The Impact of Online Bookstores to Offline Bookstores

The significant increase in popularity of online bookstores over the last decade has had a monumental impact on offline bookstores, covering all facets of their business. Online bookstores offer a number of advantages over physical stores; these physical stores have tried to counteract these advantages by capitalising on areas in which online stores are unable to compete.

books-on-tableConvenience and variety are two of the main advantages of online bookstores. From the comfort of a consumer’s home, they are free to browse selections of thousands of books from a variety of sources. It is also incredibly easy to compare directly prices from different retailers to find the best deals. In recent years, a rising trend in physical bookstores is a section of the store which is dedicated to special offers. These often take the form of a wide variety of books, usually between one to five years since initial publication, marked as being special offers with the use of stickers. These offers usually attempt to entice the buyer into purchasing more than one book, through offering any consumer who has purchased one stickered book another stickered book free of charge, or for a minimal fee (sometimes as low as £1). This is an effective way of selling more than one book, as the consumer may not want to buy only one book from the selection and feel that they have missed out on a good deal.

Many online bookstores provide advanced search functions on their websites, allowing the consumer to search for specific authors or publishers. The majority of printed books are assigned an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) which can also be used to search online not only for a specific book but also a specific edition of the book. Physical bookstores usually categorise books alphabetically, making searching for numerous books by the same author quick and convenient also. However, physical bookstores tend to prioritise and promote only the most recent editions of many books. The aesthetic of a front cover of a book is also important in physical stores. As more and more books are adapted into feature films, many publishers release editions of the corresponding book with film-like covers, featuring images of settings and well-known Hollywood stars from the film. Whilst these editions are just as readily available online as offline, their covers are commonly made prominent in physical bookstores, in the hope that consumers are attracted to the designs and thus drawn to these books. Older or alternate editions of classic novels such as The Hobbit, the source of a recent trilogy of films, can be found in online bookstores, usually with no particular emphasis on the film tie-in edition of the book.

Another trend which has impacted upon both online and physical bookstores is the increasing popularity of e-books and e-readers. Users can either purchase books instantly from the e-reader itself or from the retailer’s own website. The e-book is then automatically downloaded the next time the user’s device is connected to the internet. Whilst browsing selections of books has been quick and easy for a number of years online, the only way to find, purchase and read a book instantaneously has been in a physical store. However, the advent of e-readers has also made this entire process almost instantaneous from anywhere with an internet connection. This further adds to the convenience for the consumer, impacting upon the appeal of physical bookstores.

A number of physical stores have responded to this trend. Two large retailers in the UK, WH Smith and Waterstones, have both begun selling e-readers in their own stores. Many of their stores also provide an opportunity for the consumer to test out the various models available through the use of display units. These are particularly convenient for people who are not confident with new technology. These people may also not have purchased the devices online for the same reason. Having physical items in the store allows all consumers to test and buy the devices in confidence. Many bookstores dedicate a whole section of the shop to e-readers. These areas often include accessories alongside the devices themselves, including cases, chargers and lights for night-time reading. Again, having these as physical products ensures that the consumer can find the desired size, shape and aesthetic that they would like to customise their device.

Additionally, e-readers and e-books have had a significant impact on the sales of physical books. Research by Bowker has found that in the UK, between 2010-2012, the percentage of all book sales which were e-books has risen from 26% to 37%. Whilst this undoubtedly signifies a drop in physical book purchases, Bowker also found that following the electronic publication of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men series of books, sales of the print versions rose by 35% in the six months following.

Children’s books in general are one area in which offline stores capitalise on the advantages of a physical shopping space. Many physical bookstores offer a brightly coloured, attractive children’s area, where children and parents can browse a large selection of children’s books. Some also include bean bags or comfy areas, and even paper and crayons for colouring. Furthermore, these areas often include related themed items such as soft toys next to their corresponding books, such as The Gruffalo. These areas will likely attract the attention of young children more than a picture on a computer screen. Sales of items to accompany books may well also increase when placed next to the text.

There are also other ways in which physical bookstores take advantage of their nature by hosting events such as book signings. At a time where many books written or endorsed by celebrities are very common, and often dominate the sales charts, many stores offer consumers the chance to meet and have books signed by the celebrities themselves. Such events as these are obviously impossible for an online bookstore to match.

Another technological development which has had an impact on bookstores is Print On Demand (POD) machines. In the last few years, POD machines have become commonplace in many bookstores across North America. These machines allow the consumer to request specific texts, which are then printed to order in the form of a paperback book. This gives stores an outlet by which they can distribute many rare or even out of print books and consumers another method of receiving books in a very short space of time. These machines are becoming more popular across the world; there are now two Espresso Book Machines (one of the leading POD brands) in London.

Online bookstores and e-readers have had a monumental impact on offline stores. The focus of physical stores has shifted as a result of the increased necessity to attract customers against the backdrop of quick and convenient online shopping. However, the advancements of the internet over the last decade can, and have been embraced by physical bookstores. The fact that many stores now stock e-readers perhaps indicates that a symbiotic relationship can exist between both online/offline bookstores, as well as physical/electronic books.

Author Bio: Joseph Makey is an aspiring writer from the South East of England. Joseph’s interests include reading and visiting the theatre. Joseph regularly writes on behalf of Oldroyd Books.

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Comment (6)

    Julie
    January 23, 2014 - 1:50 pm

    While you make a few interesting points, I think you are missing a few key benefits of the B&M stores. I am an independent bookseller of both used and new books. My customers enjoy the experience of browsing and discovering previously unknown titles (browsing is a challenge in an online environment that has not been satisfactorily resolved). In addition, my customers love stumbling across vintage editions of favorite books and collectible editions – leather bound, illustrated, gilded and tooled, etc – that might not be as appealing online as the customer cannot handle the book before buying it. Physical bookstores are also able to curate collections that appeal to regional preferences. For example, my new books tend to be sourced from small regional publishers, local authors, and contain stories and history that are geographically significant (no online seller can do this). Most importantly, the physical book store is a place for discussion and community. I often end up in a long conversation with two or more customers (who didn’t previously know each other) about the literary merits of a particular author, genre, style, etc. I have a few customers who have met each other in my shop and become friends because of these spontaneous “book chat” sessions. Again, this is not possible online. Finally, I leave you with this quote as a response to the electronic book:

    “Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on.” ~Joe Queenan, One for the Books

    Dan
    February 7, 2014 - 2:38 pm

    I agree with Julie. Our store happens to be in a small, mostly elderly town (in Canada) that seems to be in a time warp at least a decade behind the mainstream World – no surprise, we sell a lot of romances – and I think that I have at least another decade before we enter the 21st Century here.
    While B&M stores in the larger centres are failing, mainly due to overhead (rents, and wages), it seems that in smaller towns the community support for a used bookstore is still enough to sustain a full-time operation for an owner-operator (Mom & Pop). Even in a few key locations with large populations, some new-used bookstores are thriving, though there is only the one per area when ten years ago there were a half dozen. Cheers!

    George
    October 25, 2014 - 10:33 am

    Hi Bruce,
    I am happy to see your Blog seems to be doing extremely well.

    It may seem obvious that the online books stores and ebooks are hurting us brick and mortar books stores operators but my own suspicion is that cell phones and the virus-like distractions they cause are more the problem.

    With more and more of the world’s population joining the multitudes of people with the attention span of a gnat, books in any format might not stand a chance.

    Even here in Calgary, where the economy is good and the population has doubled since we opened in 1988, most of the books stores have closed since 2010. In the past there was always another book nut opening a shop to fill in the vacancy but that has not been happening lately.

    More doom and gloom? No – not from me. Even with monthly rents edging into the 5 figure range we feel the books business here has at least another 20 year run. The slow down has forced us to become better managers, the database designed specifically for used books stores that we spent over 10 years developing dazzles and delights our customers and staff – and, unfortunately, the closures by others have made us the “go to” spot for books in much of Alberta.

    The latest article in the Economist for books is not really gloomy either.

    As I said, in an article I submitted to your blog 7 years ago, “I am thankful every day that the used books business requires far more books than brains!”

    All my best wishes

      Bruce K. Hollingdrake
      October 31, 2014 - 10:05 am

      Thanks for dropping by George. Personally I spend most of my time these days working on my hockey site – doing almost 1 million pageviews a month and still growing. http://thehockeywriters.com – if you’re curious.

    George
    October 25, 2014 - 11:29 am

    Sorry – should have said “I am thankful every day that the used books business requires far more WORK than brains!”

    Books Forever
    November 11, 2014 - 2:40 am

    Hi Bruce,

    I still feel (even as an online bookseller myself now with 2 online stores) that both online and off bookstores can work side by side happily. It would be the same issue (if we are talking about competition only); if two walk in bookstores opened close beside each-other. Each store has to the best they can in market where others are offering the same product to make a sale . Competition is there regardless of online vs off or online vs online or offline vs offline.

    I know many people who enjoy more than anything to go for a walk down to the bookshop every weekend and do nothing but look around and touch the physical books; as they go looking for their next read. A sense you can’t get online! They want the opportunity to flick over a few pages / read a few lines and walk out “on that day” “in that moment” with their purchase (more so if it is a gift needed immediately). Waiting for postage isn’t an option.

    I also know many others who love to sit at home without getting the worry of finding a car park and easily shop online all hours of the night. They don’t mind waiting a week or two for the order to arrive as they don’t have the time to visit a bookstore for whatever reason.

    Both markets suit a different Customer need; depending on what a person may want at that time (and this changes for the same person and also from book to book – new or used). I think – feel and hope the need for both book selling venues will always be here as most book lovers probably use both equally.

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