The recent success of the Independent Booksellers Week has underlined the extraordinary achievement of owner-operated book stores in the face of the lockdowns. During the week, the reading community came out in force to support their local indie book shops, and many owners reported healthy footfall and strong sales during the week.
Despite the most challenging of circumstances, the Booksellers Association says that its independent membership actually grew by 7 per cent in 2020, which is an almost incredible result.
It was not always thus: the industry was one of the first hit by the growth of online, with store numbers halving between 1995 and 2017. However, since then, the numbers have grown every year. All-in-all, it is a pretty incredible come-back story.
So what lessons can the book industry offer to other retailers who are struggling to recover from the twin impacts of online competition and COVID? The High Street is clearly in crisis, with record store closures of 17,500 in 2020, according to PWC.
Here are ten key things that independent booksellers are doing well, which could benefit any retailer, along with some actual success stories:
1. The importance of having a sense of passion and higher purpose, beyond just selling things. Independent booksellers believe in the importance of reading as a foundation of a positive culture. An example of this idealism came from The Big Green Bookshop, in Hastings, East Sussex, which launched an initiative called #buyastrangerabook, whereby people could purchase a book for someone who had requested it, but could not afford it.
2. The necessity of having a strong community. Booksellers’ passion and values are shared by a broad community, encompassing authors, publishers, retail team members and customers. This community cares about the survival of local book stores, and rallies around to help them in challenging times. A good example of this is Holly Bourne’s #SignForOurBookshops initiative, launched in the autumn of 2020, which provided stores with author-signed, personalized bookplates, to help encourage customers to buy in the store rather than online.
3. The critical element of offering expert customer service in their stores. Because of their passion, independent booksellers offer customers advice and guidance far beyond what is available from online sellers. For example, Daunts trains their staff to learn about individual customers’ preferences before helping them discover new authors, rather than relying on bestsellers. Some stores started offering curated boxes of books during the lockdown.
4. Many independent book stores offer an educational service to their customers – for example Booka in Oswestry offers in-store reading clubs for many different age groups. Chicken and Frog, a children’s book shop in Brentwood, Essex, runs creative writing workshops for over-sevens.
5. Embracing omni-channel retailing, in order to better serve their customers. This was particularly evident during lockdown, when many signed up to Bookshop.org – an alternative to Amazon, which allows independent bookshops to create online store fronts, and keep more of the margin than conventional resellers. Many also opened their own websites for the first time, shipping to the home or creating click and collect services.
6. Adapting their marketing to include author podcasts, virtual events and social media feeds, in order to keep their engagement with their customers during lockdown. For example, John Sandho Books in Chelsea, London created a series of podcasts with authors like Emily Mayhew and Helena Attlee.
7. Understanding that their web channels can offer a much broader range of products than can be accommodated in a physical store. For instance, Tombland, an independent based in Norwich, offers to get any book that the customer wants.
8. Using their shops to create ‘retail theatre’ through in-store events like author readings, book clubs and writers’ workshops. This use of the book shop as a kind of ‘clubhouse’ for the community, reinforces the sense of connection with their customers. For example, The Kew Bookshop, in London, runs an active series of events in its store.
9. Using technology to bring alive book launches. For example, some book stores have installed large digital screens to tell the stories behind new books.
10. Investing in customer relationship management. Innovative book shops are collecting and combining store and online customer data in order to personalize their marketing and services. Stores are also using National Book Tokens and double reward points to thank their most loyal customers.
The combination of these successful strategies have helped the independent book sector become one of the UK’s success stories over the last few years. If the rest of the independent retail sector can learn from their success and adopt the same policies, this could help drive the recovery of the British high street in the post-COVID world.
Retail Recovery: How Creative Retailers Are Winning in their Post-Apocalyptic World by Mark Pilkington (Bloomsbury Business) is published on 19 August 2021.