How Can Bookstores Compete with

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 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

13 thoughts on “How Can Bookstores Compete with”

  1. I’m not sure they are competing if the demise of Borders is any indication. Over the last few months we have had two Kansas City area Borders stores close with a third announced today. That leaves two Borders stores serving the entire Greater Kansas City area. Thus far no Barnes and Noble stores here have closed and I hope that remains the case.

    I pay the $25 a year to BN for the members discount. I always get 10% off, often get coupons for additional percentages off, always get 20% off of hardbacks and new hardbacks are often 50% off. One thing they are doing to make things a little more enticing for non-members is that new hardbacks are 30-40% off for the first few weeks. I think that helps improve their sales quite a bit.

    I buy enough that I always save much, much more than the $25 I spend on the membership. I prefer buying books in the store because at least I can determine then and there if the quality meets my standards of how “new” a new book should be. Ordering from Amazon (something I also do fairly regularly) is always a crap shoot.

    If the BN discounts are ever discontinued for some reason then my use of Amazon and similar sites (Book Depository) would increase exponentially, because I agree that hardbacks are just way too expensive to pay full price for, at least with as many books as I buy during a year.

  2. I love used bookstores and frequent a couple of them around here. That is the cheapest option because you can get a paperback for 1.50 sometimes and of course there is no shipping!

    I rarely buy anything from Barnes and Noble or Borders. Used books on Amazon are always cheaper. It is fun to browse those big stores sometimes. You can find stuff you’ve never heard of or get some deals sometimes.

    I did get a Nook, but I rarely buy e-books because a used paperback on Amazon is still cheaper. But I read free books and short stories on the Nook.

    I went to a used book store yesterday and was thinking how long is this store going to be open? I love used bookstores and I’m afraid that they won’t be able to stay open with e-books and Amazon.

  3. “I love used bookstores and I’m afraid that they won’t be able to stay open with e-books and Amazon”

    I suspect you are right, John. But I am also wondering if the ebook revolution and the closing of chain bookstores might make some used bookstores more profitable, at least at some point, when folks like me are looking to still buy actual physical objects, called ‘books’, rather than their electronic counterparts.

  4. No I didn’t. Love that show, however. Just don’t see it anymore. I’ll check that out, thank you. I do have some Taschen books, I believe.

    I did see the 60 Minutes interview about the sanitizing of Huck Finn. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this, but it outraged me as much as before.

  5. I buy books where I find them. We used to have a local bookstore with knowledgeable employees, and I’d buy books there, even if they were cheaper on But if I discovered a book on, I bought it there.

    Years ago, I urged our local bookstore to get with the electronic program. If I could give them a list of my favorite authors, and they’d send me an email when a new book by one of them was published, I’d buy the book there.

    Likewise, they had good employees, including a guy who really knew his science fiction. They weren’t always working when I’d go shopping, but if they’d have sent me emails recommending new science fiction, anything that sounded interesting would have gotten me into their store.

    Now, maybe this would have saved them and maybe it wouldn’t, I don’t know. But did send me email alerts about new books by my favorite authors. (Years ago, they stopped doing that, for some reason, and I still miss it.) They also made it very, very easy to find books, with their recommendations and their reviews.

    If you’re going to compete with the big guys, you’d better be willing to do what it takes. I don’t know if it would save local bookstores or not, since they’ve got expenses an online seller just doesn’t have. But if you won’t look at innovative ways to compete, you won’t last long in today’s world.

    What does a local store have that online stores don’t? Well, how about a personal relationship with their customers? The employees at my local bookstore knew me, and some of them knew what kinds of books I liked. Why not build on that? Instead, they let an online giant develop an electronic relationship with me. That was foolish.

  6. I agree! To compete business do have to not only be innovative, but they have to at least find a way to match what their competitors are doing and maximize their strengths, like the customer service aspects you mention that brick and mortar stores have an advantage in, at least face to face.

    Libraries are the same way. I desperately want libraries to keep going, but in order to do so they need to embrace all the technology and advancements they can. I am thankful that our local library system has done this. It is as easy to check out and reserve and order books as it is to shop for anything else online. I think that makes a huge difference, and our local library is always full when we go in, regardless of the time of day.

  7. Unfortunately it’s impossible for brick and mortar stores to give the same discounts as Amazon. Unlike Amazon, the stores have to pay for electricity, heating/air conditioning, knowledgeable staff, bags, signage, fixtures (shelves, new lights, acrylic and metal sign holders), etc. Yes, amazon has offices and warehouses to stock and shipping charges to pay, but they also have a lot of higher mark up items to help defray the costs. And while a lot of stores have started selling CDs and DVDs to help defray costs too, their mark ups aren’t that high either (the mark up on books is surprisingly low). It’s the toy/candle/gift items that help bookstores pay extra costs, which a lot of book buyers dislike.

    When you buy remaindered books you’re helping the bookstore out. They buy the books at low cost from publishers, so the mark up on them is higher than on regular books. Of course, the publisher’s get next to nothing for those books, and the authors get nothing from those sales, so it’s a catch 22 if you want the authors to keep writing by supporting them this way.

    And most people who go to stores to look at the nice art books, etc. then go home and buy them online for 40%+ off.

    Ultimately, when amazon’s willing to sell books at a loss simply to undercut the competition (Harry Potter 7 anyone?) it’s impossible for stores, with more overhead costs, to compete.

    Which is why bookstores are slowly dying out.

    1. Bookstores, except for new books, have generally sold books at list price. I think if they discounted even a little it would be a psychological help in making sales. Nearly every other type of retail store at least pretends to makes sales and discounts. It’s unfortunately, but we live in a society where everyone wants stuff cheap or on sale. That book I mention above, Cheap, is all about that. Even though I want to help my local bookstore, I just can’t make myself pay so much more for books.

      What’s weird is I’ve been reading interviews with writers who want to eliminate all middlemen between them and readers and sell ebooks directly to their readers. Some music performers are trying this too.

  8. Where I live now, we have about a half dozen independent brick-and-mortar stores in a fairly small town of under 50,000. They benefit from having a strong “buy local” culture here, but the stores that are doing the best also seem to have one of two things going for them:

    One advantage, for the niche interest stores, is staff with strong genre or subject expertise. Amazon’s recommendation engine is decent, but it can’t beat personalized recommendations from someone with comprehensive knowledge of a genre or subject.

    And the other advantage they have is the ability to get people through the doors with relevant programming, like book signings and other author events, and in general, to create an experience rather than just another purchase that customers could make more cheaply and conveniently do from their home computer.

    But, yeah, they can’t match Amazon’s discounts, so it’s an uphill battle, I’m sure, to convince people that having these kind of community resources is worth paying a premium on their book purchases.

    1. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in. Six bookstores for a town of that size is amazing. By the way, I wanted a MLS degree when I was young. This was after I had gotten married and we would have had to move for me to go to an approved library school and that killed the plan. I did work several years in a university and public library. Great title for your blog.

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