar scenario at, of all places, a couple of hardware stores this weekend and it was quite frustrating.

Anthony, you're absolutely right about the similarities with the photo finishing business.

Abraham, just to be clear, my suggestion was that the bookstore would have the POD equipment on site, so you make your purchase, have a cup of coffee and pick up the finished book on the way out the door. Adding a storefront to existing POD facilities would be tricky. My guess is the POD systems that exist today probably aren't located in the best retail traffic areas. I think it will remain important to take the content and finished goods closer to where people are already used to shopping.


POD seems contrary to the ebook trend. How about an option to pick up the electronic version of a book at a storefront? Not everyone has the connection speed necessary to download a long book. (Well, in Japan and Europe, they do.)

As for POD, maybe instead of good quality, POD should have a cheaper, lower-quality option. There are a lot of things I'd like to read and recycle -- I'm not going to collect them and treasure them.

POD should also offer custom layouts: large print, newsprint, n columns, b&w vs color graphics, selected chapters -- whatever you want. Each at a different price per page. The industry needs to understand what "demand" means.

peace, mjh

Abraham Greenhouse

Ah, ok - I misinterpreted your suggestion for the implementation. I'm just concerned that the current cost of the technology means it may take awhile for retailers to be sold on the concept. That said, instant gratification via point-of-sale POD is an awesome idea that I'd love to see implemented as soon as it's feasible - ideally, by the time I finish my coffee.

Steve Grossman

Excellent and provocative points Joe, as always. I would love to shop here.
- Steve

Anne Wayman

As I watch my own book buying habits it seems sort of like this:

When I want a paperback thriller, I'm off to the local newsstand or even supermarket where I enjoy the whole process of handling the books before I decide. I'd miss that.

When I hear of an interesting book on the radio or from a friend, I often scoot over to Amazon and order... the fun part comes when the books arrive because I've often more or less forgotten about them until then.

There are times when I simply want to go to a brick and mortor bookstore... I love the atmosphere. I love the serendipity and, when I need help, like wanting a how to book on Aname for my granddaughter, the help, when it's good, is priceless.

And then there's the library... again, serendipity plus the sensual aspects.

I suspect you're right in your predictions, but I will miss the shopping for physical books even tho' I don't do it nearly as often as I used to.

Anne Wayman

Joe Wikert

MJ, interesting point about giving the customer more control over the final fit and finish or look and feel of the POD book. Although that may not happen anytime soon it's a very cool idea to extend the POD system in the future.

Anne, I suspect your habits are shared by many others. That's probably why my vision couldn't possibly be the only outcome. It's safer to say that the future will have a blend including some stores as they exist today and others that are more focused on breadth via POD. I love your point about the pleasant surprise of an Amazon box on your doorstep; I've had that feeling plenty of times as well!

Kris Eton

I like the idea of a POD bookstore. I think you could satisfy both needs...any book you want/any format plus the tactile. There could be a sample copy of most books for you to look at before you order and get your own 'fresh' copy.

What I really dislike about the big box bookstores is the organization. There is not enough breakdown of type. When I went to B&N the other day, there was a romance section, a mystery section, a fantasy and sci-fi section, and then a HUGE fiction section, which held everything under the sun. I was trying to find a thriller. And where do I go? I looked through fiction first, and then discovered it was actually shelved under 'romantic suspense.' Hmmm...?

What I wanted was a computer terminal right near the fiction section where I could look up my book and get an idea of where it was located...like a library--maybe some stores have this, but mine didn't, at least, not in any place I could see. Having a POD store would allow me a quick lookup and order of my book, show up at the counter, and there it would be. I think this is a brilliant idea and saves the publishers the cost of returns. Why wouldn't they do this?

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