Despite the relentless growth of e-commerce, mounting store closings, and ominous media predictions of a brick-and-mortar “retail apocalypse,” there are still opportunities for growth by indie bookstores, NPD BookScan’s Kristen McLean said during a presentation at BookExpo entitled “The Future of Retail: The Outlook for Books in a Difficult Landscape.”
McLean, executive director of business development at NPD BookScan, said that despite the grim retail climate described above, American economic indicators are generally “pretty good,” and she expressed optimism for stores that “are focused on innovation and experimentation.” U.S. consumer confidence, she emphasized, is at a 17-year high, adding that consumer spending was up nearly 4% in Q4, unemployment is very low, and overall retail sales rose 5.4%.
Even though Amazon continues to increase its book market share, she said the online retailer’s sales have essentially been flat over the last few years. She cautioned against overreacting to media-driven fears of an impending “retail apocalypse.” McLean countered that a significant part of the wave of current store closings was the result of chain stores overloaded with debt and unable to “respond to changes in the market.” McLean emphasized that “there are declines and growth spots everywhere in the economy.”
While she acknowledged that longtail book market sales are flat, she was also bullish on categories such as audiobooks, board books, and graphic novels, all of which are growing in the bookstore market. “Sales at indie stores are rising. Physical retail is not dead. Books are a mature market and we have to think smarter,” she said.
For McLean, smarter means stores need to focus on four concepts she believes are shaping the future of retail: they include curation (“less is more”), convenience (“removing friction from shopping”), personalization (“customized experience in a mass-produced world”), and a focus on consumers (“like an anthropologist”).
The goal of retailers in today’s marketplace, McLean said, should be to “reinvent the consumer experience” by effectively combining all of these concepts. Independent bookstores—indeed, all retailers—need to focus on being “highly local businesses” to compete.
McLean cited a number of services and best practices as models for indie retailers, among them NPR’s Book Concierge, an online book recommendation engine based on a database of curated frontlist titles. She said the service offers “a cheeky” selection of filters that help users to easily “find the next book you want to read” within 2 minutes. She also cautioned stores against an over-reliance on backlist: “Backlist is growing faster than frontlist; it’s keeping new talent off the lists and creating an echo chamber of backlist hits.” She praised the NPR service for highlighting new author talent. “How do we do something like this in bookstores?” she said.
McLean also cited experimental retail initiatives such as Nordstrom Local, a boutique online apparel store, as well as book merchandising at Target, which features a large book section with complete face-out book display. Target book sections, she said, also offer a wall of giant HD video screens offering a stream of constantly-updated original book content, author interviews, and more, perpetually hyping book news and offering title recommendations.
However, despite her upbeat exhortations, indie booksellers and publishers may not find much comfort in her conclusions. McLean’s research and analysis revealed that the ideal physical bookstore retailer of the future turns out to be, well, Amazon Books, the wave of new physical stores just opened by the online retailer.
“Amazon gets a lot right,” she said, with some trepidation, to the audience. Bookstores, she said citing a list of notable features at Amazon Books stores, need much more face-out display, among other new wave practices. “Stores need to focus on curation,” she emphasized, and should “trim their inventories.” She encouraged retailers to use more shelf-talkers (Amazon has them on every book), and look for more ways to “give suggestions and recommendations.”
And publishers, she said, need to find ways to offer more books via nonbook physical retailers: “We need to put books everywhere.”