Is there a future for high street bookshops?

Have huge online booksellers like Amazon killed off the high street bookshop for good?

The future of the guidebook – a series of guest posts by Mark Henshall

This is the last in a series of five guest posts – today answering the question:

How is the pressure from online booksellers affecting traditional bookshop
(These views are my own and not necessarily those of my Publisher.

Publishers evolve, brands develop and so do those, importantly, who make this all count: the people; the writers and editors, as we’ve discussed. Retail needs the same level of innovation and adaptability, and you can see this played out right now between the high-street and online suppliers.

A smaller retail environment means a narrower offering and less choice for travellers on the ground. In my opinion, for the sake of variety, it would be good to see a balance between high-street and online shopping. Online provides a huge opportunity for book sales and other new travel experiences to flourish, but I really think there’s something to be gained from being in a store and flicking through a book in your hand, that you can’t always get online.

These days we speak a lot about “social” in terms of social media and apps etc. However, there is a face-to-face human “social” transaction we miss when we purchase online. I wonder if this aspect will be happily given up altogether and what its impact will be if it is?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as screen-fixated as the next person and find online sites a godsend when I’m looking for information , but I wonder if the resilience in the children’s sector (see my previous post: Is the travel guidebook on the verge of extinction? ) has something to do with the value of in-store shopping activity? And will we lose something in that shopping activity (beyond rabid consumerism, of course…). John Naughton’s thoughts about whether shopping as a social activity will trump the economy and convenience of online are really interesting. I’ve also got some time for Will Self’s take on online shopping, which makes me long for great, little indy bookshops!

Nonetheless many of us do seem to like the simplicity and convenience of the online book shopping experience and I can’t see the increase in online shopping abating. But I think it would be a great shame if bookshops don’t keep a visible presence on our streets as part of the overall piece, and I’m talking streets here as well as out-of-town destinations. Conversely, while “bricks-and-clicks” are integrating, I believe we’ll see more online players take to the high street looking primarily for brand engagement and click-and-collect options, rather than as a main sales driver, like the recent eBay pop-up shop.

The upside for a book retailer such as Waterstones could be that it creates an online environment which offers more access points to stay engaged with the travel community. An enhanced site has been promised, come June, when its website platform returns from the domain of its previous owner HMV. This kind of blurring of the physical and virtual markets strikes me as a good thing. That said, it will be interesting to see how new MD James Daunt overhauls Waterstones’ bricks and mortar locations to offer something distinct. He has spoken about a drive to connect shops to “local” communities and his appointment – given his background as the founder of Daunt Travel Books chain - was well received by the industry as a whole.

How do we stack up as a nation? Phillip Downer wrote a great piece comparing London and New York City shops, such as McNally Jackson “elite and accessible” and the Scholastic Store where “‘reading is a fun adventure’ slogans come to life”. It gives me hope there’s different initiatives to get shops busy.

For a feel of being a bookseller on the ground check out the sharp blog by DorianThornley, who runs Westsider Books, NY. This taps into the paradigm shift in book culture covered in my first post and how booksellers are meeting the challenge.

If the high-street is to flourish it will need to compete, add value, and tap more into consumer behaviour. Things to consider? How stores use and develop: space; brands; the list range; events; seasonality; value; service; emotional connection; integrate online and e-book selling; and provide a focus for customers. The high-street needs to be smarter than ever. My own positive experience of shopping with children - kids being switched on and engaged to discover new books - and the robustness of that particular sector, leads me to think that other areas in-store need the same care and attention, to replicate the experience for adults.

If we look at travel operators for comparison on the high-street, what are we to make of new shop openings by Kuoni? Or of Virgin opening their first retail store in High Street Kensington? Andrew Aylett, Planning Director, OgilvyAction thinks Virgin is tapping into something here with what he calls “cutting edge digital technology and good old-fashioned hospitality”. For Aylett, the way ahead lies in the “emotional connection that sits behind their proposition” and in creating a memorable and compelling brand experience.

One thing I’d agree with Aylett on is the use of “storytelling” as a social currency that “drives involvement beyond the confines of the outlet”. Travel is, perhaps, very well-placed to create something powerful that resonates for customers in this area, offline and online. The creation of imaginative storytelling for a ‘traveller’s arc’ (planning to post-trip memories) is something I touched upon in my first post. For travel providers and retailers, I see this opportunity to curate stories as a virtuous circle of recommendation and engagement for the reader, and perhaps a space in which to craft and design something radical, individual and enduring.

What do you think?

 Image: Sergio Montijano

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