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
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