How to sell an eReader – Barnes & Noble vs WH Smith

My monthly column in The Bookseller is now available online.  This time around, I contrast the American multi-platform strategy of Barnes & Noble (stores,, Nook) with the less three-dimensional approach to eBooks that WH Smith/Kobo are pursuing in the UK.

Book superstores – a centuries-old concept

This from Judith Flanders’ “Consuming Passions”:

The booksellers Lackington Allen & Co. [in 18th century London] had a trade card that promised ‘the finest shop in the world being 140 feet in front’, with fourteen windows on to the street, and ‘Lounging Rooms’…

In 1794… Lackington moved his shop into a mansion in Finsbury Square, which he named the Temple of the Muses.  Inside there was a large circular counter from which to serve customers in a magnificent room – a room so large that, after the first day of trading, as a publicity stunt, a coach and horses were driven right the way around the counter.

Despite such grandeur, Lackington made his fortune in the mass market.  Over the entrance to the Temple of the Muses he had painted, ‘Cheapest Bookseller in the World’, and on his carriage the motto ‘Small profits do great things’.

Lackington bookshop London

Lackingtons (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Barnes & Noble - The Grove at Farmers Market California - Wikipedia

Barnes & Noble, Farmers Market CA (Wikipedia)

The customers know what they want

I picked up a Twitter message last week from the Huffington Post, which read:

RT @HuffPostBooks The big Borders stores once drove indies out of business. Can indies now fill gaps left by Borders closings?

In the US, the whole “superstores closed my indie” story was far greater than in the UK, where wave upon wave of chain stores has been eliminating its predecessors, in many sectors, for many years.

The I Heart Indies camp (and this is far from being just a bookshop observation) argues that the financial and political muscle of the big companies enables them to drive the small businesses to the wall.  They may be right.

However, this wouldn’t be possible if the big companies weren’t providing something that the customers wanted – wanted rather more than they cared to admit, perhaps.  And customers’ desires rarely travel backwards, unless they are on a deliberate nostalgia trip.  Thousands of people enjoy visiting eg Blists Hill.  None of them comes home to open a milliners, or replace their Transit with a horse and cart.

So, the big chains have the capital to open up a great many stores, providing an offer the small stores can’t match.  The small stores have to regroup and reinvent themselves – specialise in a sub-sector, offer high service levels, open all hours – in other words, they have to become different and better.  If not, they are failing their customers, and they will close.

The emotional charge is attached to the indies, but of course, this evolutionary tale is just as much a story of big business.  Wanamakers, International Stores, Tower Records, Woolworths – you can add a dozen names to any list of big, powerful retailers who were best-in-class, best in the world, but who slipped, stumbled and fell.  Perhaps management made bad decisions, perhaps the cash ran out, perhaps a dog ate their homework, but in the final analysis, the customers found something they preferred, and abandoned their old loyalty.

So, back to bookstores.  The customers chose to shop at chain stores, which closed the indies.  Then the customers chose to shop online, which is closing the chains.  Now, the customers are switching to eReaders, tablets and phones, which will close the online distribution depots.

Customers don’t switch back to an old experience – they seek out new ones.  Reheating old successes rarely works, from Churchill’s second premiership to the relaunch of Dallas.  If sufficient chain bookstores close, then there will be a few opportunities, in very nice towns, for indies to open up, but they’ll be competing in an online, digitised market.  A strong independent sector is valuable in all sectors – food, fashion, children’s.  Their strength comes from their uniqueness, their adaptability.  Most of these individual businesses don’t last forever, aren’t passed on from parent to child.  They exploit their idea, they flourish, they adapt, they move on.  Just like their customers.

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