I feel passionately about how we can contribute to the industry,” says Sara Hinckley, v-p of book purchasing and promotion at Hudson Group, which operates 65 bookstores and 350 newsstands with books at airports and transportation terminals under the Hudson Booksellers brand. Hinckley criticizes some airport retailers for taking a cavalier attitude toward title selection and display. Given that there are 1.5 billion airplane passengers, and bookstores tend to be small—typically 1,000—1,200 sq. ft.—retailers assume that almost any title will sell, she says.
Hinckley's approach has been to try to distinguish Hudson from the competition by striking a balance between commercial titles and literary ones and allowing each store to personalize its inventory. Nowhere is this more pronounced than at Chicago's O'Hare, where Hudson was awarded a contract in partnership with Barbara's Bookstore for five Barbara's stores in spring 2007. Last fall the airport Barbara's hand-sold Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection of short stories, American Salvage (Wayne State Univ., 2009), before it was nominated for a National Book Award. At stores in popular tourist destinations like New Orleans, says Hinckley, up to 30% of inventory is local.
For the books that it gets behind, Hudson can have an outsized impact. Based on Nielsen BookScan figures, the bookseller sold nearly 50% of naturalist Craig Child's essays on animals, The Animal Dialogues (Back Bay), one of Hinckley's personal favorites. It also accounted for 10.5% of sales for the movie tie-in for Bernhard Schlink's The Reader (Vintage) and 11% of the paperback of David Sedaris's When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Back Bay), which was a Hudson Book of the Year in hardcover.
“We try to leverage the airport scenario to benefit our customers and publishers,” says Hinckley. Among the efforts she singles out is Hudson's weekly bestseller list, which represents a mix of books that are selling not only in its stores but also books on other national lists that Hudson may not have taken a strong position on but wants to test. At the end of the year, the buyers at Hudson's Atlanta office and managers and booksellers at various Hudson locations create a list of the year's best fiction, nonfiction, business, and children's books. They also name a Book of the Year, which in 2009 was Kathryn Stockett's The Help (Putnam/Amy Einhorn).
Despite a captive audience at airports and the ability to sell both Roberto Bolaño and Robert Ludlum, Hudson has been buffeted by the same economic factors that have made the past two years difficult for independents and other chain booksellers alike. And one of its key distributors, Anderson News, closed. After hovering around $100 million in 2006 and 2007, sales dropped to $93 million in 2008. Hinckley describes 2009 as “a rough year”; results will be released later this year.
Like all booksellers, Hudson is looking at ways to get involved with the e-book market. “This is the first time e-readers have competed with our business,” says Hinckley, who declined to elaborate on what e-book plans Hudson is considering. In terms of promoting traditional author events, strategies used by general brick-and-mortar stores don't always work since customers tend not to have time to hang around. Although Hudson held a signing last fall with Magic Johnson, coauthor of When the Game Was Ours in LAX, and hosted a “Hustle Tour” for Crush It author Gary Vaynerchuk, six airports in 24 hours, it does more fly-bys where authors simply sign stock. “Our stores aren't destinations and customers are in a hurry,” says Hinckley, who has also experimented with costume characters, food tastings, and other events that don't require long time commitments.
Still Hinckley is optimistic about 2010. The merger with duty-free travel retailer Dufry AG of Basel, Switzerland, in fall 2008 opened up opportunities to expand internationally. Since then Hudson has added stores in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, and Egypt. In the U.S., says Hinckley, “We've done a lot of positioning to figure out what's working and what's not.” The stores also have new signage to better direct customers. And Hudson has garnered some plum locations. It recently opened in a former Borders store in Boston's Logan airport and will open three more in Newark later this year.