When Booksense.com launched five years ago, it was hailed as a way to level the playing field and to enable Main Street booksellers to join the bricks-and-clicks revolution. Both the ABA and BookSite, a similar service founded by bookseller Dick Harte in 1994, preached the same message: you have to have a Web site to compete with Amazon.
Since then Harte has had a change of, well, heart. "The ABA and I were dead wrong," he said. "Everyone who wants an Amazon experience is going to go to Amazon. The Internet is not about getting orders. Any bookstore whose motivation is to get online orders might as well close their doors. That's a recipe for failure. What this is about is getting and keeping customers."
Booksense.com has also changed its course and moved away from acting as a sales vehicle to becoming a marketing tool for member stores. Events and a listing of on-hand inventory are the two most popular features of indie Web sites, according to Booksense.com director Len Vlahos. "When a customer sees a book is in stock and can pick it up that day, that's how clicks-and-bricks works now," he explained.
Although most bookseller Web sites no longer emphasize online buying, they still contribute to the bottom line. "We sell a relatively small number of books" through www.harvard.com, said Frank Kramer, owner of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. "But it's not so insignificant that I'm not glad we're doing it." Remainders and Harvard University insignia items are especially popular, as are new books related to events.
"We ship a good bit more books than we used to," commented Tom Campbell, co-owner of Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C. "Still, it's five books a day, not one. The vast majority, 95%, is local business." To stimulate that business, in 2002 Regulator became the first independent bookstore to add information on inventory levels to its Web site, www.regbook.com. Two years ago, it installed a kiosk in the store, mostly as a draw for younger customers, who are accustomed to shopping that way for music.
Denver's Tattered Cover was another early adopter of Booksense.com's inventory module and uses it to update stock levels daily on www.tatteredcover.com. "We put a lot of books on reserve in the stores," said general manager Matt Miller, who attributes the strong number of reserves to customers' ability to do book checks on the Web site first. "We get some direct orders on the Web, and there's a percentage of orders being directly filled by the wholesaler. Overall, it's still a small percentage. I don't think Amazon is shivering in its boots," he said. Echoing Vlahos, Miller noted, "It's important for bookstores to have a Web site. You need it as a marketing tool."
"We're not saying to people as we did six or eight years ago, 'you know you can shop on us just as you do on Amazon,' " said Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline and Wellesley Booksmith. "Ninety-five percent of our online orders are in-store pickups," she said.
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., was one of a few booksellers to recognize the Web's marketing potential early on. He updates www.bookpassage.com at least once a week and overhauled the home page a year and a half ago. Across the top are photos of some of the prominent authors who have appeared at the store. The store sells some books via the site, but, said Petrocelli, "a substantial percentage of those sales are people buying autographed books from the events. What we wanted to do was to project our store out on the Web. It's not a separate division that we calculate differently on our p&l." For him, the site is just as important a tool as the store's electronic newsletter and print newsletter.
City of Books Online
In contrast, the online component of Powell's City of Books, in Portland, Ore., which started a year before Amazon in 1994, has a largely national customer base and continues to follow a selling model. In fact, according to director of marketing and development Dave Weich, the www.powells.com Web site attracts as many as 85% of its customers from outside the Pacific Northwest. Last month, Powell's revamped its site ("PW Daily," July 8), which accounts for a third of the company's business.
"We always thought of the Web site as another store," said Weich. "Amazon is not going to stop growing and innovating," he said. "The bar gets raised in customers' minds every six months. One of the questions we've asked is, What's next?"
In the short term—within the next eight months—Weich anticipates that the company will find a way to leverage its Internet expertise and services, something it's currently doing with its used-book knowledge. Starting September 10, Powell's will work with nearby University Bookstore in Seattle to operate a temporary used book-buying kiosk and will train University Book Store employees in used-book—buying techniques.
For booksellers with more of a marketing bent, BookSite is working to make sending electronic newsletters easier, as easy as writing a letter in Microsoft Word. And it's adding weekly fiction and nonfiction bestsellers lists that booksellers can send out as part of newsletters, as well as monthly fiction and nonfiction previews.
ABA has spent the last 18 months overhauling Booksense.com's backend, a process that involved upgrading all hardware and software. Over the next year, ABA will introduce new Booksense.com templates, which will give "an updated look and feel" to the site, Vlahos said. The site's search engine is also being redesigned to be "faster and smarter," he added.
The number of Booksense.com subscribers has stayed in the 200—225 range, a number Vlahos doesn't see growing quickly. "Some go, some join," Vlahos said. Setup fee remains $350, while the monthly charge is $225 ($20 more for stores that take the inventory upload option).
Perhaps in the future, bookstores won't have to choose between marketing and selling. Who knows, says Harte. "If this were a baseball game, we've probably just completed the first inning."