Internet forums and the fall regional shows have been buzzing about how independent bookstores can capture part of the burgeoning e-book market on the Web. But what's often overlooked is how few are selling physical books on their sites. Since they can't compete on price, many indies have ceded the business to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Wal-Mart. That could change as stores like Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., and R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., move from informational sites to retail outlets with off-the-shelf back-ends from BookSite and ABA IndieCommerce, respectively. At the same time, a few independents, like Powell's in Portland, Ore., which began selling online in 1994, a year before Amazon, continue to hone their Web game.
Mark Pennington, e-commerce marketing manager for Powells.com, encourages indie bookstores to sell online. "I don't think it's ever too late," he says, pointing to the success of the travel industry's late entrant Kayak, which launched six years ago and has since become a significant player. Powells.com, the largest independent bookstore Web site, has always been profitable, he points out.
Although the Powell's Web site has a symbiotic relationship with the store—both share inventory; there are lookup stations throughout Powell's; and many online shoppers have either visited the store or had a friend who did—Pennington credits its success to its ability to attract customers beyond Portland, with 80% of the store's sales coming from outside the city. "We know that the experience in our stores is the foundation for our customers' affinity with our brand, so we work hard online to draw connections to our store," he says, "while at the same time addressing the needs of people who live far away."
Pennington tries to give Powells.com a bustling atmosphere through interviews and guest blogs posted on its home page, along with an hourly bestsellers list and a changing array of featured titles. Even though the store and the Web site take a hard line against discounting, both offer used books side-by-side with new titles to give price-conscious readers different options. Powells.com also offers a subscription club, Indispensable, that sends out signed books from independent presses every six weeks. This month's offering, Adam Levin's The Instructions, comes packaged with a holiday tote, an interview with the author, and "other special surprises." When Tinkers was an Indispensable pick—pre-Pulitzer—Powells.com shipped 1,200 copies.
RJJulia.com may not have reached quite that level of online sales for a single title yet, but since its relaunch in October, the site's traffic and sales have doubled, according to Roxanne Coady, R.J. Julia Booksellers' owner. The site has also benefited from the November 2009 launch of sister company Just the Right Book! (justtherightbook.com), designed to encourage giving books as gifts. The latter had solid six-figure sales for its first year, about half from R.J. customers. In November, Coady began an eight-week New Yorker ad and Google Word Search campaign, supplemented with direct mail to the tristate area, to drive customers to the gift site.
One of the selling points both Just the Right Book and RJJulia.com emphasize is the bookstore staff's ability to pick the right book for online shoppers just as they do in person. To get store customers to explore the new RJ site, Coady "buried" gold coins linked to prizes like a bag of galleys or free event tickets. "We had unbelievable click-throughs." says Coady. The redesigned site features a home page with a gateway approach, and the search box is titled "Buy Books." Part of the reason for the new emphasis on sales, Coady explains, is to attract customers who buy on the Web for convenience, not price.
The soon-to-be-launched Harvard.com site is the culmination of a three-pronged approach that Harvard co-owner Jeff Mayersohn took to selling online when he purchased the store two years ago. With the Web site, green delivery, and Paige (Harvard's POD machine), the store can deliver just about every book ever written to a customer's doorstep, sustainably.
"As much as possible, we're trying to replicate the store and the browsing experience," says Mayersohn. The front page of the new Web site lets shoppers peruse the front windows of the store, literally. Inside, the books are displayed on shelves, and customers who want personalized staff recommendations can watch videos of general manager Carole Horne or children's buyer Kari Patch talk about their favorites. As for launching the Web site now, Mayersohn says, "This is the right time. Our Web site tries to capture what local businesses bring to their community. If you learn about a book from us, you should want to buy it from us."