Competition from online retailers, who offer paper books at a huge discount, and the growing popularity of e-readers have led even the most optimistic analyst to concede that the days of a book shop appearing on every high street are drawing to a close. In comparison to online retailers, bricks and mortar chains are simply under stocked and over-priced.
That's not to say the book shop as a business is completely doomed, however. Major chains may collapse (and have, the 2011 liquidation of the Borders brand being the highest profile example), but there are many independent retailers that are not only surviving, but thriving.
The social hub, customer service and specialist knowledge
The idea of repurposing the book shop as a 'social hub' has been thrown around by major chains such as Foyles. In most speculative models, this involves adding additional outlets and services to the existing business, such as coffee outlets, performance spaces, or even bars. To many, this sounds like a desperate scramble to modernise without focus; throwing additional services at a business model in the hope one or more will stick and save it.
There is a logic to the 'social hub' idea, however, and it's a particularly strong tactic for independents.
Focussing on a speciality or niche area gives your business a real shot at becoming a legitimate meeting place for likeminded customers.
The key to making a successful bookshop a successful social hub is in making the outlet specific, focussing on a speciality or niche area gives your business a real shot at becoming a legitimate meeting place for likeminded customers. Look to appeal to fans of specific genres or form of book, such as sword-and-sandals fantasy or comic books.
A highly successful example of this is 'No Alibis', a book shop in Belfast specialising in crime fiction and American studies publications. Dedicated performance areas host readings, signings and music performances, and combing this with specialist knowledge and depth of stock all go a long way to providing an outstanding level of customers service, keeping the physical store relevant and still very much a book shop.
Through the above promotion, word of mouth and customer loyalty, No Alibis has become world renowned to genre fans, a market the business has access to by offering signed and rare books through their online shop. It's a great example of how to modernise your business, without moving it away from its primary function.
If owning a general book shop is your dream, and you don't feel you have specialist knowledge of a particular genre to offer, it's not impossible to make your business work. Look carefully at your location: online retailers will almost always beat you on price, but they can't beat you on speed of delivery. Look to position yourself somewhere that will allow you to capitalise on impulse buys - for example, near transport hubs or tourist hot spots like beaches, hotels, etc.
The independent book shop may well be the future of the industry. It requires hard work, dedication, specialist knowledge and focussed marketing, but you can make it a success.
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