Last year I had four large bookstores I could visit. My favorite is Davis-Kidd Booksellers, a chain in Tennessee. The other three are Borders, Barnes & Noble and Bookstar. This year Bookstar closed, and the future of Borders is uncertain. And the parent company of Davis-Kidd filed for bankruptcy, but luckily, the Memphis store was the robust one of the group and is continuing to operate.
My wife and I were shopping at Davis-Kidd last night because I had gotten an email saying everything was 20% off March 18. When we went to check-out we found the 20% only applied to its Members club, which costs $25 a year. The book we were buying to read for our book club, The History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage was $15.95. We had decided to buy it because of the sale, otherwise we thought $16 was too much for a paperback. When we found out we weren’t going to get the sale price left the store without it. The same book at Amazon for $10.56, or $8.61 for the Kindle edition. We would have paid $13.60 for the book locally, but not full list.
Now I like supporting my local bookstores and buy a fair amount of books from them at full price, but mostly I buy their remaindered books. Hardbacks have gotten too expensive to buy new at list price, so I enjoy getting a book I want when they are discounted. We were disappointed to leave the store empty handed and annoyed that we had been enticed to a sale that we weren’t entitled to use.
This got me to thinking, how should local bookstores compete with Amazon? Are bookstores failing because they charge full price when online retailers are always offering sales? If the price of the book were the same I would probably always buy locally. I will buy loads of books when they are for sale at remaindered prices. But unless it’s something special I need immediately, or for a gift, I just won’t buy books at list price anymore.
The History of the World in 6 Glasses is also available for the Kindle for $8.61. I have a Kindle but my wife doesn’t. She does have an iPhone with the Kindle reader. So we could save even more money by buying the Kindle edition. By the way, if a married couple both want to read the book on a Kindle they have to buy two Kindles and register them to the same account.
Local bookstores have to compete with discounted books sold online and with emerging ebooks. Competing will be tough, but I think it will still be possible. Right now books best read on ebooks are words only books, especially fiction. But nonfiction books with photos, diagrams, maps, etc. don’t work well on ebook readers. Any book you just want to flip around and discover things randomly doesn’t work well as ebooks.
Bookstores will have the advantage on selling books you want to look at, and for selling books you don’t know you wanted to buy until you see them, either because of illustrations, or because you are just shopping for a sale like going through the remaindered titles. But can bookstores make it without selling fiction? Fiction is perfect for ebook readers, especially for hardcore bookworms that read one book after another.
Amazon has been selling used books for years and I often buy them over new books when shopping Amazon. I’m thinking local bookstores should start selling used books, especially upscale collector editions. Local bookstores have online stores beat when it comes to tactile browsing, and thus should succeed with books that are appealing as objects, like special editions, rare editions, or heavily illustrated books.
One of the books we read for our book club is Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. It’s a history of shopping, sales and marketing, and one of the lessons is buyers don’t like to pay full retail, and yet bookstores try to compete with online stores by selling at full list price. If they want to stay in business they will have to stop that practice. Davis-Kidd got us in their store last night with the promise of 20% off, but it turned out to only be for their club members. They need to make 20% off their standard price for everyone and see if they sell more books. I know I’d buy far less books at Amazon.com if they did.
They also need to get more remaindered books – because that’s what keeps me shopping regularly at their store. But if they also had a nice selection of used books that would get me shopping more often. But it can’t be crappy books like you find at the library book sale. They need to be beautiful books, in near mint condition, great dust jackets, something people would want to own for their physical beauty and collecting appeal.
Davis-Kidd and Borders also sell music, but they have full priced CDs which I won’t buy. If they priced CDs closer to what Amazon, or even Target does I’d browse their selection every week. Bookstores might also consider selling LPs. LPs are making a comeback and their large beautiful covers could be a big selling point. If fact, music publishers who want to sell CDs should package them in collector picture books editions that sell in bookstores.
And I think the publishers should make special editions of new books that appeal to the visual buyer. And they shouldn’t be $99, but priced for impulse buying. I wouldn’t buy a $19 CD, but it it came with a beautiful book for $19 I would. Ditto for DVD movies. However, if they are expensive I’ll just shop Amazon looking for 40% discounts.
I love going to book and record stores, but I don’t buy like I used to. Bookworms love bookstores, but if it came down to a choice between Amazon and Davis-Kidd, I’d take Amazon. Amazon is actually far more helpful at selling books because of the customer reviews and other sales information at the site. The assumption is human help is better than software, but it’s not. Bookstores are great for browsing the visual and tactile qualities of books, for random impulse buying and instant need. They need to capitalize on these functions. Otherwise, books as a commodity are better marketed on the web.
JWH – 3/19/11