Supermarket chains are growing their share of the books market, but what can they offer that specialists cannot?

<p>The Bookseller profiles the books offer at three of the UK's leading supermarket superstores:</p><p>Asda, Beckton, East London</p><p>As Asda in Beckton features strongly in the latest anti-corporate film release, Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price", it is no wonder that staff at the branch are twitchy. I am allowed to take notes in the store, but I need permission for photography. I point out that the bays I am photographing are on open and public display. "But this is private property," the supervisor says. "We invite you in to shop." I put away my camera.</p><p>Asda, owned by US supermarket giant Wal-Mart, has a thriving superstore branch at Beckton, east London; its competition with the local Queen's Market, made up of fruit and veg stall-holders, is the reason for Greenwald's interest in the branch.</p><p>Two minutes' walk from Beckton Docklands Light Railway stop, and with a single-storey car park of about 300 spaces, this store is the only substantial retailer in the Mary Rose Mall: the other two are fast food outlets. It has what may be described as a standard superstore offer, laid out across approximately 65,000 sq ft, with 44 aisles, each split into three lengths, plus a separate section for George, Asda's clothing line. About a third of the store space is given over to non-food products.</p><p>The store is entertained by Asda FM radio station, which periodically recommends promoted items, such as "mouthwatering Madagascan vanilla" yoghurt. It is not a traditional environment in which to sell books, but the store had a steady stream of custom during the afternoon last Tuesday, with plenty of shoppers browsing the books selection. Beckton is a multicultural area, and at least a third of Asda's female customers were wearing saris. The elderly and mothers with children made up a significant proportion of shoppers, but there were also a number of younger south Asian men and a young Japanese couple browsing through all the sections; Beckton is also close to the University of East London.</p><p>Clever children's range</p><p>Books take up only 5% of a single aisle at Asda Beckton, with a range of about 250 titles in all. A gondola end displays a mixture of adult paperbacks, hardbacks and children's books, and there is a dumpbin of Sharon Osbourne's Extreme (Time Warner) at &#163;3.73, down from &#163;18.99, and a promotion on Mark Billingham's backlist (Little, Brown), at &#163;3.73 and &#163;4.</p><p>The top 70 paperbacks chart has every title priced at &#163;3.73. Commercial fiction, including crime thrillers and female fiction, dominates this selection. On offer are the latest titles from Lee Child, Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, James Patterson, Cathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and P J Tracy, among others. The paperback selection is peppered with a few literary titles, such as John Banville's The Sea (Picador), and the odd non-fiction title, including Sabine Dardenne's I Choose To Live (Virago Press).</p><p>The hardbacks range of 30 titles is mostly priced at &#163;9.96: it comprises a good number of sports and celebrity biographies and autobiographies, as well as commercial fiction, and non-fiction such as cookery and reference books. Some hardbacks are stickered at &#163;10.96, others at &#163;8.96, and some as low as &#163;7.96, including Jodi Picoult's latest, The Tenth Circle (Hodder&amp;Stoughton), and Jordan's A Whole New World. A range signposted as "Value/Mills&amp;Boon" includes books priced as low as &#163;1.63, such as Janet Evanovich's Metro Girl (HarperCollins) and Mike Gayle's My Legendary Girlfriend (Flame).</p><p>Asda's children's offer is cleverly put together within a limited range of about 60 titles. All books in the children's top 10 chart are priced at &#163;3.73. There is a varied choice of fiction for different ages, and a good spread for boys and girls (see box). There is an "Author of the Month" promotion on Andy McNab's new story in hardback for boys, Avenger (Doubleday) knocked down from &#163;10.99 to &#163;6.96, and Asda's "Recommended Read" for children is Francesca Simon's Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend (Orion Children's Books), down from &#163;4.99 to &#163;3.73.</p><p>Asda's books selection is situated next to stationery, and opposite magazines and newspapers, just around the corner from the store's main entrance and its fresh fruit and vegetables section.</p><p>The look and feel of the shop is all about value for money: no expense is wasted on glossy-looking merchandising. Price promotions are everywhere, with a World Cup theme throughout the store, including a range of football-related books. Asda's threat to high street booksellers is significant, but one-dimensional: price.</p><p>Liz Bury</p><p>Tesco Extra, Stockport</p><p>Even by the standards of UK supermarkets, Tesco's stores are big. Stepping into its giant branch on the outskirts of Stockport in Greater Manchester, it soon becomes clear that you can pick up almost all the goods you might otherwise tour the high street for. Clothes, toys, DVDs, cards, personal loans, petrol--shopping here is more like visiting an entire mall than a single store.</p><p>The Stockport branch is a Tesco Extra, the hypermarket format for branches of 60,000 sq ft or more favoured by Tesco for pushing its non-food lines. Mostly located in out-of-town sites and often open 24 hours a day, Tesco has opened more than 100 such stores since it launched the brand in 1997. It continues to roll out the format, with 18 new Extra shops opened last year, many of which were upgraded existing superstores. </p><p>Tesco Extra now accounts for nearly a third of the chain's 26 million sq ft of floor space in the UK, and it is easy to see why Tesco loves the format so much. Like for like, the chain's non-food sales are growing twice as fast as sales of groceries, and offering more products pulls in more customers.</p><p>Extra, extra</p><p>Extra stores carry Tesco's biggest range of books. As with items such as stationery and CDs, books can appear almost incidental to the massive range of products at Stockport. They take up one short aisle of the many dozens in the store--and yet the selection is impressive. The focus is on bestsellers, though the range runs deep--Tesco's own list of top sellers extends to 70 titles, with separate hardback and children's charts too.</p><p>Paperback fiction dominates the range, and there is plenty of romance and chick lit. Non-fiction stock is led by celebrity and other biographies, with the hardback chart topped by Danniella Westbrook and Jordan, sandwiching Niki Shisler's Fragile (Ebury). Mindful of visiting parents, the store offers plenty for children, too: bestsellers led by Jacqueline Wilson and Francesca Simon, plus a bay of A to Z fiction, and substantial learning and kids' character ranges.</p><p>Book stock is not simply a handful of big names piled high: Tesco has given thought to its target market and title selection. Other distinct sections include food and drink, health and fitness, and lifestyle, with an emphasis on practical titles in areas such as gardening. History--facts and fiction--gets its own section, and a prominent "New!" section highlights recent releases. There is a decent choice of backlist, much of it available in a three-for-&#163;10 promotion.</p><p>As with most of Tesco's offer, price is central. The top 20 bestsellers are all stickered at &#163;3.73, with most hardbacks available at &#163;8.97 or &#163;9.97. Books are generally stacked facing out to catch busy shoppers' eyes, with few spines on display. Shoppers here do not linger with books as they might in a traditional bookseller, but nor do they simply sweep paperbacks off the shelves and into their trolleys. Books are situated close to the main entrance; on my visit, shoppers were browsing for 10 minutes before picking a single paperback, while others (local independent booksellers?) left with half a basket full.</p><p></p><p>The size and reach of stores such as Stockport is exciting for publishers and daunting for booksellers. For publishers chasing high volume and prepared to be squeezed on margin, Tesco offers an attractive route to market. In terms of both total and book sales, Tesco is getting ever bigger, too. Its book sales rocketed 52% to more than 20 million units in 2005-06. With more Extra stores opening, more trials of its fledgling Homeplus non-food brand, and more space devoted to entertainment across the chain, Tesco is clearly serious about books.</p><p>Shelf-talkers at Stockport direct shoppers to "for every title on UK release", and with 750,000 regular customers online, Tesco is looking at ways to push non-food items harder to them. Its books are likely to get cheaper, too--the average price of all items across the chain fell 1.8% in 2005-06, and the company says competitive pricing is one of the main reasons for its success in ranges such as books. Tesco has set a target of becoming as big in non-food as it is in food--and in books, it has only just begun.</p><p>Tom Holman</p><p>Sainsbury's West Hove</p><p>Sainsbury's West Hove is an impressive edge-of-town superstore serving an affluent, arty, south coast customer base. Customer turnover is 6,065 a day. Alongside the usual grocery aisles, half the 54,000 sq ft sales space is given over to clothing, homewares, garden furniture, beauty, electricals, toys, DVDs, CDs and books.</p><p>The main book offer is easy to find, as it is located towards the front of the store, a few aisles to the right of the fresh fruit and vegetable department, adjoining the CD selection, and facing across the aisle from the DVD offer. The product is left to speak for itself, though, as there is no overhead signage guiding customers towards books. Instead, the prominent word rising above this entertainment aisle is "Offers".</p><p>Ranged and confused</p><p>Books are given no special treatment in terms of store design, lighting or visual merchandising, unlike some of the other non-food categories. While the beauty section is lit and styled to evoke a more intimate, female-geared environment, and the childrenswear department has wooden-effect flooring, bright spot lighting and colourful graphics along its back wall, the book aisle has the look of simply another commodity set out for easy access.</p><p>Books are displayed nearly all cover-out, along a single, 30 ft long, very plain shelf fixture, divided into 10 banks of books. The graduated shelving unit is 6 ft high with space for four or five shelves. Two cardboard display cases are at the end of the aisle, promoting discounted autobiographies by celebrities Jade Goody and Sharon Osbourne.</p><p>There is no warm lighting, stylish shelving, information on books or place to sit. On the up side, the aisle itself is wide--at least 6 ft--giving plenty of space for trolleys to navigate. And having DVDs and books merchandised together apparently appeals to browsers, who were looking at both.</p><p>The books range, however, is confusing: there is a top 40 chart for fiction and non-fiction, covering both hardbacks and paperbacks, taking up half of the books shelf space (see chart). Among the bestsellers, problems with supply are evident, with four of the top 40 out of stock. To the left, a top 20 paperbacks selection and a low-price paperbacks range are displayed; and to the right, a food and drink books selection.</p><p>Prices are displayed along the top of the books shelving unit: titles on the fiction chart are priced from &#163;9.99; non-fiction from &#163;9.99; paperbacks from &#163;4.99; and food and drink from &#163;4.99. Red stickers on most of the books ensure prices leap out. Discounting is widespread: Danniella Westbrook's The Other Side of Nowhere (Hodder&amp;Stoughton) in hardback is reduced from &#163;16.99 to &#163;12.99, while The River Cottage Meat Book (Hodder&amp;Stoughton)in hardback is down from &#163;30 to &#163;17.99.</p><p>In paperback, bestsellers and celebrity autobiographies are less than &#163;5: Sharon Osbourne's Extreme (Time Warner) is at &#163;4.99. Also in paperback, Dan Brown's Angels and Demons (Bantam Press) and Kate Mosse's Labyrinth (Orion) are both at &#163;4.99. Beyond the charts, there are bargain paperbacks, including Mills&amp;Boon and Silhouette romance titles, for &#163;3.10.</p><p>"Offer of the Week" is Fiona Walker's Tongue in Cheek (Hodder&amp;Stoughton) in paperback, down from &#163;6.99 to &#163;3.73. While there are 20 or so copies on display, there is no information about the book or the author, or why the title has been chosen as an offer.</p><p>An extensive selection of food and drink titles is available, with authors such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and Ainsley Harriott nearly all at reduced prices. There are also many cheaper non-celebrity recipe books in paperback at less than &#163;5.</p><p>Acting on impulse</p><p>Children's books are displayed throughout the store--in the back section and with the toys--so you would be forgiven for thinking none are on offer. This small range is divided between titles for under-fives and those for five- to eight-year-olds, with the price offer communicated through stickers and point-of-sale.</p><p>The cluttered children's books display has high-towering shelves, and several Harry Potter sticker books are strewn on the floor. The Gruffalo (Macmillan Children's Books) in paperback is &#163;3.99, and Noddy lift-the-flap books are &#163;2.99; there are plenty of Terry Pratchett titles, as well as Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. No staff are on hand to help with choosing books, either in the adult or children's sections.</p><p>Sainsbury's is apparently aiming to catch passing traffic with its books offer: near the checkouts are gondola end displays of bargain books. On offer here are cheap paperbacks designed perhaps to be purchased on impulse, such as World Famous Serial Killers and UFOs (Parragon) at &#163;1.99, mini AA travel guides for Corfu and Tunisia, and crossword puzzle books.</p><p>During my half-hour loiter in the main book aisle on a busy Saturday afternoon in May, very few books were being taken off the shelves. In fact, I saw only one browser convert to a buyer: a middle-aged lady flung into her trolley a copy of Sharon Osbourne's Extreme.</p><p>Alison Clements</p>