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Kindles, kids and coffee: The evolution of the high street bookstore
6th Jul 2012
Against the odds (and they really are stacked high now), bookstores remain an integral part of the UK’s retail make-up. This was never clearer than during Independent Booksellers Week, ending on Saturday 7 July, which saw over 300 stores up and down the country celebrate a thriving sector of the industry that is determined to remain a staple of the UK’s high streets.
Now in its sixth year, IBW has become a highlight in for the high street calendar, with stores holding author readings, children’s book groups and fancy dress story times, as well as endless bookshop recommendations and must-reads on Twitter.
For many booksellers it was a good excuse to take stock of their place within the community, as well as their survival across six years of incredibly tough trading. Within a decade that saw the onset of the e-book, the fall of Borders Group, the continued rise of e-commerce and a nation struck by a double dip recession, it’s safe to say it’s been a testing time for the hardback. And yet new trading figures released by the Booksellers Association this week show that although an obvious struggle remains, bookstores that are willing to evolve are in business, and a flourishing one at that.
While 2011 saw a continued reduction in high street bookshops in Britain with 73 independent stores closing and only 36 opening, no children’s bookshops closed during the year.
It follows a trend Books & Consumer signaled in March, when it found Children’s book purchases rose slightly in 2011 by both volume and value, largely driven by the purchase of physical non-fiction titles, where e-books are yet to make an impact. The report went on to add that “children’s fiction has been the best performing category over the last 4 years as a whole, and the only main category to achieve volume and value growth.”
Speaking in light of the results, Tim Godfray, chief executive, Booksellers association said:
"Our latest BA membership numbers confirm a continued reduction in the number of bookshops on Britain's high streets and campuses - a cause for very real concern and something which we urge publishers to consider very seriously and address when formulating their business plans.
Though it was gratifying to see an increase in openings in the latter part of last year, and children’s bookshops really holding their own, the competition from the internet and the arrival of e-books are putting pressures on high street and campus bookshops."
Despite the concerns voiced by Godfray, there are few sectors of the retail industry as a whole that have managed to align themselves so closely to the local high street and community, in ties that only grow stronger from fiercely loyal consumers. A glance across IBW’s Twitter feed and those using its hashtags during the seven day festivities demonstrated just how much a bookstore can mean for its high street.
It’s a relationship Philip Downer, former chief executive of Borders UK and now retail consultant at Front of Store, is acutely aware of:
“Booksellers have been hit by a double whammy of consumer recession and digitization, and yet independent stores that diversify have more bulwarks against shifting consumer behavior.
“Children’s bookselling is better insulated against digital change than adult- they are colourful and interactive, unlike adult novels. Some publishers have successfully developed iPad- friendly apps, but old-fashioned picture books are still perceived as the best form for children’s literature.”
But it’s not all change. The Booksellers Association also revealed that a tried-and-tested trend for mixing books and coffee remains a strong draw for independent booksellers looking to boost their in-store browse-time and keep shoppers lingering.
The IBF Fitness Programme, conducted by Bowker Market Research on behalf of the Booksellers Association found that independent bookshops with cafes were bucking the downward trend, and managed to grow their turnover in 2011. Of the stores analysed, independent bookshops with cafes saw a 3 per cent growth in turnover for the year, compared to a 5.2 per cent decline for those without. Most importantly for booksellers, the results found that bookstores with cafes also saw a 2 per cent increase in book turnover as opposed to a 4 per cent drop across all stores.
And it’s not just the indies that are keen to diversify. Taking off where Borders partnership with Starbucks left, Waterstones has recently announced it is about to undertake a refurbishment programme to increase cafe space in 100 stores.
“A good coffee shop in a bookshop needs today to be more than a clone of a high street operation, but independent stores are best placed to create a unique offer.” Downer told My Retail Media, adding that adding a coffee shop and a good selection of children's books is likely to attract parents looking for a base to meet friends, in an environment that's also exciting and safe for children.
In a year that saw the much protested closure of Notting Hill’s Travel Book Shop, it seems that not even a cameo in a Richard Curtis film will save every store. As the sector faces its second “Kindle Summer” it’s clear that traditional formats face many more years of tough trading. Only those that are able to evolve and diversify will continue to remain the cultural hubs and heart of the communities they serve.
Philip Downer is the owner of retail consultancy Front of Store and former CEO of Borders UK. Click here to visit his blog.