Indies report strong festive sales
Strong autumn lists helped most independent booksellers increase sales over the festive period, according to The Bookseller’s annual Christmas trading survey. However, many also reported that the inclement weather hit footfall.
Nearly 46% of booksellers who participated in the survey reported a sales lift over the festive period, with one indie claiming to be up by as much as 35%. Many praised the quality and range of the season’s fiction publishing which they said helped boost sales.
The lack of a single standout Christmas title also played to independents’ strengths and meant booksellers could rely on their hand-selling skills to rack up important sales in the final days before Christmas.
However, heavy rain and strong winds in the two days directly before Christmas had an effect on footfall and sales for many—a problem shared by Waterstones, according to its m.d. James Daunt—leading to 26.1% of indies seeing like-for-like sales decline in the period, with one down by as much as 40%. Aggressive email marketing by online competitors, a lack of shoppers’ disposable income, and supermarkets’ heavy discounting on key Christmas titles were also blamed for siphoning sales from indies.
Altogether 28.3% of the 47 respondents said sales from last year were “about the same”.
The results suggest many indies had a strong Christmas in comparison to other bricks-and-mortar booksellers. Waterstones’ like-for-like sales were “slightly down” on last year, hindered by the stormy weather. “Christmas trade was looking quite good up until the 23rd, but then we had the last two dreadful days for weather before Christmas and it wasn’t quite what we wanted in the end,” Daunt said.
Foyles reported an increase in like-for-like December trading across the group of 0.4%. Its c.e.o. Sam Husain said: “We were slightly down up to the 22nd, but made up the shortfall in the two days prior to Christmas.”
Blackwell’s reported an “excellent” Christmas trading period with like-for-like sales up 4.4%, meanwhile. Like Foyles, Blackwell’s cashed in on last-minute sales on the 23rd and 24th December. “We had a fantastic last two weeks and the extra two days before Christmas made a big difference,” c.e.o. David Prescott said. W H Smith had not filed its Christmas trading update to the Stock Exchange as The Bookseller went to press.
While many indies said 2013 was a “range” Christmas, Stephen Poulter from books@Hoddesdon (pictured above left), said Pam Ayres (Ebury), Len Goodman’s Lost London (Trinity Mirror Media), and Philomena (Pan Macmillan) were “surprise hits”. Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography (Hodder), David Walliams’ Demon Dentist (HarperCollins) and David Jason’s autobiography (Century) were “predictable” bestsellers, according to indies.
Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski (Big Picture Press), Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan), John Williams’ Stoner (Vintage) and Letters of Note by Shaun Usher (Canongate Unbound) were also cited as popular titles.
Many insisted signed books, particularly hardbacks, helped to win key sales.
Rachel Phipps from the Woodstock Bookshop said the biggest factor affecting Christmas trade was “excellent publishing in the fiction genre”. However, Poulter said: “The fact that people had very little money to spend, and that they were inundated with ‘special offers’, emailed discount vouchers, and one-day pre-Christmas sales,” hindered trade.
“Also the further increase in online shopping: as soon as the weather is too wet, too cold or too hot people now refuse to go outside, and sit down in the warm at their computer because it is much more convenient and involves no effort,” he added.
Lack of footfall was also mentioned as a big factor affecting trade, as were supermarkets selling big Christmas titles at heavily discounted rates, which Tony Mulligan from Formby Books, Liverpool, said was “killing us [indies]”.
Indies report mixed feelings for 2014
Independent booksellers have reported mixed feelings about the health of the sector for 2014.
Many indies told The Bookseller’s annual Christmas Trading Survey that they were optimistic about 2014, predicting a slowdown in e-books and e-reader sales, an improvement in the economy, and customers revelling in the resurgence of independent retailing.
However, some were pessimistic about the year to come, naming a lack of footfall on high streets; the continued “drip drip” effect of competition from online retailers, supermarkets and e-books; high rent and business rates; and unequal treatment from publishers—allegedly offering larger players much better terms—all taking their toll.
Two bookshops, Formby Books in Liverpool and the Animal Kitchen Bookshop in Tenby, told The Bookseller they would be forced to close in the first quarter of the year. Ian Waterson, owner of Animal Kitchen Bookshop, is retiring at the age of 84 after running the bookshop for 26 years. He said: “Sales have been on a steady decline since the last Harry Potter book was published in 2007.”
Tony Higginson, owner of Formby Books, which has traded for 27 years, was far more damning of his situation and the state of the industry as a whole. “The publishing industry is killing itself by allowing supermarkets the margin to sell Christmas bestsellers for £5,” he said.
Other booksellers made pleas to publishers regarding developments which they feel need to take place in 2014 to help the sector thrive. Peter Donaldson from Red Lion Books in Colchester said: “We need help on margins and terms, but more importantly we need thoughtful publishing. We need quality and originality in the writing and in the production. In the rush into the exciting digital worlds, we need publishers to remember the importance of the physical book and to give us books that we will be proud to place on our shelves and take pleasure in recommending.”
Another bookseller, Sheila O’Reilly from Dulwich Books, called on publishers to work with indies to offer physical and digital book-bundling deals, similar to the partnership Foyles has struck with HarperCollins. She said: “Independents need to be able to sell physical and e-book bundles by Christmas 2014 which, if we can, would be a fantastic opportunity. If we cannot, that would be a challenge as I believe that the chains will have set up deals with major publishers to do this in the next 12 months.”
However, O’Reilly added: “We are optimistic about 2014 in general. We feel we are well placed to react quickly to the changing demands of customers and publishers.”
Other booksellers spoke of optimism stemming from increased business with schools, running festivals, developing an online offer and curating a non-book department. James Howorth, owner of the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance, said: “We have been here for just under two years and I think things are looking cautiously good. Our sales are up about 10% from last year . . . We are quite a specialised quirky little shop though, and I think there is always going to be a market for us.”
Majority see Amazon backlash
Nearly 77% of independent bookshops have experienced a backlash against Amazon from customers who visit their shops.
Altogether, 36 out of the 47 respondents to The Bookseller’s annual Christmas trading survey reported that they had seen an increased awareness of the need to support independent bookshops and a backlash against shopping with Amazon, following bad publicity over its low UK corporation tax payments and the treatment of its warehouse employees.
Peter Donaldson from Red Lion Books in Colchester said: “Many customers are telling us that they have made a choice to shop with us rather than Amazon because of their tax and employment practices. Our customers recognise that we do as much as we can to keep prices down through our own promotional discounting.”
Sarah Rees, from Cover to Cover bookshop in Swansea, said: “I’m seeing this particularly because my shop is in Swansea, where we have an Amazon warehouse. Lots of customers know of Amazon’s bad practices, and some do actively boycott them.”
Tim Walker from Walker’s Bookshops said: “I think that the sentiment is definitely there.” However, he added: “I got the feeling that this Christmas customers were more price-conscious than ever before.”
Stephen Poulter from books@Hoddeston, meanwhile, pointed out that while there may be a backlash against Amazon, there is a “big difference” between “what people say and what they then do with regards to shopping online.”
Two booksellers commented on a new trend of customers bargaining down the price of books at till-points, which they attributed to customers knowing that they could purchase the title cheaper online using Amazon.
John Woods from Nickleby’s Bookstore in Llantwit Major said: “We increasingly get customers bargaining with us on the price of books, saying that they will support us if we reduce our prices to within a pound or two of Amazon or supermarkets’ [prices]. We generally do this for bestsellers thereby reducing our margin from 30%–40% to 5%–15%.”
Mark Thornton from Mostly Books in Abingdon added: “As a quid pro quo, people are becoming more bold in doing deals at the till on more popular titles.”
Christmas BAMB ‘too low-key’
The Books Are My Bag campaign could have had more prominence over the Christmas period, booksellers have said. Despite new festive-themed material being made available by the Booksellers Association, indies lamented that there wasn’t the same level of promotion for the campaign over the key Christmas trading period as there was for its launch in September.
Bob Johnston, from the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, said: “BAMB sadly failed to increase footfall for us in December. This is mainly due to a lack of visibility and PR in Ireland.”
Eleanor Davies of Linghams Bookshop, Heswall, said: “I don’t think it made much difference. The real impact was earlier in the year.”
However, Marie Telford from The Hayling Island Bookshop, said: “We ran a [Christmas] competition around BAMB and also gave all customers who spent over £20 a BAMB bag. They were very well received.”
‘No e-book interest’, say indies
Indies with the facility to sell e-books to customers saw little or no interest in e-book sales over Christmas, according to those who answered The Bookseller’s trading survey.
Jacqueline Johnson from Jacqson Diego Story Emporium in Westcliff-on-Sea said there had been “no demand at all”. Frances Hopkins of Manchester’s Urmston Bookshop said: “We recently set up the facility to sell e-books, but so far we haven’t sold any.
However, Mark Thornton from Mostly Books in Abingdon said that while he hadn’t sold many e-books, being able to bundle print and digital books together was a valuable service offered by indie publisher Angry Robot. He said the scheme was working very well for the shop “in terms of how customers perceived us”.