The independent bookstore has been assailed in recent decades by a trio of powerful competitors: chain bookshops and supermarkets moving into bookselling; online retailers like Booktopia and, recently, Amazon; and the ebook.
Under such pressures, it’s to the sector’s credit – and shows that the public’s fondness for physical books was grossly underestimated – that it hasn’t buckled. Indeed, despite these disruptors, the local bookstore is making a comeback as the industry learns to diversify.
As this Guardian article puts it: “The best independent stores on the high street are those that seek to offer services that larger competitors and online providers can't easily provide – grassroots book recommendations and expert knowledge from genuine book lovers.”
There’s more to running a bookstore than competitive pricing – indeed, against low overhead online retailers, this is a battle you cannot hope to win. Neither can you compete with the portability and convenience of the ebook.
Instead, you can exploit assets that ereaders and Amazon lack. You can provide a great experience for book lovers who see a trip to the bookstore as not just a means to an end, but an end in itself too.
Find your point of difference
Finding your niche as a bookstore owner is more important than ever in this digital age. What can you offer that Amazon and big retailers like Big W, Coles and Woolworths can’t?
Customers are much more likely to return to a bookstore whose staff are friendly and happy to share their in-depth knowledge; they want recommendations for the latest releases or little-known gems that suit their tastes.
This kind of experience isn’t available in stores like Big W and presents you with an opportunity.
Think about offering the following:
- Recommendations. Each week, ask members of your team to write an endorsement of their favourite books – past and present – and display these prominently. People love expert recommendations, and it helps to keep your staff engaged.
- Tailored packages. One shrewd UK-based bookstore owner started offering book subscriptions. Customers who sign up for a package receive books selected to suit their tastes throughout the year. This is great way to generate recurring revenue and a useful method of collecting marketing data.
- If you can’t beat ‘em… Could you offer an ebook option? If you can set-up an online component to your offering, it could be an excellent additional income stream. The margins on ebooks are slim, however.
Change/reorganise your product
Have you thought about curating your books to be more accessible and appealing to browsing customers? Here are some ideas:
- Front of house. Be mindful of what you place at the front of store as this area is a potential drawcard for many customers. The benefits of displaying the latest bestsellers and award-winners is obvious, but you could also include less obvious titles that appeal to your target demographic – like the current semester's curriculum books if you’re near a school or university, for instance.
- Keep up with the times. Keep track of the latest trends in terms of popular titles and genres. Knowledge about critically-acclaimed titles will be helpful when customers seek suggestions within their preferred genres. Again, you might periodically display these celebrated books in a prominent position in the store.
- Second-hand books. Do you already have a second-hand section? This could be an excellent opportunity to attract more prudent or less affluent customers and therefore boost sales. We spoke to one bookstore owner who exclusively sells used books.
Driven by necessity imposed by the rise of online/digital competition, bookstores are less and less just a place to buy books. People often visit for the experience that goes with it: to leisurely leaf through a range of titles and expand their knowledge in a tranquil environment.
After consulting with customers, you can capitalise on this affection among book lovers for spending quality time in bookstores by diversifying your income streams in myriad ways:
- Coffee shops/wine bar. If you have the space and cash to accommodate the facilities, food and drink can keep your customers in store for longer – more time in which to buy books as well as an additional income stream.
- Gift shop. Some stores have started working with local designers or not-for-profit companies to sell products other than books for additional revenue. Books are often bought as birthday, Christmas or other gifts, so it’s wise to sell wrapping paper, greetings cards and other gift paraphernalia alongside your range of books.
- Q&As and book signings. Author afternoons or nights will bring in crowds consisting of existing and new customers who could become repeat visitors.
- Book clubs. Making your space available for a book club is a great resource for the local community. It also means you have a readymade audience who will need to buy the book scheduled for review at the next session.
Far from an industry in decline, independent bookstores are fighting back successfully by focusing on customer service, niche genres and becoming community hubs with regular events and food and drink. Understand your local demographics, be bold and apply some creative flair, and your store could become a thriving hub for bookworms and a satisfying, lucrative business for you.