How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer

From Forbes:

For the past eight years, Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli immersed himself in the world of independent bookstores. Concluding his study, he just released a working paper, entitled “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” that summarizes the findings from his extensive research, which included a series of interviews and focus groups, visits to bookstores in 26 states, and a detailed analysis of newspaper and trade journal articles.

While this working paper has immediate application to bookstore owners and managers, its implications go much further. It provides a road map for any retailer —independent or otherwise — into how to survive, even thrive against the competitive onslaught of Amazon.

“My research examines how industries, organizations, and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change,” Raffaelli writes. “In the context of retail, seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers. Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.”

Calling the resurgence of indie bookstores “novel” is putting it mildly. They were on the verge of collapse, with only 1,651 independent bookstores operating in 2009. Since then, the tide has turned and indies are on the rebound. The reasons why are detailed below.

Struggle for survival

Prior to 1995 when Amazon arrived on the scene, the number of independent booksellers reached historic highs, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). But five short years later, their numbers had dropped by 43%, decimated by competition not just from Amazon but big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders as well. From 2000 through 2009 the number of independents continued their steady decline.

And Amazon didn’t just take down the independents. The big-boxes struggled to survive too. Borders went under in 2011. Barnes & Noble dropped from 681 stores in 2005 to 627 at the end of 2019, after it was acquired by hedge fund Elliott Advisors. Elliott also owns U.K.-based bookstore chain Waterstones, with 238 stores, and has put management of both chains under the wing of James Daunt, who was an independent bookstore owner before becoming CEO of Waterstones in 2011.

Unlike the way typical chains – bookstores or any other retail category – operate where each store is laid out and stocked pretty much the same, every Waterstones’ store is unique. Each store looks, feels and operates like an independent, not a chain store.

Waterstones and other successful indie bookstores follow the 3Cs model outlined in Raffaelli’s working paper: community, curation, and convening. Bookstores use these 3Cs as leverage to beat Amazon at its bookselling game.

. . . .

Building a community with customers

The concept of community as described by Raffaelli extends beyond localism as a social movement and a way for shoppers to support their local economy. Community connects customers with content in the store to build truly meaningful relationships.

“We basically took our relationship to the community and redefined what the bookstore is,” a bookseller said. “It is about the community which surrounds the bookstore and those interactions between author and reader, and readers and booksellers, and readers with each other.”

No doubt, there is a special connection that booksellers and their customers feel for the content contained in books, but the same kind of passion for brands and products in other categories is evident in all great retailers as well.

Who runs or works in a fashion boutique but passionate fashionistas or in a home furnishings store but design and decorating enthusiasts? The same goes for garden centers, pet boutiques, gourmet shops, wine stores, toy stores, gift, card and stationery shops; the list goes on. Those retailers’ passion for their product category draws in equally passionate customers who together build a community through their shared passion.

“I am first a businessperson. But who would be in this particular business if we didn’t also love books,” said this bookseller.

And just like readers have a special connection to certain authors, customers feel a special connection to brands, designers, and the people who create the products they are passionate about.

A retailers’ passion for their products and their customers is magnetic. It is the spirit that binds all together into community.

While it is essential for retailers to build their community in the real world, they also must extend their reach digitally to build an online community as well through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“The key to independent bookstores’ growth in the digital era has been their strong and deep ties to neighbors,” writes Raffaelli. “A robust digital presence has reinforced those communal connections. The connection between the physical and online communities strengthens both.”

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG enjoys his participation in several different communities, but none of them are commercially-based.

As he has mentioned before, during his various forays into bookstores in recent years, he’s found little to attract or interest him.

For PG, Amazon is a much more information-rich locale for book shopping than any physical bookstore he’s visited during the last ten years.

On Amazon, instead of obtaining the opinion of a bookstore employee who is unlikely to know anything of note concerning the subject the book addresses, on Amazon, PG can read a lot of different opinions from people who have purchased and read (or returned) the book.

Of course, PG is aware of purchased reviews and employees of the publisher who jump on to write a glowing review. Perhaps if he were more interested in popular genre works, it might be easier to fool him with a phony review, but in PG’s routine reading choices, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with fake reviews. If he buys an ebook that doesn’t live up to his expectations, he’ll return it in a trice.

(PG notes the age of the OP, but more recent counterparts expressing the same ideas are easy to find.)

7 thoughts on “How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer”

  1. Communities are great until an a**hole or three moves in.

    Cast your mind back to a BigTen college town (some distance from a Metropolis, and no, I don’t mean the one Clark Kent purportedly had a job in for which he never really had to do any work) in the 1990s. There was a well-thought-of local bookstore, at a time when there wasn’t either a Borders or a B&N serving the community (those came along in the next few years). And being a community, far more than the (two!) college bookstore(s) — even for the college students. It was truly a community center.

    And then the a**hole(s) moved in. The outside agitators from surrounding farm communities,{note 1} personally offended that people were able to buy unAmerican stuff like When We Were Orphans and Die Blechtrommel and Darkness at Noon and The Sparrow right off the shelf, no special order (or course requirement). (It’s a good thing they didn’t know about the new editions of James Baldwin’s, Richard Wright’s, and Martin Luther King, Jr’s stuff. That was for another time, when they started trying to censor libraries.)

    This was only one element in the eventual failure of the store, well over twenty years after it had started out in a strip mall. But those a**holes destroyed the community aspects, leaving the store vulnerable to economic problems a few years later.

    So community can be great. But it’s fragile, too. Building one’s entire business model presuming that a community will continue (and that no members will naturally age out, move, etc.) is… not good strategic planning.

    {note 1} One family of which brainwashed Miss America (or USA? I can’t remember), who later ran for state elective office and proved rather definitively that a law degree is no guarantee of either wisdom or reading ability. This would get even uglier with names, believe me… especially when connected up to that library thing.

    • Not good strategy, no.
      But unsurprising in a world where a majority of the population sees tbe future as the past with a different calendar. Any changes blindside the incumbents, shove them aside, and the new lords promptly forget how they came to rule and are thus blindsided by tbe next change. The changes keep coming and people keep being surprised and, yes, offended that somebody dared get into the game. Or worse, play it better.

    • Two questions:

      1. Is the number of asterisks in a**holes representative of the number of missing letters? I prefer three asterisks as I’ve always found the British English version more forceful.

      2. Why would these particular books be regarded as offensively un-American? I’ve had the odd run in – many years ago, I doubt anyone now cares – with Marxists who thought Koestler objectional but why would your – presumably right wing – rural agitators worry about his work, or for that matter notice The Sparrow amongst the rest of the SF?

      • “Is the number of asterisks in a**holes representative of the number of missing letters? I prefer three asterisks as I’ve always found the British English version more forceful.

        The American “a**hole” has more oomph and vigor than the British “a***hole” in my view. And I prefer both to the German.

        • A book that I read a while ago had a character use the pejorative “used a***wipes” – no asterisks, of course. Somewhat better descriptive, in my opinion.

          In any case, the complaint sounds much like “the neighborhood was just ruined when those people moved in.” A plaint heard all too often when those people were of a different shade, had a different birth language, or, yes, a different ideological bent.

        • I’ve always found the English version more forceful, maybe because of the scatogical associations. However, Writing Observers “wipes” does have a satisfyingly forceful and nasty feel to it (definitely needs the full *** though.)

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