How to sell an e-reader

One of the most interesting—and practical—sessions at the Frankfurt Tools of Change conference this year discussed consumer book buying behaviour, with contributions from BML's Jo Henry, and Barnes & Noble's recently appointed vice-president, eBooks, Jim Hilt. Hilt's background is at Sears and IBM, but can talk books and bookshops with confidence and passion.

Hilt's theme was "combined services"—namely, that for physical bookstores to survive, they must provide a full online service in both p-books and e-books. And of course, Barnes & Noble is both America's dominant superstore chain, and a feisty tech player in online print books (bn.com) and e-books (Nook).  

He argued that book buyers—whatever their preferred format—will benefit from the availability of a full service offer, with their local store acting as a hub where booksellers can recommend e-books, fix malfunctioning Kindles and consolidate online orders in addition to their traditional bookseller duties (all the while assembling first-rate consumer behaviour data).  

The idea—of dedicated experts providing superlative service—is the cornerstone of Apple Stores' success, yet the big difference is in the breadth of expertise required.  Apple Stores sell just five products (iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone and iPod) plus accessories. Though the apps and programmes available are almost limitless, mastering Apple's product functions is within the scope of most of us, whereas supporting and curating hundreds of thousands of book titles entails real challenges, which inventory look-up etc can only partially mitigate. 

Nevertheless, the vision is a seductive one, and an "all-format" book offer (plus coffee and other categories) represents the only sensible strategy for big bookstore chains. It's a challenging one—B&N has been missing Wall Street profit forecasts for several quarters—but their commitment and vision are admirable.

Over on this side of the pond, W H Smith's partnership with Kobo swiftly hit the stores after its Frankfurt announcement. It is absolutely right for WHS to have an e-reader in their armoury, and the inexpensive Kobo makes sense. I visited the launch store at London's Victoria Station to learn more, but despite the powerful promotion on the outside of the building, the offer instore was trapped in visual and physical cacophony.  

E-readers are intuitive once you know how to use them, but for first-timers, they're a new challenge, and I would have liked to have seen trained staff—perhaps on the quieter first floor—available to demonstrate the features and benefits of Kobo and the e-reading experience. Flat-battery Kobos and a marketing focus on "free" titles (bizarrely, the few available to browse included Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ulysses) undersells e-reading, and would be an easy match for a supermarket chain. 

WHS could offer an important alternative to the UK's OFT-sanctioned Amazon monopoly —but they need to try harder.