Welcome to the online versus in-store book buying series. All this week, we will examine different points of view on the topic. Today, BOOKSELLERS get their say.
No doubt booksellers in Australia are going through hard slug at the moment. With consumers finding cheaper alternatives to purchase books and expenses at an all-time high, is it any wonder that Australian bookstores are struggling?
Most have fighting spirit however, doing whatever they can to keep customers. Online selling themselves, author events, personal service – but no matter how much work they put in, at the end of the day what matters is that sales total. In the end, without sales, shops have no choice but to close.
Is that the future of bookstores? Or can the few struggling survive?
Bookstore owners know all too well of cheaper alternatives available to consumers but owner of Collins Booksellers Werribee in Melbourne, Jacqui, says it’s all part of healthy competition: “Competition is part of business. There is a market for online bookstores such as The Book Depository but purchasing books via the internet is not for everyone.”
Conversely, John*, the manager of one of Melbourne’s leading independent bookstores , isn’t embracing the competition so much as Jacqui is.
“The Book Depository scares me. We can’t compete with the deals they have achieved with suppliers and postal services, full stop.
“That said, we can use the high Australian dollar and Book Depository (as an example) to apply pressure on local suppliers to give us better deals on prices.
“Australian publishers/suppliers will have to respond to price issues or they will die a slow death along with us. I also think that the dollar will not be high forever, and as long as we can survive there is room for us to grow when the currency reverts to historical norms.”
Factors such as staff wages and high commercial rent mean prices have to stay close to (and sometimes go above) the recommended retail price.
By world standards, commercial rent in Australia is extremely high. Australians working in retail also get, on average, more than double what their American counterparts are paid.
Australia, while having a comparable landmass as America, also has only about seven per cent of their population. 1
John Anderson, global chief executive of Levi Strauss Jeans agreed, saying that it is cheaper to sell jeans in American than Australia as operating costs (rent and staff wages) are cheaper. “The cost to do business in Australia is higher, and the lack of scale is a part of that – Australia is a very small market compared to the US.”2
Assistant Manager of Angus and Robertson Edwardstown, Tarran, says, “Our store is a family owned franchise. We have the name Angus & Robertson, but if we fail it won’t be our support office that feels it. It will be the two individuals that poured their savings into buying the store. We can’t price match as we simply can NOT afford to, not because we don’t want to.”
ABC’s The Drum backed up that claim, recently reporting that Melbourne’s commercial rent is higher than cities like Milan, Rome, LA and Chicago – while Sydney is only second to New York.3
Despite the hard time for retail at Christmas, both Kate and Tarran report positive sales, with Tarran saying sales were actually up on last year.
As was Australia’s biggest bookstore, Books Kinokuniya, who say they “smashed”4 all their sales records this Christmas just passed.
John, however, was hit hard. He says, “Sales are down for a number of reasons. The Australian dollar is overvalued and most people are aware of this historical anomaly in purchasing power. Australians, despite living in times of nearly full employment, are also conditioned by pessimistic media reports.
“National savings are up, which is a good thing, but consumption fuels our economy so I expect there to be low growth in retail in the near-term. Shopping online thus seems ‘sensible,’ but when we begin to leak jobs and lose retail diversity I think we will regret it.”
Bookstores are looking at ways to compete with online shops by expanding services and turning to social media. But most booksellers agree that strong ties to the community are vital.
Meera, owner of The Eltham Bookshop in Melbourne, has had a hard year but by remaining community-focused she is confident of the future of her small, independent store.
“At Eltham Bookshop we have tried to be creative and imaginative in providing a cultural hub for our community-so that selling of books is one part of the story. We have run on an average an author event week for 14 years.”
Meera spends a lot of time listening to what customers want and choosing books based on that – to great time and expense. Yet she keeps her books at the recommended retail price.
“In these changing times this is our main asset-our natural passion for books, our voracious reading habits and our genuine interest in creating excitement for the printed word so that we can be a cultivated, well informed, entertained and imaginative community. We nurture our writers – local, national and international and know only too well what it takes to bring a book out.”
Stephanie, owner of Black Cat Books & Cafe in Paddington, Queensland, also has strong community ties. “As an independent bookseller, I see my little shop as a cog in the community, a timeless concept. I try to support the things I am passionate about, education and the arts, and it is through selling books that I am able to do so.
“At Black Cat, we often work in with local schools to support reading and writing programmes, fund-raise through events and connect students with authors. While having an online presence through Facebook etc, is keeping up with technological advances and is an important way to engage a modern audience, the value of the community is ultimately more important. The support we receive from our locals is testimony to this, and something we could not survive without.
“The Book Depository,” Stephanie finishes with, raising an excellent point, “does not support my local community.”
Kate, the manager for The Younger Sun at The Sun Bookshop in Melbourne, says they’ve got a website that they’re “constantly trying to improve on”. They also accept email orders, and are investigating making ordering available on their website.
This is good news, as a recent survey shows that nearly half of New Zealand retailers are already selling online and a further 40% are considering it.5
Tarran as an extremely impressive online presence – Facebook, a blog, LinkedIn, e-newsletters and even Twitter, saying, “We think that it is important that we have these mediums as a lot of our customers are using the net more these days. If we can help with that, then it makes the customer’s life a little easier.”
John agrees, saying, “We have a website and an expanding web-sales department. E-books are also on horizon for us. We have web-only promotions and are active in social media with a full-time web-content manager.
Anecdotally we know our site is used by others in the industry as a resource, and it is a very effective information and sales tool that reaches customers and institutions around the world. We also have an e-newsletter.”
Quoting the age-old adage ‘the customer is always right’, The Courier Mail suggests that businesses need to keep up with the times.
“The challenge for any business as the operating environment shifts is to adapt to changes and embrace new consumer trends, or be left behind. The customer is always right, and if you don’t follow them where they want to buy, then someone else will fill the gap.”6
Jacqui is one owner is who definitely taking into account the need to ‘keep up with the times’, implementing several things to help them into the next decade of bookselling. She cities listening to customers, participating in global discussions and involvement in the local community as tools her store has used.
Many people have commented that with the rise of online sales that the humble neighbourhood bookstore will become the thing of the past. People fear those few loyal customers won’t be enough to keep them afloat and eventually bookstores will disappear altogether.
John thinks bookstores will decrease in size in years to come, saying, “With the failure of superstores (which are closing or going bankrupt in the US) and strength in well-run independents. Bookstores will need to sell more non-book product (a global trend) and ensure they remain vital community centres through events and other services.”
Kate, however, is hopefully for the future: “Things look a bit grim when everyone starts sounding the death knell in conversations on blogs, in the paper and even in industry magazines like Bookseller and Publisher.
“But in the shop, with actual customers, things look a lot brighter. So many people come in and say how wonderful the shop is, they thank us for our advice and they stay for hours. So I think the future for GOOD bookshops isn’t so bleak. Hopefully.”
Tarran is also positive saying, “Bookstores will never die out! I am not saying this because I am biased but it’s is a simple fact. Yes, more people are buying online due to the convenience of it and the low price. [But] People like browsing; they like to take their time getting the feel for a book. People like looking at the covers, smelling the books. A customer came in two days ago and actually said one of the reasons she loves coming into a bookstore is for the smell.”
But Tarran also pointed out another local problem – without even going online, consumers can often get cheaper books at large department stores – 30 per cent, 40 per cent off.
Tarran says, “Bookstores will have a greater selection than most department stores do. Also we order stock in for customers and generally provide a platform which the customer can use to get what they want to the best of our ability.
“I think that they will go hand in hand at some point. People love both worlds, they love the ease of buying online, but they also the pleasure they get when they are able to touch, smell and feel the books before they buy them.”
Stephanie agrees, following on to say nothing will replace face-to-face expert opinions that websites or large department stores simply can’t offer.
“The discount stores, online or otherwise, are difficult to compete with and often their prices are way below what I as a reseller, can buy them in for. I can’t compete with that price wise.
“We can’t compete on an even footing on price, but who at The Book Depository, or your local Target store, will recommend the best book to read if you really enjoyed Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome? Would you have even found your way to that little gem? Indies provide a valuable service for booklovers: an informed connection between writer and reader. We support the community and contribute to it. We are a place people can come to away from work and home, to find just what they need with guidance there if required.”
Stephanie continues by saying that local authors will not get a look-in in big department store book departments.
“Without a strong independent bookseller presence, there are many authors who would not be published or once published, distributed to retail. Australian indies support Australian authors.”
Finally, two closing comments by Meera and John, who remind us what is important:
Meera: “In my mind, books are priceless pieces of art and all this discussion on prices is beyond me. It is not big economic dramas, GST or climate change that will be the reason for the catastrophe but simply people rubbing their hands, crying poor and not understanding the long term significance of small bookshops in the heart of their suburbs”
John: “I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself here. I certainly don’t want to tell people what to do. I shop online too – but there is more to life than price, and I spend money in local businesses just to keep money in my community. I can buy beer and wine cheaper than in my local bottle shop, but I want to be able to walk in there, say hello, look about for a while… not everyone finds pleasure in this and so be it, but I wouldn’t trade my local shops for all the online bargains in the world. I think people are caught up in the excitement of cheapness, and that robs not just the retailer but the producer (author, publisher, winemaker) of the income they should earn through the ‘value’ they create.”
A huge thanks to everyone involved in the BOOKSELLERS post. Comments below are encouraged so the discussion can continue. Stay tuned to Literary Life as tomorrow the next group share their view.
John is the manager of one of Melbourne’s leading independent bookstores.
Meera is the owner of ELTHAMBookshop. Their address is 970 Main Rd, Eltham, VIC 3095. Phone number 9439 8700 or email: elthambookshop(at)bigpond.com.