Part One: Bookstores vs. Online
How can brick-and-mortar bookstores compete with their online counterparts? I've been giving this some serious consideration lately and wanted to outline some (admittedly radical) ideas for consideration.
It's clear the brick-and-mortars aren't going to seriously try to compete on discounts. I realize they have margins to protect and they're at a competitive disadvantage on this front given all their investments in physical storefronts. Besides, competing on price alone is a fool's game and it's time to focus more on the advantages the physical stores bring to the brick-and-mortar retailers.
So how can the significant expense of the physical stores be turned into a strength? This is "part one" of the discussion... I'm just asking the question today, but stay tuned over the next few days for some ideas on how I'd like to see it answered. I hope it sparks some fun debates...
Socialization. I love chatting with people at the stores about favorite books, authors, subjects. We spend so much time talking about social interactions online...why not spend some time making the brick and mortar store a place to socialize (in person) more often? Overpriced coffee and a few cafe chairs is not the answer, though. What about inviting local groups to have their meetings at the store? A large brick-and-mortar store should be able to find subject matter on just about any topic, and invite the attendees to peruse certain titles that are handpicked by the staff. Maybe even invite people to watch the presidential debates at the store on a large screen TV and invite discussion...while pushing books about politics (recent releases and historical). Just a couple ideas.
Posted by: Brent | September 15, 2008 at 03:27 PM
Hi Brent. Excellent points. Although most people probably just like to get in and out of the store there's a segment that definitely likes the social aspect and would undoubtedly warm up to the ideas you suggest.
Posted by: Joe Wikert | September 15, 2008 at 04:35 PM
I have done a consulting project on exactly this issue of the next business model for a major bookstore in Korea. I cannot tell the details of our final recommdendations, but the key was to shift focus from sales to experience.
One thing the bookstore did per our recommendation was to introduce in-store advertising business. It added significantly to their profitability.
Posted by: hyokon | September 16, 2008 at 05:32 AM
We have a private bookstore here in Raleigh, NC called Quail Ridge Books and the owners have effectively created a literary hot spot in this part of the state. The owners have local author signings as well as national superstar authors. There is something going on every night. The owners take out a small ad every Sunday in the local newspaper highlighting each author reading/signing for the entire week. When the owners book a big author like Mitch Albom, they rent the local sports center and charge a small admission. The only thing missing is the coffee shop and high priced pastries and cakes, but then again if I want to meet an author, I don't need coffee and cake.
The point is that Quail Ridge has a steady stream of business over the years because they offer more than the larger chain bookstores. Check out their web site at http://quailridgebooks.booksense.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp
Posted by: Anthony S. Policastro | September 16, 2008 at 08:31 AM
I don't know the answer here, I'm far froma retail expert, but I know where I'd start looking for the answer.
1. The brick and mortar experience for me has to do with the physical ease and comfort of print book browsing. Online retailers and ebooks haven't matched that experience.
2. There has to be a better way to find books in a physical bookstore, especially random finds. And especially for the casual reader who buys manybe 3-5 books for themselves a year.
Posted by: Jim Minatel | September 16, 2008 at 09:03 AM
The only way on-location sales can compete with online is the development of the espresso book machine or its equivalent. These print-on-demand point-of-sale machines put the variety of the internet at a physical place and cut the overhead such as the multiple employees schlepping around boxes of tomes, the necessity of miles of shelf display space, and (more important to publishers, but hugely wasteful) the necessity of pulping unsold books. With one of these, you could put the selection of Amazon in a Starbucks.
But at the rate the bookstores are moving, it'll probably be Starbucks that does it first.
Posted by: M.L. Eqatin | September 16, 2008 at 10:11 AM
My local independent is conveniently located for me which is a big reason I shop there a lot. But they also have a fantastic selection of books. They have areas to display books of interest: A best sellers section, a section for books the staff has personally loved (with written descriptions), a recent releases section and the like. And there's usually a theme-section; seasonal,a holiday, special event or some such thing. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. They carry a lot of items besides books that make it fun or interesting to browse. Lots of magazines, toys, hand lotions, candles, journals etc. They arrange a lot of signings and book events. In short, they do a lot more than just sell books and they work at selling the books they have.
Posted by: Carolyn Jewel | September 16, 2008 at 10:58 AM
Although I'll admit to occasionally buying a book online that I've discovered via a brick-and-mortar bookstores, much more common is that I'll run across a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, buy it, and it will jump to the front of my reading list.
Hey, I'll often read half of it at the bookstore over a cup of coffee.
To me the key is a comfortable place to check out books. That includes a host of small to middling features, including places to sit, clean bathrooms, parking, decent coffee, cheerful helpful staff -- in other words the whole experience.
I consider a good bookstore a FUN place to visit, not merely a place to buy books. I've gotten my children into the bookstore habit too, although admittedly I don't get to browse much with my 4,5, and 8 year old in tow
Posted by: Ted Demopoulos | September 16, 2008 at 11:53 AM
Bricks and mortar stores can compete more effectively if they only do better what they're already supposed to be doing. I'm sick and tired of going into any number of B&N locations and not being able to find the books I'm looking for. (Or my own books, in many instances.) Yes, they have plenty of the NYT best-sellers, but it's obvious that B&N truly treats the other 95% of their inventory as "wallpaper." And if they think of it as wallpaper, then it doesn't matter if they restock a book when it sells out.
Whether you're talking a big store or a small one, it must have the books that customers are looking for. Otherwise, potential customers will leave in disgust, and frequent Amazon et al instead.
Posted by: Mchael Miller | September 16, 2008 at 12:44 PM
There are a few problems with this idea. Websistes can be used to draw in store traffic. The first thing that the store needs to do is create a very nice map to its physical location. Many people don't buy online, they look at inventory online and buy in the store.
The second thing which the store can do is announce physical events happening in the store. Adding video clips of previous author readings or events is a nice bonus.
Advertising large (quarto) beautiful books which are inside the store, especially art or photography books can draw users into the store.
You can't drink coffee inside a website. Offering coffee and light snacks increases the likelihood people will come into a store.
Having tables where people can read unmolested is also a good idea. After people read the first two chapters of a book, they are much more likely to buy the book.
Online forums have limited social impact. In store bookclubs allow people to talk to each other about specific types of books.
Offering screenings of a television show or a book based on a film with permission is also another idea which sometimes works. Also live music or open microphones for poetry sometimes helps.
Also creating a well lit safe space in a neighborhood can draw people in.
These are a few things which can draw people into a high quality independent bookstore.
Posted by: Book Calendar | September 16, 2008 at 05:01 PM
@M.L. Eqatin - The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT is the first (and I believe only) independent bookstore with the Espresso machine. And as far as I know, there are none in Starbucks locations yet.
Posted by: Ann | September 16, 2008 at 05:13 PM
The very fact that we are trying to work out how bookstores can survive is evidence enough that they are doomed.
Sure there will be one or two that will combine the experience of cafe, and events with reading. In fact El Pendulo in Mexico has been doing exactly this for a long time. (And done it very well I might add... I like the place)
But I don't buy books there. I read magazines, drink coffee, speak to other people in the cafe, and watch the events that they host. (Imagine a live three piece acoustic guitar group playing over an old red colored film of Zoro - great stuff)
But ultimately these will be few and far between, and they won't get their revenues principally from books.
You simply cannot compete with online bookstores. Period. The convenience, the price, the range, and the ability to see what other readers thought has transformed the way that people purchase books, and the way that they even think of them.
Sorry, I just don't see it on a medium or large scale.
Posted by: Daryl Mather | September 18, 2008 at 12:45 PM