The great bookshop extinction

booksellersA. These guys are going out of business.
B. They deserve it.

Publisher Henry Rosenbloom and bookseller Mark Rubbo on Late Night Live talked about the fragile state of the industry and blamed the Internet, the Aussie dollar, the GST and the e-book.

And these are real factors. But what has the industry done to re-structure the retail offering to compete in this new environment? Precious little, gentle reader.

I did the bulk of my Christmas shopping in bookshops and it was the same as it was 20 years ago.

I’d add that there are good independent bookshops in Perth that choose their books carefully and are run by knowledgeable and helpful people. Here’s a roll call:

The Lane Bookshop, the Bookcaffe, New Edition and Planet Books.

But follow any of those links to understand why Amazon is doing well. (Particularly the Lane; it’s a pearler).

Maybe unfair to expect much innovation from small, independent booksellers but the bookselling chains do have resources and their lack of innovation is shameful.

I was in Borders. They have an ‘on-line catalogue’ you can use to look up a book. “2 copies in stock”. So I find a guy who helpfully looks in the various possible locations and reports back: out of stock. Get this: the database only updates every 48 hours. If only they had computers! So there’s the first tip for bookshops: implement real time inventory tracking.

I was in Dymocks. The sales person there does the look-up for you. Maybe it’s too complicated for customers … Their database searches every Dymocks store in the state. The title; a popular 2010 book, was out of stock everywhere. What’s meant to happen at this point is the sales person says to you, “we don’t have THAT but have you read THIS?”. Nope. He suggested I try Angus & Robertsons. Tip #2: The customer wants to buy a book NOW. Help the customer to buy a book NOW.

bookretailersI was in Angus & Robertson’s. That really is a bumhole of a store. Books on the wrong shelves; old titles; the staff going through the motions. But here’s an idea that applies to all three chains: instead of sticking every book in one motherfuckingly huge section, put paper signs in between the books to show where the different letters of the alphabet start. I have thoughtfully illustrated this for you. See above.

But. Why classify by alphabetic order of author anyway? You’re not a bloody library. Tip #4: display books in order of popularity, not by author’s name. I know what you’re thinking. How will I find the book I want if I know the author’s name? See Tip #5.

Tip #5: Put a barcode and a shelf number on every shelf. Scan the book and the shelf barcode when you put it on the shelf so the computer knows exactly where the book is. When people use the catalogue (which could also be an app they download to their phone) it tells you the shelf-number AND shows you a picture of the spine of the book so you can eye-ball it quickly. If it’s out of stock it shows you the location of other books by the same author.

A contemporary book store should be about saving you time, helping you select and delivering a pleasant experience in a physical space. Remaining tips relate to that experience.

New Edition often plays Chopin in the Northbridge shop. Music, atmosphere: here – take my money.

I’d love to see a Recommendation Table. Customers are invited to pull one book off the shelf and put it on the Table. (Yeah I know this screws up the inventory system but it gives the customer a stake). I’d like to see some books OPENED so I can read half a page.

I’d like to do the store’s personality test. 10 multiple choice questions and the store computer generates a reading list which the staff member then turns into a pile of books to peruse.

Or it’s a list of single sentences from the 20 most recent new releases and I pick my favourite three.

If your business is under environmental pressure it doesn’t work to keep doing what you’ve always done. That path leads to extinction. Retail has to aggressively use technology and it has to develop more compelling experiences that differentiate it from online shopping.



  1. yeah, and with sites like Book Depository offering huge discounts and free shipping to Australia, no wonder physical book shopping is going.
    BTW, libraries, like the eco groovy one in Surry Hills NSW are far more inspirational than bookshops and are enjoying a resurgence.

  2. Madness! Whenever I’m in a bookshop I’m torn between thinking “Geez, I could sure improve things like my man Treasure” and “Man, I hope when I get published I don’t look like the crap I see here.”

    Have you offered your “Business Improvement” rates to these guys? Once you get one of ’em on board, I bet the others’d do it too.

  3. @Cat (hey! that rhymes!) Good point about libraries. @Judd Yeah there’s a lot of formulaic publishing there. Interesting contest between ‘good writing’ and ‘what we think the public will buy’…

  4. Gee you are so smart to think of all those great ideas that no one had thought of before… I’d tell you how you get retail wrong and why your ideas have either tried and failed or are already been used.. But you are so smart you can work it out.

    No I don’t own a bookshop, I just know it’s not as easy to compete as your ridiculous piece suggests

  5. All great ideas.
    Unfortunately, most of them are so labour or technology intensive that the retailers margin would be cut into so dramatically they would have trouble paying the rent let alone turning on the lights or playing music.
    There is a reason that Amazon has never opened a bricks n mortar shop and relies on other shoppers to make recommendations rather than pay staff to serve you.
    I am a book retailer by the way. Nothing beats enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff. It sounds like you want an online shopping experience in a shop.
    I could do that. It would be a shop where multiple copies of the books are arranged bymany different categories. You browse all you want, but you can’t actually open a copy unless another shopper offers you their copy.
    If you want a recommendation, you’ll have to ask another shopper, feel free to scrawl your own review on the shelf.
    Then when you make your selection, pay at the self serve check out and someone will get your books for you. oh, you’ll have to wait about a week for them as we don’t actually keep copies, we order them as you pay.
    Sounds like a great place to shop.

  6. It’s hard to make any case for using the local shops unless it’s for the spur of the moment or last minute gift. If an online shop can get it to you cheaper, and not just cheaper, but much, much cheaper, then there really is no future. Also, if a local store doesn’t have anything in stock, it will take them much longer to get it in than ordering it online. Wtf?
    I don’t think they need marketing advice, Bret. It’s over.

  7. I love independent booksellers and you’ve named a couple good ones here. One thing I see at bookshops in the USA are signs on the shelf with staff reviews. I also love to see tables with “great books you might not know about”. While I will continue to go to bookstores for the pure tactical pleasure of flipping through pages, I would actually buy a lot more if local booksellers helped me make selections. Staff recommendations, “if you like xxxx, you might love yyyy”, and “what’s hot in the store this week” have all motivated me to purchase books I didn’t know about from authors I’ve never heard of. The only way booksellers are going to make it is by differentiating on service. In my mind, that means contributing to the choices I’m going to make.

    There’s nothing more seductive to a book shopper than having someone hand you a book and say, “This is a great read”.

  8. It’s fundamentally simple: if you don’t offer me a better experience than the online stores you’re not getting my money. Too long have the retailers presumed that the bulk of consumers would never ever find out about the online stores. That their consumers were either too dumb or too lazy to work it out. So they failed to innovate believing that their situation was safe. Now they’re paying the price for that hubris.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.