Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bookselling: We are showroom dummies

Yesterday, AllThingsD discussed Amazon's latest move:

Amazon is offering consumers up to $5 off on purchases if they compare prices using the online giant’s mobile phone application in a store.
The promotion goes live Saturday and will serve as a way for Amazon to increase usage of its bar-code-scanning application, while also collecting intelligence on prices in the stores.
They refrained from characterising this as any more than breaking customers to the saddle accustoming customers to using price comparison software--combined with a nifty information-gathering-on-their-competitors'-pricing exercise. But many book-centric blogs exploded in outrage.
I don't think outrage will serve.
A couple of days ago, the New York Times Media Decoder blog introduced me to the term 'showrooming':
Bookstore owners everywhere have a lurking suspicion: that the customers who type into their smartphones while browsing in the store, and then leave, are planning to buy the books online later — probably at a steep discount from the bookstores’ archrival,

Now a survey has confirmed that the practice, known among booksellers as showrooming, is not a figment of their imaginations.
I read on, nodding. The survey found that 24% of those who bought books online in the last month had seen the book in a store first, and 39% of people who bought from Amazon said they'd looked at the book in a bookshop before buying it from Amazon. In other words, Amazon has been doing this for a really long time, as we all know; they've just added some extra incentive for the customer and, as I say, are accustoming more customers to the practice.
Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of the Codex Group, said publishers and bookstore owners should be worried about the practice, especially considering the rapidly increasing number of e-readers in circulation.
It's at this point that I stopped nodding. I started to shake my head. No. The time for worry about this behaviour has passed. It's time for bookstores to acknowledge this pattern and start using it.
Readers are customers. We shop as it suits us. No one--publishers, wholesalers, retailers, commentators--can wish that away, no matter how vehemently. It's time to look at the situation from another perspective. Right now book shops have what Amazon (and publishers) need: the showroom. The showroom is the bookseller's advantage.
In any business, the way to make a living is to leverage one's advantage. Book shops need to start thinking of themselves less as points of sale than as showrooms.
I've talked about this before:
Customers of all kinds live in an information and experience-rich world. Booksellers and publishers should be figuring out how to enhance a reader's shopping experience, creating a relationship with them...

What I'd take from the description of these readers and shoppers is that the urge to shop in person, even among those who read on Kindle, is something online retailers don't yet quite have a handle on. It's a magnificent opportunity. Why don't independents install WiFi and partner with publishers so that readers with Kindles can download DRM-free books in .prc format from them? Why don't publishers club together to build experience kiosks in public spaces where people can fondle the merchandise, get ideas for books, then download them? Why not hire booksellers to talk up their product to these shoppers? Why doesn't Amazon sponsor book parties to tempt non-Kindle users into giving it a go? Why don't writers band together and hire customer reps to staff kiosks in bars or cafes selling their books (digitally or paper) at the best price?
I don't understand why, in the season of pop-up retailing, some writers' coop hasn't tried this. Seriously: why haven't we tried this?
If you walk into the average Barnes & Noble, there are 15,000 books in your immediate sightline. If you log onto Amazon, you see a maximum of 33 covers per screen*. It's no contest in terms of discoverability. Why aren't booksellers using this? Why isn't some small luscious book shop with high foot traffic but low sales and collapsing bottom line partnering experimentally with a group of publishers for sponsorship, and hiring extra staff to wait on customers and really sell books? I want book shops to survive. I want to know that in ten years there will still be spaces that display books for readers; there will still be spaces where, as a writer, I can meet those readers; where, as a reader I can get personal recommendations.
We need book spaces.
But let me be blunt: I'm not convinced these book spaces will be book shops. They'll be book displays. Book showrooms. Former booksellers will be professional, publisher-agnostic book marketers paid fees directly by publishers, and, yes, giant online retailers. Functionally, it makes no difference to most readers whether the owner of that bricks and mortar book space earns money directly from the sale, on the premises, of particular books, or whether they are paid fees by publishers and giant online retailers to display their wares. Functionally, would it be so bad to be paid directly by those wanting to market their wares rather than by individual buyers? Functionally, I as a writer only care that the venue exists, that the publishers exist so that writers are published and paid, and that readers can discover new books.
The world has changed. It's not going back to the way it was. Every corner of the publishing ecosystem has to accept this reality. Look at Hollywood. Film studios spend over $100m to market a big movie. Studios understand that viewers must discover the film before they can see/pay for it. Similarly, publishers should start understanding that books now need real marketing. Putting boots on the ground in showrooms is one way to begin.
Imagine a book space where a customer is greeted at the door by a book professional with twenty years experience and asked: What are you looking for? Where they're ushered to their own private changing room reading nook and brought a variety of clothes books to try on look at. Where they are engaged in aspirational conversation: That dress book will make you look/feel so attractive. Everybody's reading that book this month. Where other book buyers will nod and say: I read that one last week, it rocked my world.
We have showrooms. It's time to start using them the way readers/customers have already shown us they want us to. Otherwise we're all dummies.

* Via Paid Content



  1. There is too much to talk about. I go to an indie bookstore in Janesville, WI. I go to an indie bookstore in Fort Atkinson. I see your point, but those bookstore owners vet the books they sell, and provide the opportunity to order the books they don't vet. You are right that they have expertise that they don't market effectively. There is nothing like getting a recommendation face too face.

  2. I see where you're going with this, and it certainly makes me sad to think bookselling as I know it will likely shift so dramatically; although, I can certainly agree it's a much brighter future than complete annihilation. But what you say in your second to last paragraph doesn't jive with even my 2+ years as an independent bookseller. People don't shop that way. They are rare the occasions I have the pleasure to help customers discover new books in the way you describe; they are truly satisfying experiences for both of us. It's not as though customers are opposed to browsing, but the preference is for doing so in solitude. I have offered to assist (and continue to offer) enough to know it can be taken as an invasion of space, privacy, whatever. In addition, being paid fees by publishers and online retailers gives me pause because it teeters on the homogeneity that comes when reps are told (or forced - however the money feels) to push a particular product, whatever is hot right then instead of what might be best suited for the customer's interests. Being paid by the customer ensures we're meeting their needs, no one else's.

  3. David, oh, I think there's a lot to figure out, no doubt. I'm just starting a conversation.

    But, okay, a little pushback: all good sales people learn to spot when to approach and when not. And as for the pushing of product--customers aren't dumb. They'll figure out which book marketers can be trusted and which not. They just won't go back to the ones where something not to their taste got pushed too hard.

  4. What an interesting idea! You're absolutely right, the book world is changing and I think it opens up opportunities and challenges for everyone. As much as it pains me to see independent shops struggling, the market trends seem inevitable.

    This is really unique, though. I've never heard of "showrooming" but it makes a lot of sense. I still like to look at the paper book, as do many others. (I still do most of my browsing online, because I like the sampling feature.) And I do most of my reading on an e-reader. It's an innovative idea, and I'd love to see it tried.

    I think doing a commission system of sorts would provide incentives for booksellers/markets to tailor their recommendations to the customer. You're absolutely right. I went back to the last place that sold me a car for that reason. They listened to what I was looking for and tailored their recommendations to that. Smart salespeople have been doing that for years!

  5. elizabeth, the all-important fine details of how to make this work--commission vs. marketer-for-hire vs. something I haven't even thought of--are fuzzy to me. I'm hoping to start a conversation that might clarify things.

  6. You're absolutely right. (And I'm rather horrible at selling things, so I'll leave that to the professionals.) It's an innovative idea and a great conversation to start. There's a lot of moaning and complaining in the air, so it's great so read positive ideas. Thanks!

  7. I particularly don't like how a lot of anti-Amazon people are using this to call customers of Amazon derogatory terms.

    "You are a fucking asshole" for instance.

  8. King Rat, yep, long-term, alienating customers is not smart.

  9. For four years I worked at a bookshop that did pretty much what your second to last paragraph suggests. We knew every book in the store and could direct a customer: if you like that-so-and-so author, you'll like this-so-and-so author. It's exactly what I loved about bookselling. Still, the store went out of business (but not till long after my time, so maybe that service changed).

    Unfortunately booksellers already partner with publishers and that's why you see so little selection in the chains. Publishers buy that shelf space (like grocery stores) and tailor their discounts to the seller accordingly. At least that's my understanding.

    What if a store offered to match whatever online price a customer could show them on their little smart-thing? Sure, the store takes a hit, but it would have lost the entire sale otherwise and be left sending the book that didn't sell back to the publisher. If I could bargain with a bookseller--I might walk out of there with a book in my hand rather than have to wait three to five days (or longer come the USPS cutbacks) and pay shipping. Wouldn't I be more inclined to go back to that shop and maybe not worry so much about that online price?

    It's like the tragedy of the commons. Customers like the convenience of the local shop to riffle the pages, but ignore the impact of then buying it online cheaper. Only when the store closes do they clue in.

  10. What if stores helped those ebook readers using their store like a showroom by posting information around the store about how to buy ebooks from them--don't many indies participate in the ABA's ebook program? Put up signs that say something like, "Prefer this as an ebook? We have it for you at [URL]."

    I like your idea of booksellers being open to price matching. My concern is that because these stores often purchase the books at a higher price than a high volume retailer this could (and would) lead to losses on some books--if an online store is selling a bestseller book at 50% off, for instance, an indie store might loose 10% (or more) in matching that price. I'm curious if any indie stores have ever run potential scenarios on this--put together 'what if' numbers to see how this could impact their overall busines.

  11. Elaine, chain bookstores do coop, yes. I'm not talking about chain bookstores. I'm talking about mid-size independents. But those independents can't afford the price-matching strategy; they don't have economies of scale (as you point out). Which is exactly why the framework, the perspective, the point has to change.

    Susan, I think some bookstores already do that. They certainly do on their websites. It's not working. (At least not far enough, not fast enough.) And I'm sure they've run the numbers--and it terrifies them.

  12. I am confused about how your proposed model differs fundamentally from what book stores are now. They are publisher agnostic show rooms selling books on consignment right now. The show rooms are expensive, so they can't match Amazon prices. And the show rooms are not an advantage if the customer can then just go out and buy the book from Amazon after finding it in the show room.

    Ah, maybe you have to pay for access to the showroom to browse. Perhaps as a membership. Then you are charging for the service the customer is getting. How or where they buy the book becomes irrelevant to the showroom.

  13. Josh, the way I see it, there would be no sales. The book space staff would earn their money directly from publishers and giant online retailers (Kobo, B&N, Apple, Google, Amazon).

  14. For one thing, it's indeed a tragedy of the commons. Barnes & Noble's stores now blockade their entrance ways with nooks. How ironic that they choose to ignore the meaning of that word so they can show competitive.

    For another thing, with libraries now offering ereader books, too, the wheel just took another turn down the road to leaving books with no bookstore in which to go.

    And third thing, with the advent of free books on the question became even more moot.

  15. rhbee, you know that "tragedy of the commons" is a bit of an urban legend, right? True commons, historically speaking, have done pretty well. It's only when vested interests get involved that things go to hell.

  16. Josh, the way I see it, there would be no sales.

    I think it will be a tough sell to the publishers or retailers if you can't track sales that result from the show rooms. I imagine it would be expensive advertising.

    Special pricing via coupon code or some token you get from visiting the showroom might be both incentive for the customer and tracking tool for the seller.

  17. Josh, nah, customers' phones will send info via GPS: the online retailers will know where they first saw the book. (Yep, it needs refining, but I think the basics might work.)

  18. Just passing through as I do now and then; Nicola, that's about the best formulation of the idea I've seen. I could also easily imagine that book showrooms would extensively carry used and OP books (because Amazon and the other e retailers do), and might do a side business in "showroom copies" (not unlike what new car dealers do with display cars after a while).

    Stray observation two: if the deal were extended to thrift stores, some of the money could even flow to good causes.

  19. John, thanks. I like the notion of used books, and 'showroom copies', too.

    And, hey, I didn't know you had a blog!

  20. I'd like to add another dimension to the idea of book shops as showrooms: community. the community dimension is particularly related to special interest books.

    you know, more recently I wondered: how come I still haven't got myself a kindle or a sony reader or a similar device even though I read a lot. The answer is: because I love bookshops and because every time I go there I end up buying something. More often than not I know exactly where I got which book from and sometimes I even keep the receipt and use it as a bookmark. And it seems I'm stockpiling the books to be read when I feel like it.

    pretty much every decent city in the world has a women's or LGBT bookshop. for example, I got "always" from lamba rising in washington, d.c. an awesome place!!! smallish, a bit murky, with shelfs bursting of all kind of books (alphabetically sorted). I also remember, I had a great conversation with the people there, both sellers and customers and I left with 3 paperbacks (I've still got the receipt: oct.14, 2009, $42.29)and a pile of fliers suggesting what to do and where to go during my stay there.

    I also remember spending many hours in "women and children first" in andersonville, chicago. I recall a part-timer working there, a woman doing women studies at de paul university (blue eyes, piercings, dreadlocks); she'd recommend me stuff and say: if you liked x, try y; and z will thrill you. etc.

    food for thought for book sellers and writers alike: shopping is a experience more than anything else. true, you can log into your amazon account and order something on line (digital or not) but it's not the same. and I tend to disagree that bookstores will be left to showrooming: I think purchasing decisions are influenced by the experience. once you had a nice conversation you don't leave buying anything. you just ... have to. the less anonymous you remain as a customer, the more committed you are to buying something. and this is totally OK with me.


  21. This is the most innovative discussion of how book stores might evolve into something that survive that I've seen. I think tying the sale to the showroom is the key problem, and I read you as thinking its a minor detail to be worked out, but all in all an intriguing idea. I hope it goes somewhere.

  22. Kate, sadly, Lambda Rising is no more. Like a lot of women's and queer bookshops, it folded. Women and Children First are still there--and Room of One's Own in Madison, WI, and Charis Books and More in Atlanta, and others--but most have gone. Here in Seattle we've seen the loss of Bailey Coy and Red and Black and many, many others. I miss them.

    Josh, I'm convinced that book spaces will have to unhook from selling and for their staff to be salaried employees funded by marketing arms of book companies. Or someone else. But I'd go with whatever works. I just want those spaces to stay open!

  23. What about a virtual book store?

    But wait before we think about that lets wonder about those 76% of book buyers that hadn't seen the book in a store before buying it and the 61% that didn't look in a book store buying at Amazon. Where did they hear about the book, then?

    Meanwhile, the tragedy of the commons I was referring to had more to do with the game theory theory than the British countryside.

    Now, back to that virtual bookstore idea. Picture an AI bookseller, an everyone who enters goes in as an avatar. Brings chills, eh? Yea, of course, this can only occur in Jack McDevitt sort of future where humans have finally figured out that we all have lives not just the 1 Percent.

  24. So many times while travelling I've seen a book in a bookshop and wished I could go to the till and get the ebook version downloaded to my ereader. I read thirty ebooks on my last overseas trip - all of them from Amazon. I did buy three books in Foyles; they'd have had the ebook profits too if they had worked out a way for me to buy from them.

  25. Fiona, I'm hoping bookshops will catch up and install QR codes on everything that will take your smart phone or tablet or ereader right to that bookshop's Google books-run ebook store. Eh, we'll see.

  26. so sad lambda rising disappeared!

    but it's not that astonishing: the moment bookseller chain stores start offering queer books those small stores need to come up with something that adds value to their products beyond just the book. one way to do this is to play up the identity of the seller. there's research that shows that in the presence of economies of scale small sellers can be viable if their target customers who make purchase decisions based on the identity of the seller (i.e. who are willing to pay a price premium for that identity; increased market concentration in cultural good industries may trigger proliferation of small specialist sellers). but that really presupposes identity work and investing into customer education etc. queer book stores could try to do this; admittedly, the market segment is too small to allow for large growth rates. but it's a valid strategy and I'd rather support a small queer bookshop than an impersonal chain store.


  27. Kate, that's pretty much how queer/women's book shops have survived to the extent they have: identity politics --> identity shopping.