12 December 2011

Dept. of Don't Even Know Which Side I'm On Anymore

I would like to know how independent booksellers think they can keep people from "showrooming," that is, browsing in a bookstore and then buying a book elsewhere. Will all cell phone users in bookstores be looked at with suspicion? Can admission be charged? Is there a statute of limitations on this purchase -- say, if I think of a book 6 months after I see it in a store, do I have to go back to that particular store in order to buy it? Am I the enemy just because I don't always go into a bookstore intending to buy something? (Yes, apparently!)
If you think about it, every brick-and-mortar store welcomes browsers under no obligation to buy. Just because the biggest competitor in the space has a name doesn't mean the game is any different. How do independent clothing stores compete with Wal-Mart and Target? (Or, I don't know, Banana Republic if you feel that the price differential is too much.) How does a farmer's market compete with Safeway or Whole Foods? Not by letting it be known that casual shoppers are unwelcome, or (as one commenter on the above-linked blog post mentions) "stealing." I would suspect that the story is more like: People who buy books from independent bookstores probably buy more books on average than other consumers, whether it's from online stores, indies or chains. There has to be a better way than alienating those buyers, likely the most loyal customers, on behalf of some of their purchases.


Marjorie said...

Am I the enemy just because I don't always go into a bookstore intending to buy something?

No, of course not. The enemy is the group that walks into the store, picks books up, recommends them to each other, then loudly says "I'll get it for my Kindle! I never buy books anymore!" and walks out again. This is behavior that I witness nearly every time I go into a bookstore.

What's at issue isn't the service stores provide of giving you a place to browse and hang out, it's connecting you with a product that you actually want to buy. Whether you have plans to buy when you first walk into a store isn't important. It's that once you go in and find something you want, the store has done its job. It's provided its value, it's done everything it can do to earn that shopper's book dollars, because it's connected a reader with a book they want to read and have the opportunity to buy in the store.

Independent clothing stores, farmer's markets, etc. all have their own trials competing with big boxes and chains, but most of them are in a different boat because they're selling different products. An independent boutique, Banana Republic, and Target all sell different clothes, and if one version is cheaper it's usually more cheaply made as well. A person can't go to the boutique (or to BR), try on some clothes, and then go home and order the same clothes cheaper from Target.com. Farmer's markets are able to exist because people value organic food, or natural food, or fresh food. They're also able to exist because some people have an interest in supporting local farmers, and that's the sentiment that independent booksellers are trying to tap into when they talk about issues like this.

As far as shoppers buying at different venues goes, I'd be happy to support that, except that Amazon seems to be actively seeking a monopoly with their predatory pricing and proprietary formats. Bookstores are closing every day, and the more of a market share Amazon gains, the less opportunity there is for people to spread out their book buying to different sources.

Elizabeth said...

Am I the enemy because I get books out of the library, just about exclusively?

On the other hand, I don't very frequently walk into bookstores, either. If I do, it's because I want to use the bathroom (Barnes & Noble), get out of the rain, or amuse myself for half an hour, not because I'm looking for the next book to request out of the library, but then I usually do try to buy something small (coffee, if they have it) in exchange for the service they've given me.

But I would think that this is where salesmanship comes into it. I've walked into clothing stores too, with the intention of getting one particular item for one particular event, and walked out with an armful of clothes after a very charismatic salesperson convinced me that I should buy them. Booksellers could be the same way: if they see a customer tapping into their smartphone, they could sidle up and try to persuade them that they need this book right now. Just because you're selling books doesn't mean you need to be introverted.

Ellen said...

Marjorie: I freely admit that it is at least rude, and definitely disheartening, to hear people talk about how they don't buy books in a bookstore. I can't think those people are the majority but they make themselves easy targets for charges of "showrooming."

I get what you're saying about Amazon and independent bookstores offering the same products and thus being forced into closer competition, and I agree with you that Amazon uses its considerable weight to do things that those smaller stores can't do. (Ann Patchett made this point much more eloquently when quoted in an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday) But I don't know if the best way to summon the "rally around your used bookstore!" feelings is to accuse browsers of being insensitive and not caring about independent bookstores. Maybe something like the post-Thanksgiving "Small Business Saturday" would be better -- encouraging book lovers everywhere to go to their local stores on a particular day, buy a book and say "Hey, thanks for being here."

Elizabeth: I think booksellers can play a really huge part in making a store the first outlet consumers go to, in the right place. I still remember when my mom would go to our local bookstore and the woman behind the counter (who was a friend of hers) would pull stuff specially for her. Of course, that was also in a small town and such coziness doesn't scale, but sometimes an offer of help arrives in just the right place. On the other hand (and this is not just true for books) I think we can all picture a time when an overzealous salesperson made us want to not patronize their store.