Assouline is upping its presence on bookstore shelves this holiday season, but not in the usual way. Rather than push out more books through traditional bookstores, it is adding more outlets under its own brand. This month the 16-year-old art-book publisher opened two stores—a 1,200-sq.-ft. Assouline Books, Gifts & Gallery in Orange County's upscale South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Assouline Bebek in Istanbul, Turkey—bringing its total number of freestanding bookstores to five worldwide. In addition to its own stores, Assouline is extending its presence in high-end department stores and restaurants through Assouline "corners," or Shops in Shops. Since 2003, it has set up 20 corners, including most recently ones in the Bazaar in the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, Calif., and the new Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. Two more are slated to open in Neiman Marcus stores in Beverly Hills and Dallas early next year. Assouline will also open three to five freestanding boutiques in 2011. Targeted cities include Montreal, São Paolo, New York City, Beverly Hills, and Chicago.
"When I arrived at Assouline, it was really a one-channel operation, direct to bookstores and retailers as a wholesale channel," said president and COO Robert Mitchell, former senior v-p of new media for World Wrestling Entertainment. "With the recession, there was a shrinkage in the number of retail outlets. We decided we'd expand our direct-to-consumers business. We're trying to reach out to where consumers shop to let them touch and feel [Assouline's products]. It's not like a store. Every visit is a destination. And [founder] Prosper Assouline personally curates vintage books and reading glasses."
The store in Costa Mesa is modeled after Prosper's own library, with ecru lacquered shelving, red walls, and objets d'art that he and his wife, Martine Assouline, have collected during their global travels. There are also more than 1,000 Assouline titles, including classic tomes, as well as leather book bags, vintage bookends, and museum quality art, collectibles, and candles. "The intent," said Mimi Crume, v-p of global communications, "is to further develop the luxury lifestyle library aspects of the Assouline brand, including home furnishings and decorative accessories, as opposed to a publishing/book brand." Crume anticipates "strong" double-digit comp-store growth this year with the new emphasis.
In keeping with its luxe image, Assouline publishes carefully packaged collections, like its Luxury Destination Guides, a set that includes six books in a gift box for $140. The guides cover high-end destinations and include tips on cuisine from Charlie Palmer on the U.S. and Mario Batali on Italy. The press also offers high-end volumes like a 14-in.×17-in. slipcased book on Windows of Bergdorf Goodman, with hand-tipped images, which retails for $550 and will be sold at Bergdorf's. And it sells gift items like $450 leather book bags made by Cole Haan and a $20,000 black Goyard signature trunk filled with 100 books in its Memoire line. Still, noted Mitchell, most of the company's sales are for $50 to $150 books like American Fashion Designers at Home from the Council of Fashion Designers at Home, which retails for $65.
Despite the sensory appeal of Assouline's books and gift products, the house is getting ready to move deeper into the digital world. It recently hired Kristin Knapp as v-p of e-commerce and new media to join its executive team, which includes Paul Lechlinski, v-p of retail and marketing; Eduard de Lange, v-p of wholesale, and Crume. Last week, Assouline launched a more user-friendly Web site, ShopAssouline.com, that emphasizes sales but in a haute-couture way. "It ties in well to our strategy to be in touch with consumers, and will be a major focus for us in 2011," said Mitchell.
Even though Assouline's books are highly illustrated, the iPad gives the press an opportunity to move into e-publishing through enhanced e-books and/or apps. "We'll have some titles in 2011," said Mitchell. "We see it as a complement to the physical book." Assouline e-books will include video and more photography to enable customers to learn more about a subject. The company has also upped its presence on Facebook and Twitter. "We're engaging our customers on a daily basis," said Mitchell. "We think it's best to experience our books in totality, our collection. It's something you can't experience at Barnes & Noble or another bookstore."