On November 1, JetBlue and Delta became the first airlines to allow passengers to keep their smart phones, e-readers, and other personal electronic devices on after the cabin doors close and before planes reach 10,000 feet. Amazon marked the rule change with a one-day celebration sale on November 4, offering 15% discounts on new Kindles, but despite initial concerns from airport booksellers, the change has had little impact on print book sales at airport stores.
“I could be wrong, but I personally feel that we already took the big sales hit when they began allowing electronics and Wi-Fi use on the plane,” says Sara Hinckley, v-p, book purchasing and promotion at Hudson Group, referring to airlines like Virgin and Delta, which were the first to add Wi-Fi access four years ago. Instead, she regards media predictions about the death of print as far more damaging to sales, although print sales were up for Hudson in 2012 and for much of 2013.
And then there’s price. Paradies was among the first airport stores to compete on price in its physical locations with the introduction of its Read & Return program in 2003. Customers who bought a book at a Paradies airport store before a flight have six months to return it to another Paradies store to get 50% back. Hudson offers discounts as well, but theirs are upfront: buy-2-get-1-free trade paperbacks that change monthly, 20-30% off on selected hardcovers, and gift with purchase, typically tote bags or discounted movie tickets. Some Hudson stores also offer added value with signed first edition hardcovers.
Airport bookstores have also looked to sidelines and have expanded online to boost sales. The latest New York Times Bookstore opened by Paradies in April at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was paired with a local Atlanta deli, Goldberg’s Café. The bookstore has a small but carefully culled selection of books, just over 50 titles, with a strong local flavor as well, including a strong section on African-American literature and on Atlanta culture and history to celebrate the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, which opens in spring 2014.
Hudson, which is known for its Hudson Booksellers stores along with its news stores, has been transitioning its mix in recent years. “We have a lot more specialty stores such as Coach and Victoria’s Secret. And in our core business, you’ll see an increased emphasis on snacks and electronics,” says Hinckley. In April, Hudson opened its next-generation news store at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with nary a mention of “news” in the name of the 3,5000 sq. ft. store. The new “Hudson” concept store still has books and magazines, but it also stocks electronics, health and beauty aids, healthy meals and snacks, and local and regional merchandise.
A month earlier, in March, Hudson, added an e-commerce Web site on which it sells both books and Kobo e-books and offers discounts on select titles like 40% off on preorders of the new Patricia Cornwell, Dust. So far the Web site has not made a significant contribution to Hudson’s bottom line. “But we still have a lot of plans to enable us to fully test the potential of the site,” says Hinckley, who is convinced that “customers still want books in the airports, if we give them the choice.” She points to the 2012 digEcor, Inc. Passenger Survey, which shows that the #1 in-flight activity on flights under 8 hours is reading. The FAA rule change may not change that, except that passengers will soon be able to do all their reading legally on a digital devices.