Redefining dynamics in the bookselling industry!
Bookstores are affected not only by the fast pace of digital embracement of readers’ habits and lifestyles but also the pivot on genres and types of books readers are buying. Despite all odds, brick-and-mortar bookstores have their own set of customers and are flourishing. WHSmith, Crossword Bookstores and Literati Bookshop are few such stores. Hee, Varsha Verma brings a report.
Bookselling like other retail industries is constantly changing with the pace of changing lifestyles and habits in today’s world. Here, Sandeep Gulia, Category Head, WHSmith; Aakash Gupta, Managing Director, Crossword Bookstores Pvt. Ltd.; and Diviya Kapur, Literati Bookshop, Goa share their views on the changing dynamics in bookselling.
AABP: In your experience what are the changing dynamics in bookselling?
Sandeep: Since the rise of online bookstores and introduction of audio/e-books has had a significant impact on physical book stores and we have adapted to these changing dynamics in various ways, such as:
- Enriching in store experience – Focusing more on creating inviting environment by hosting more author events, promoting books in talks, interesting chart curation for recommendations and most important is a personalised experience to customer by staff. They are great for giving recommendations or even getting in to debate with over novels and plot lines, that sure beats a computer that just gives you a blurb and not much else.
- Diversifying in products – To counter the online competitions and digital content. Apart from books now offline bookstores have expanded their offerings beyond books and introduced merchandise related to books such as stationery, hand crafted book marks, journals, note books, literary themed gifts and art works. Souvenirs like metal bookmarks and hand crafted book marks, title engraved stationary, tote-bags are few of the offerings we have introduced recently.
- Technology Integration – To bridge the gap between online and offline now book stores have started incorporating technology into operations like mobile app for browsing titles available at store, current hotsellers, WhatsApp groups for personalised recommendations and book reviews.
Aakash: Bookselling like other retail industries is constantly changing with the pace of changing lifestyles and habits in today’s world. Bookstores are affected not only by the fast pace of digital embracement of readers’ habits and lifestyles but also the pivot on genres and types of books readers are buying. As a good business model, our challenge is to be agile and adapt fast to the changing trends. Having said that, there are some key aspects of the bookstore business that are universally standard across the decades and are not affected by the changing lifestyles – like customer service, curation, friendly experience & the touch, feel & smell of physical books.
Diviya: I am from Bangalore and was a practicing lawyer in Delhi before I moved to Goa around 2004 and opened Literati on 3rd November 2005. My love of reading and the life I envisaged running a Bookshop, were some of the motivations. There are many changes in the last few years and unfortunately it has become more difficult for bookshops, not only because of monopolies like Amazon which are supported by the publishers, but also because of fundamental problems of sourcing books and the unfair playing field, whether it is the discount rate, consignment periods, returns policy etc – all make it very difficult to survive. Also customer expectations of discounting, which have unfortunately become the norm, is another challenge.
AABP: What are the key aspects of running a bookstore successfully?
Sandeep: Running a successful bookstore requires passion, dedication and understanding of your target audience which involves several key aspects:
- Well curated Selection – Most important part to run a bookstore is to ensure that store should offer a diverse range of books which caters to different genres, interest and age groups. Keeping up with current trends and highlighting bestsellers. WHSmith stores ensures that all trending titles are placed on eye level clearly visible from outside of stores.
- Inventory Management – Ensuring that available inventory is effectively managed to avoid excessive stock and out of stock situation since both situation ended up in loss of sale.
- Activations and Engagement – A bookstore should have some kind of activations and customer engagement activity at store like author signings/book reading sessions/literary events to create a vibe. We always ensure to have at least 20-25 signings at airport stores in a month to create a vibe that whosoever flying from terminals have a chance to attend the session. We keep hosting many successful events of renowned authors like Amish Tripathi, Chetan Bhagat, Sudha Murthy, Jaffery Archer, Devduttpatnayak, Raghuram Rajan, Kabir Bedi, Ramchandra Guha, Gurucharan Das and the list goes on. On many occasions we ended up selling hundreds of copies in session of half an hour.
- Trained Staff – Staff on floor should have knowledge of titles to make personalised recommendation, can answer customer queries and provide excellent customer service to book lovers. A trained staff on shop floor is the key to success. If staff is not trained that will directly effect the display standards, fail to display right title on right spot, unable to find book as per customer query and results in unpleasant experience for customer & dent on store sales.
- Effective Marketing – In today’s world, it is mandatory to have online presence through social media platforms to educate target audience about titles, promotional activities on store and online engagement programmes.
Aakash: Inspiring interiors & experience, knowledgeable and friendly staff, well stocked & curated, sustainable finances – are the key aspects of running a bookstore successfully.
Diviya: There are many people who understand the struggle and support bookshops like ours, which for us is not only a validation of what we do, but is also extremely encouraging. The publishers and distributors have also begun to take note of the issues we face, and dumping of books etc. are less prevalent now.
The reason our customers keep coming back to the store I think is the ambience and as one of them said, it feels like a well-loved home for books,which means not only can they have conversations about books with all of us in the bookshop, but they could possibly find a treasure which they have been looking for, for a long time, or even a book that is unlikely to be found in most bookshops.
AABP: What about the online vs the offline sales for your organisation and the industry trends in general?
Sandeep: WHSmith operates only offline stores and do not have online presence. But, as far as book industry is concerned, feedback we are getting from leading publisher is that pre-covid it used to be 52-55% for offline and 45% for online. During pandemic (2021-22) it had shifted to online share of almost 70% and again now offline have again gained share to 53-55%.
Aakash: We do have a presence online with our new revamped website crossword.in, although the online sales is much smaller than our physical sales, we are scaling up our online operations rapidly and offering the same crossword experience to our customers across channels.
Diviya: We do not have an online selling platform but we do get orders online either on e-mail or social media, which we then try our best to fulfill.
AABP: How can authors and publishers promote book sales?
Sandeep: Authors and publishers play a vital role in boosting books sales and can use various tools in promoting book sales. Few of the methods include:
- Book Launch events at store.
- Book signings and reading sessions.
- Connecting directly with readers over social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
- Identifying target audience and reaching via paid online advertisements.
- Getting maximum positive reviews from book reviewers, influencers and celebrities.
- Cross promotions and collaborations with other authors, brands to expand reach.
Aakash: Authors & publishers have to work very closely with booksellers across the board, today this kind of collaboration and marketing efforts are very crucial to a book’s success and just getting the books in reader’s hands. However I am a firm believer that just like movies, marketing can only get you by initially ultimately it’s the quality & content of the book that decides what’s a bestseller.
AABP: Your insights into the customers in your stores?
Sandeep: WHSmith opened its first store in India in partnership with Travel News Services (India) Pvt. Ltd in July 2010 and currently operating 72 Retail stores. WHSmith India having presence all major airports like T3 IGI Delhi, T2 Airport Delhi, Cochin International airport, Hyderabad International airport, Kolkata Airport, Indore Airport, Varanasi Airport, Bengaluru Airport, and Goa Airport.
Since majority of our stores are located at airport which is a kind of confined retail. Our customers primary motive during their visit to stores is not shopping rather they are flying so we can say it is more of impulse buying. We have experience of travel retail of more than a decade and know how to convert the footfall into sales by offering lucrative promotional offer, highlighting bestsellers with bulk displays, maintain luxe level at stores, correct positioning of each title, interactive & attractive kids sections, etc.
Aakash: Crossword is India’s largest chain of bookstores with a 30 year history. Currently we operate 98 stores across India and will be unveiling our 100th store very soon. We are very passionate about books & are on a mission to inspire more and more Indians to read. It’s a proven fact that reading a book makes you a better human being, a better citizen and improves your cognitive and emotional skills. Spreading the magic of reading is our small part we play in changing the world.
Diviya: We have a cross-section of people who form our reader base. From small towns and cities all over the country, as well as all over the world. But we primarily started for the readers in Goa, who continue to grow in numbers and diversity. I would say that our forte in terms of genres are literature, Goa related books and to some extent Indian non-fiction. Our USP is our love for books and the fact that we understand what value a book has to a Book Lover.
AABP: Any message to the industry…
Diviya: Support independent bookshops as they will continue to be the real interface with the readers. Imagine a world without bookshops. It would be tragic.Stop monopolies, stop piracy, and enough of lip service. To the magic of physical books and brick and mortar bookshops!