How Can Booksellers Survive? Try Taking the Fight to Amazon

Bookstore Interior

Media watchers have gleefully predicted a total collapse of the brick-and-mortar bookselling industry for, oh, about twenty years or so by my count, yet I still have no trouble finding a store in which to buy the latest issue of The Paris Review, or the new Stephen King novel, or a fun picture book for my niece. Actually, I have a choice of stores in which to do these things: four independents and a Barnes & Noble within a mile walk of my apartment and another two dozen or so a subway ride away. “But what about the rural of us?” you rightly ask, and to you I say, “Same thing.” During my last trip to the farm country of the Hudson Valley I found three bookstores including another B&N and not including a record store that also sold books. While the cottage industry of publishing doomsayer Nostradami may be just as lucrative these days as retail bookselling, the latter is still alive and thriving. There are scores of good reasons for this that all add up to an essential truth: brick-and-mortar bookstores have significant competitive advantages over Amazon and other online retailers, many of which are too rarely leveraged in the increasingly desperate battle for book sales.

There are many aspects of physical store bookselling that Amazon has found a way to match (or at least approximate) over the years. Personalized recommendations, for one, have to be marked in the Amazon “win” column. Booksellers usually claim this as their last major strength against e-commerce, but it’s tough to beat Amazon’s algorithms for personal knowledge of the consumer and what they might want to buy next. I’ve been shopping at my preferred local indie store for eight years and I still wouldn’t expect any of its staff to remember what I bought a month ago. Amazon also won the price wars, at least in outward appearance, by offering the kind of steeply discounted loss-leaders that Barnes & Noble once used to roust the indies.

So why do I still shop for books outside in the real world?

1. Speedy Delivery

I used to be a happy member of Amazon Prime, the website’s much vaunted answer to its fatal flaw: the costs and delay of shipping. Prime membership provides free two-day shipping in exchange for a yearly $80 fee that barely justifies itself, depending on how often you shop. A two-day wait never seemed too onerous until I noticed that, after 7 months or so, I still had yet to utilize it. Why? Because when I buy a book at my local store I have the book not in two days, but RIGHT AWAY, no waiting required at all, never mind a wait that costs me $80. I’m amazed at how rarely this obvious mortal weakness in Amazon’s business strategy is ever mentioned in the press. Heck, even Amazon understands how urgent it is to solve this problem if they want to ensure their long-term survival. This is why they waste our time with talk of drones and lockers and local vans and other experiments that don’t quite mask the stink of the real problem: Amazon has no stores, thus its customers must wait, and pay for the privilege of waiting. With Amazon Prime losing money and the membership fee expected to increase by as much as 50% this year, it’s clear that Amazon simply can’t compete on product delivery, and is in fact suffering because of it. While local bookstores continue expediently satisfying their customers’ needs, Amazon continues to post losses in its effort to catch up.

2. Price

I know that’s hard to parse considering I just put “Price” in Amazon’s “win” column, but the smarter bookstores can and do compete on this front, at least partially. When you take Amazon’s standard 25% discount and add in the cost of shipping (or a pro-rated cut of your Prime membership fee) you often have a full-price book again, or a couple bucks off, depending on the book. While this is still a better deal than one finds at bookstores that have given up the fight and refuse to discount, it’s pretty close to the discounts enjoyed by customers of smart bookstores. The store where I just purchased a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid a minute ago offers a 30% discount on that week’s best-sellers, just like Barnes & Noble. My home store gives me $20 off whenever I spend $100 (an effective 17% discount on everything I buy), a scheme that both saves me money and keeps me spending money there. Are there still instances when a legendary Amazon discount will force my hand to click their “1-Click Order” button? Of course. Sometimes it’s just too tempting to spend $40 on a $90 art book, even though I have to wait a couple days to read it. But for most purchases — the “I’m dying to read this” or “My kid will love this” kind of book — a local store that has decided to step to Amazon can be a better or at least good-enough place for savings.

3. Shopping Convenience

Of all the strengths that retailers fail to leverage, this is the one that’s most confusing to me. If someone is in the market for a book, and they are in your bookstore, there’s really no reason why their desire can’t be converted to a purchase. That’s because your store is FULL OF BOOKS. It’s a perfect place to shop, with far superior organization, product sampling, and even selection than Amazon. Sure, Amazon theoretically stocks every book in the world, but they’re not all visible and apparent to the Amazon shopper. Conversely, if I’m standing in a real bookstore debating whether or not to buy this book about ghost cats, I can visually scan a dozen other books about astrally projecting animals just by looking up at the shelf, leading to more purchases and more awareness of things I’ll likely want to read. Rather than hope Amazon’s recommendation algorithm (however sophisticated it may be) pops up something I might want, simply browsing the bookstore shelves will accomplish the same thing with no effort by store staff. Barnes & Noble complains about the so-called “show-rooming” effect of online retail: the phenomenon where a customer “uses” a bookstore to browse and discover, only to turn around and buy the book from Amazon on their phone. While focusing on this setback, complainers miss the benefit of the show-rooming effect on the showroom itself, which is to say, it requires much fewer steps for a customer to discover a book in a bookstore and buy it there than it is to price-shop online and wait. Instead of grousing about it helplessly, the show room should be glorified as the sacred hammer of Thor that it actually is.

4. Shopping Pleasure

Do people like shopping in bookstores, with their oak bookshelves and purring cats and coffee drinks and smiling, bespectacled, attractive people tending to their needs? Of course they do. Does anyone enjoy endlessly scrolling through Amazon’s website full of blinking ads and rabbit-hole distractions for personal shavers and Chia pets while constantly editing their shopping cart to get the best deal? Let’s move on.

It’s easy to look at Amazon’s surface advantages and bemoan its existence, saying it’s impossible to beat it and survive in the e-commerce economy, but it’s a lot more effective to just go toe-to-toe with them and try to win customers. Like any company, Amazon struggles, and the overwhelming amount of resources required to run its enormous operation means it needs significantly more revenue and a much larger customer base than a local bookstore does to overcome those problems. That store can price match Amazon, deliver product faster than Amazon, offer more incentive to shop than Amazon, and, most importantly, establish an interpersonal relationship with its customers that Amazon never will. Amazon may be big, but local bookstores have the muscle.

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