Target is launching a major expansion into Canada in 2013, with the first 24 of 124 stores across the country expected to open in Ontario in March or April. For consumers, it is another avenue for shopping and bargain-hunting; for publishers, a new opportunity to sell books; and for booksellers it is big competition.
Kevin Hanson, president of Simon & Schuster Canada, says that when most markets in the world are contracting, the fact that there is some expansion in the Canadian bookselling market is a good sign. He suggests that Canada is typically “under-retailed” per capita: “The hope of publishers, including Simon and Schuster, is that we’re going to find new readers that haven’t been directly served by existing retailers.”
Some in the industry are uneasy about the arrival of a large American chain and question the degree to which it will support Canadian books and publishers. The Canadian government has, for decades, protected cultural industries, including book publishing and bookselling, by limiting foreign ownership, but the current Conservative government has promised to review its foreign investment policies. And several prominent decisions on foreign investment, such as granting Amazon permission to set up a physical distribution center in Canada and approving Random House of Canada’s acquisition of the venerable Canadian house McClelland & Stewart this year have led many in the industry to observe that the protectionist policies are no longer being enforced.
“Target has made some promises to the competition bureau and to [the federal department of] Canadian Heritage about embracing Canadian suppliers and Canadian content,” says Erin Creasy, chair of the trade committee for the Association of Canadian Publishers. “But there’s no definition really of what that means or any clear guidelines.” She added that it remains to be seen if Target’s presence in the market will be helpful or “if it will just exacerbate some of what we’ve seen in the retail marketplace, which is this ongoing lack of diversity and access to different kinds of books.”
Target Canada’s president Tony Fisher and other company officials were not available to be interviewed about the company’s book strategy in Canada, but publishers who have been in discussions with Target’s Canadian buyer, CMMI, seem optimistic about opportunities for Canadian books.
“I think they’re working diligently to work with Canadian publishers, which we really appreciate” says Barbara Howson, House of Anansi’s v-p of sales. Big sales to any of the nontraditional booksellers come with some big risks, she acknowledges. “You have to be careful what you place there.... We all make mistakes and our mistakes come back, but if you do it right, then it is a very good channel to place some good books and get larger sales and larger visibility for certain authors,” she says. Howson points out that the titles offered need to have a cover that will work in that market. “It’s not like a bookstore.... You don’t necessarily go there to buy the book. You go there to buy something else and then the book grabs your attention.”
For booksellers already in the Canadian market, the stakes may be even higher. Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s largest book retailer, has already made the move to diversify into more gift and lifestyle products in response to shifts toward digital books and growing online competition, but one more player in the retail market only intensifies the pressure. And more pressure is the last thing independent booksellers in Canada need now. The closing of several prominent stores, including Nicholas Hoare’s stores in Ottawa and Montreal, Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe in Edmonton, and the threatened bankruptcy of Collected Works in Ottawa have highlighted the difficult times independent retailers face.
Cathy Jesson, president of Black Bond Books, says four of her company’s 12 locations will be toe to toe with Target in the same shopping malls in British Columbia. But she says proximity could have its advantages as well. “We appreciate the fact that they are going to draw customers into the centers, but I also know that their pricing is very sharp on the things that they do carry.” And unlike the publishers, Jesson is concerned that Target may carry too many titles that go beyond bestsellers. Judging from U.S. stores, Jesson says, Target buyers do “come up with some things that I would not expect to see there. That’s always a bit distressing because that’s supposed to be our job, finding the gems of the list and showing them off.”
So until spring at least, Canadians will wait and wonder what the effects of being Targeted will be. As Hanson says, “The hope of publishers and writers is that the introduction of Target grows the overall marketplace and doesn’t necessarily cannibalize from other retailers, but actually finds new readers and new opportunities and venues to create readership for our writers.”