One area in which Canada may be leading the United States is the stability and even viability of its leading bookstore chain. Indigo operates 89 superstores under the Indigo and Chapters banners, with a further 123 small-format stores under the names the Book Company, Coles, and Indigospirit.

Here, leadership seems to matter. While Barnes & Noble has cycled through three CEOs in less than three years, Heather Reisman has remained firmly at the head of Indigo. She spun off the company’s e-book business at the right time and now appears to have settled on a management plan than allows the company to be nimble enough to respond to changing times.

As further evidence of this forward-thinking view, the company opened a new concept store in Sherway Gardens, an upscale shopping mall in western Toronto. The 30,000-sq.-ft. store is spread over two floors, offering what Krishna Nikhil, Indigo’s executive vice president of print and chief strategy officer, calls “a book lover’s cultural department store.” The first floor focuses in large part on sidelines and lifestyle items, many of which are arranged in thematic “rooms,” such as the women’s oriented A Room of Her Own, which offers pricey handbags, jewelry by local designer Jenny Bird, and other items; another room is devoted to food and cooking under the moniker Eat Real Food. Many of the store’s sidelines originate from the bookstore’s design studio in New York City and remain unique to the bookseller. In addition, the bookseller is the exclusive retailer of American Girl products in Canada and has built stores within stores for the product line.

The concept store also offers 70,000 titles, of which 100 are discounted up to 40%. Nikhil says the selection is now a “hand-curated assortment,” and staff picks are actively promoted, including those from Reisman. Nikhil says the CEO-selected Heather’s Picks have created Canadian bestsellers, such as The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. “They are books guaranteed to please,” Nikhil says.

Earlier this year, news broke that Indigo had let go of numerous long-term book buyers and others who dealt directly with publishers in its head office, creating consternation among people who saw the move as counter to the company’s late-2015 proclamations that it was “refocusing on books.” However, Nikhil says the company now “has more buyers who are specialized. We now have buyers for science fiction and graphic novels, for example.”

As for refocusing on books, Nikhil says 60% of Indigo’s revenue derives from books. The company has been shifting to more streamlined inventory management, which may result in the appearance of fewer books in stock at one time. “What we have been working toward is more same-day and rapid replenishment at our locations,” Nikhil says. “Publishers have been incredibly responsive.” Of course, this may also be the result of the store’s needing to consider the future—one in which rents in prime locations can only increase. “And, whatever we don’t have in store, we offer through kiosks that provide direct access to our website, with seven million products,” Nikhil says.

Nikhil also champions Indigo’s new Reco app, which offers a social media network centered on book recommendations. “The app is meant for global use and is built on the premise that the best book recommendations come from friends and people you trust,” Nikhil says. It was created in partnership with Kinetic Cafe, a Toronto-based innovation lab. Upon the app’s launch this summer, Reisman told TechCrunch that Indigo is open to developing or “incubating tech startups in the future, provided their goals align with Indigo’s core interests.”

All these various moves have helped Indigo reap rewards, with the company reporting strong gains in sales and earnings for the fiscal year that ended March 31. Revenue rose 11% over the previous year, to C$994.2 million, and the chain had net earnings of C$28.6 million in fiscal 2016, compared with a loss of C$3.5 million in fiscal 2015. Comparable store sales (on a 52-week basis) rose 12.8% at Indigo’s superstores in the year, while sales through grew 15.3%—helped, in particular by the company’s American Girl boutiques and the adult coloring book trend last year.

Pop-Up Shop Popularity

In contrast to Indigo’s “cultural department store” in the outer suburbs of Toronto, several publishers are working to open modest bookstores in their own buildings as experiments, including ECW (which has had plans afoot in this regard for several years) and House of Anansi, which has moved into a new building and is planning a retail and events space. The Anansi Academy will also offer art classes and provide space for an artist-in-residence.

In late 2015, the book editor Martha Sharpe—who served as publisher of Anansi for a dozen years and, more recently, was the editorial director of Simon & Schuster Canada—opened up Flying Books, a quartet of pop-up bookshops that offer a rotating curated selection inside four different downtown Toronto businesses.

One notable opening was the Penguin Shop bookstore on the first floor of the tower that houses the offices of Penguin Random House in Toronto. The 158-sq.-ft. store, which previously housed a shoe-shine stand, offers a flexible space for the company to experiment with customer engagement and, according to PRH Canada COO Robert Wheaton, will function as “both a sales outlet and a kind of R&D lab.”

The store offers a flexible display space featuring giant painted book spines with a range of current titles done up to look like classic Penguin editions. The spines then slide out from the wall to reveal library-style shelving offering either books or merchandise. In addition to a large selection of Penguin-themed sidelines, from tote bags to mugs, some 300 books are on offer.

“It’s a real investment in our ability to glean consumer insights,” PRH Canada publisher Kristin Cochrane says. “And, what’s more, it gives our staff the opportunity to interact with book buyers. The news that we were opening a store has really ignited some of their creativity and the way they are thinking about events.”

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