Bricks-and-mortar bookstores have a bumpy road ahead. With more retail customers heading to the Internet and the rising tide of e-book sales, bricks-and-mortar stores need to further blur the line between physical stores and online retail. To survive, physical retail outlets will need to enhance the in-store experience with online resources.
One big advantage bricks-and-mortar stores have is that “online” no longer means “anchored to a desktop.” Many shoppers walking through the door are Internet-enabled with a smartphone, tablet, or other device, and “showrooming”—when a customer walks into a store to look over an item, then checks pricing online looking for a cheaper deal—is becoming common. While independent booksellers and other retailers have loudly complained that this tactic drains away business to online competitors, bricks-and-mortar stores can use showrooming to their advantage.
If the customer is connected, he or she can be tracked and data such as the customer’s location in the store can be used as an engagement tool. This technology development is already underway; look at the work of Nearbuy Systems, which offers indoor micro-location systems for in-store mobile shopping. To work in a bookstore, of course, consumer opt-in to a store’s interactive engagement features would be required to alleviate legal and privacy concerns, and to reduce the creepy factor. Say, a customer has opted in to a bookstore’s loyalty program, which could include in-store advantages such as coupons or special event notices. If that customer is standing in the science fiction or fantasy aisle, and the store has an upcoming author engagement with Neil Gaiman, this news along with a discount offer for a ticket could be pushed to his or her phone. It could also be sold on the spot through a mobile purchase or added to a virtual cart that could be settled via a mobile payment or at the physical cash register.
Data from customer purchasing habits can be used to better engage consumers on a personalized level. If a customer purchases mostly true crime and mystery novels, through the store or through its Web site, notifications of a new book by a favorite author or a new book in a favorite genre can be pushed to the customer’s mobile device as he or she enters the store. Location technology could be used as well to push genre-specific notifications based on what section the customer is browsing. This could work for both physical and digital sales—scanning technology could be employed to allow customers to scan book UPC codes, images such as QR codes, or even simply book covers to bring up purchase options on the store’s Web site. Companies such as Ricoh Production Print Solutions are working to expand the possibilities in this area; Ricoh’s Clickable Paper app, for instance, enables smartphone users to access related online content simply by pointing the phone at any printed surface, so this strategy could also be integrated with in-store promotions, such as posters.
Near-field communication (NFC) technology faces growing pains in the mobile-payment arena, but it offers a plethora of opportunities in the bricks-and-mortar sales and marketing arena. In a recent interview, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch announced that NFC technology would be coming to the Nook, perhaps as soon as this year. This would allow browsing customers to tap books to get excerpts, reviews, or any other information the store or book publishers want to include. From there, customers would be able to add the book to a reading list or a wish list, or buy the book in any available format. Many new smartphone models are coming equipped with NFC as well, so the good news is that your bookstore wouldn’t need to be a Barnes & Noble to take advantage of the technology.
Bringing the vast inventory of titles available online into the physical store via a print on demand (POD) machine, such as the Espresso Book Machine, is an idea that’s catching hold to help physical stores compete with online retailers. But employing this sort of device can do more than bring the satisfaction of online inventory into the store. It also can bring the instant gratification of in-store shopping to online, as has been demonstrated by the Harvard Bookstore. Local customers of the bookstore can visit the store’s Web site, order a book online, and have it delivered the same day.
Finally, one big advantage physical bookstores have over online retail outlets that can be better leveraged is personal discovery and bookseller expertise. Booksellers are experts in their field and having an expert at hand for one-on-one consult shouldn’t be undersold. Additionally, bricks-and-mortar stores are better poised to give customers a discovery experience rather than a list of recommendations. Using the technology solutions I’ve mentioned above or something similar, a retail store could offer discovery themes specifically designed to different areas of the store, say, as a customer visits an established “discovery zone pad.” Themes could be changed or updated on a regular schedule, or even be personalized based on individual consumer data.
The fast pace of technology development today should sufficiently blur the lines between bricks-and-mortar and online experiences, so that booksellers will only be limited by their imaginations.
Jenn Webb is the TOC/O’Reilly Radar editor.