Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The future of bookstores - business as unusual, local solutions and positioning for success

Three articles I read in the last couple of days reflected three different perspectives on the present situation and the future of Independent bookstores:

1. Business as Unusual - I learned from Publishers Weekly last week that NYC indie bookseller McNally Jackson will be getting an Espresso Book Machine, which prints POD books while you wait, by 2011.

Why this is business as unusual?
The New York Observer explains:

Currently McNally will order a book for a customer if a desired copy is not on hand. With the EBM, the store would be able to print one out right there. Buyer John Turner sees the machine as a way to expand inventory. It also reduce
s the hassle and wait time associated with ordering books by request.

The idea is very simple - adding a tool that can provide readers with the capabilities of Just In Time (JIT) inventory that is even better comp
aring to what they can get when buying over the Internet, as it's faster and might be also cheaper.

The Espresso Machine is not a killer app, but it's certainly an important addition to brick and mortar bookstores that want to compete in the digital age and meet the needs of readers that are shaped by the speed and the easiness of the Internet.

2. Looking for local support - Portland Tribune had an article about the challenges booksellers in the city are facing ("Booksellers face the E-challenge"). Portland is well known for its love for books and bookstores. According to a study mentioned in the article, per capita Portland had the eighth most bookstores in the nation.

Booksellers who were interviewed for the article talks about their difficulties because of "a rocky economy and the rise of E-books." The booksellers in Portland understand there's a need in change, but not sure what to do - Sellwood bookstore owner Karin Anna says for example that “I think we will have to change. How to do it is the question.”

Their direction though is very clear - looking for support of their community. Roberta Dyer, co-owner of Broadway Books in Northeast Portland, explained:

“There are certainly fewer of us (local bookstores) than there used to be. Those of us who have weathered the storm so far have found support from the community and in our little niche in the neighborhood. We have a loyal customer base.

The only problem is what you do to not only keep this base, but also to increase it. It's very clear that no matter how supportive the people in the community are, they will have increasing temptations to use other channels for their book purchasing, whether it's because they start reading e-books or they look for cheap deals online.

Prof. Charles Heying, a Portland State University professor of urban studies and planning, whose book “Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy” will be published in October by Ooligan Press, said in the article that "People here [in Portland] still appreciate the touch and feel of a book" – but is this enough? can bookstores in the city rely on it? I am not sure.

I believe looking for answers locally is the right way to go, but bookstores in Portland, as well as in other places, need to redefine their business model and provide more value to their customers to keep their business thriving. And by more value I don't mean more of a good feeling, but real incentives.

Couple of weeks ago I suggested here a model that will provide bookstores customers with both personal monetary benefits and the feeling that they're contributing to the prosperity of their own community. This model is based on creating a collaboration with other local businesses to enable these businesses to provide customers with discounts for each other.

This is just one example, but I believe that many more models can be developed on the basis of a win-win strategy that will provide customers with more than just appreciation to their local bookstores. Appreciation and even connectivity, which Prof. Heying talks about, might be good for now, but definitely far from being enough as the customer value proposition of independent bookstores for the near and long-term future.

3. Positioning for survival and success - Jolie Bosman reported yesterday on the New York Times ("Bookstore Arrives, and Sides Are Taken") about a new bookstore, Books & Books, that recently opened its doors in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., stirring animosity in a town that already had an independent bookstore.

The article is presenting the questions whether there was a room in this little town for another bookstore, when the older one, the Open Book, is already struggling. Right now, it seems that the two indie bookstores are in sort of a fight between them, which is of course bad for both. Don't get me wrong - competition is good, but fight is bad. In this situation, it may well be that as one of the residents there, James Kramon, predicted, both stores be here a year from now.

So what's the solution? Positioning. If there's a room for two bookstores in Westhampton Beach, it will be just if both will be positioned differently. If both bookstores will offer the same products, atmosphere and buying experience than there's a good chance one or even both won't make it. But, if each of the stores will have a different feels, it can work. In times of growing challenges, both the Open Book and Books & Books should look one at another as an opportunity and not as a risk. This is their way to success.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Plant a tree for every book you read