A greater percentage of independent booksellers reported that they enjoyed Christmas sales increases in 2014, compared to the previous two years, according to a survey by The Bookseller.
In a separate survey by the Booksellers Association of 80 bookshops, 55% reported sales were up—compared with 43% last year—and of those shops, 18% reported sales were up “a lot”. Meanwhile, 69% said they saw an increase in footfall, up from 45% who said they had seen a decline last year.
Of the 57 indie bookshops to complete The Bookseller’s Independents Christmas Trading Survey (conducted between the end of December and 5th January), 79% said they achieved a like-for-like sales increase, a figure that is far higher than both last year’s equivalent (46%) and 2012’s (48%). By contrast, 7% of indies said like-for-like sales had fallen in December 2014, while 14.04% said they had remained roughly the same. Booksellers reported that sales increases ranged from just over 1% to as much as 37%.
An extra day of sales in the week before Christmas in comparison to last year helped boost the figures, as did “perfect” weather for high street shopping (mild), a strong and wide range of books, and a willingness from loyal customers to shop local. One bookseller said: “December sales were up 8.6%—but profits are probably about the same due to heavier discounting.” Another reported that year-on-year sales were “at least 30% up, because last year was really bad”.
A wide range of titles were identified as hits, with many relying on local publishing to make the difference. However, Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor (Hodder & Stoughton), H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Jonathan Cape), The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador) and Chris Hadfield’s You Are Here (Macmillan) were named successes by several indies, along with “surprise hit”, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (Picador). Meanwhile, many independents said that signed stock added key value to the indie proposition for customers. One bookshop mentioned that adult colouring books were popular, while several said titles about the environment were in demand.
One bookseller said: “History, good biography, gift and reference titles did well. Chris Hadfield’s TV and radio appearances created a sudden demand for his titles, which must have wrongfooted a fair few of us. Humour was weaker than previously, with a shift towards well-packaged, neatly priced reference titles.”
Nic Bottomley of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath said: “There was a real mix this year. Needless to say we did well with the books we published under our new publishing arm, Fox, Finch & Tepper (The Shiralee and The Next Step in the Dance).”
Over 36% of indie booksellers said they had problems with the availability of titles, with nearly all respondents expressing frustration that the Private Eye Annual 2014 went out of stock two weeks before Christmas. Demand for the title soared after the magazine’s editor Ian Hislop appeared on BBC1’s “The One Show” on 2nd December.
Sheila Molnar, managing director of Private Eye, told The Bookseller the number of orders for the annual was “unprecedented”. She said: “Ian’s appearance on ‘The One Show’ took us all by surprise—it went from selling 1,000 copies a week to 22,000 copies a week, and we couldn’t book another print run in time for Christmas.” She added: “Every year booksellers leave it later and later to order, and we tell them all every year that they have to order early.”
Some booksellers noted the effect Black Friday had on sales. Frances Hopkins from Urmston Bookshop in Manchester said: “I think that a lot of people were sucked into the Black Friday hype and so people finished their shopping early.” However, another bookseller added: “I think the publicity about how bad deliveries would be following Black Friday meant people who might have ordered from Amazon got a bit worried and came here instead.”
Notably, 41.5% of respondents thought e-books were less of a threat to their businesses than last year, but 52% thought they posed the same threat. Only 10% of bookshops said they sell e-books, but of that number, every shop reported that it wasn’t a successful line of revenue for them.
In a cap-tip to publishers, more than 58% of respondents said they had been more supportive and flexible on margin and payments terms in comparison to last year. However, 95.4% said they would still like to see more support.
Amazon and election could disrupt business in 2015
Independent booksellers are confident for 2015, although they are wary about the effect the general election and Amazon will have on their businesses.
The majority of indies said they were optimistic about 2015, however 20% of respondents named Amazon as a particular and continuing threat to their existence, while others said economic uncertainty around the general election could affect sales.
Marie Moser from The Edinburgh Bookshop said: “I would expect my business to hold at about this level, or possibly grow a little more, in 2015. I do see Amazon as an increasing threat, as its Amazon Prime offer is very seductive and is proven to increase customer buying through them by around 35%.”
Couriers leave booksellers aghast at ‘total shambles’
It was another dire Christmas for couriers, with several major delivery firms hit by troubles in December.
Yodel, a service used by Bertrams, stopped delivering for three days at the beginning of December as it struggled to meet demand after a flood of Black Friday online orders, but many bookshops reported unreliable or damaged deliveries continued up until Christmas. Bertrams switched to TNT in some areas, but that delivery service also came under pressure, and as CityLink went into administration on Christmas Eve, it failed to deliver parcels to bookshops on that day. Altogether, 54% of respondents to The Bookseller’s Independents Christmas Trading Survey reported problems with deliveries, with one simply saying: “Yodel had a shocker.”
Harry Wainwright, owner of the Oldfield Park Bookshop in Bath, said: “It was a complete and total shambles. It is easy to blame Yodel but responsibility lies with those who negotiated the contracts with the distributors. It was the worst Christmas I have known in more than 20 years. Moving books from a warehouse to a bookshop is not difficult, but put enough suits in enough hotels with enough flipcharts and it’s amazing what they will come up with.”
In north London, Camden Lock Books’ Jason Burley said: “CityLink went out of business and failed to deliver three boxes of orders on 24th December.” Some booksellers also reported that Gardners failed to deliver on Christmas Eve. Sheryl Shurville of the Chorleywood Bookshop in Hertfordshire said: “Gardners let us down badly on Christmas Eve by not delivering to either shop.”
Bob Jackson, commercial director at Gardners, apologised to customers affected over the Christmas period. He said: “Unfortunately, owing to a system issue during the early evening of 23rd December, we were regrettably unable to pick and despatch a number of our UK customer orders in time to meet the carrier collection deadlines to ensure delivery on Christmas Eve. This incident was deeply frustrating for the team at Gardners, who had achieved an excellent service throughout the year.”
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