[ PW Home ] [ Bestsellers ] [ Subscribe ] [ Search ]

Publishers Weekly Bookselling

Reading in the Friendly Skies
Judith Rosen -- 3/13/00
Coffee, tea or books? Airport bookstores enjoy smooth rides serving captive customers

Anyone who has taken a trip and forgotten to bring along something to read knows what a treat it is to find a "real" bookstore in an airport. "In the 'olden days,' " recalled Lou Bottino, senior v-p of Atlanta-based Paradies Shops Inc. and a 21-year veteran in the business, "it was just spinner racks of the top 20 titles that used to be in the grocery store down the street."

All that began to change in 1973, when the first Benjamin Books opened at Newark International Airport, one of the first full bookstores in an airport setting. The next big step came almost 20 years later, with the opening of Waterstone's first airport specialty store in the first airport mall, at Pittsburgh International Airport. To accommodate the new shopping ambiance of PIT, Waterstone's shrunk one of its 20,000-sq.-ft. megastores into 1,500 square feet, while preserving the illusion of an endless array of books.

This sleight of space was a turning point for Waterstone's, which is owned by W.H. Smith in England and has U.S. offices in Atlanta (last year, the company abandoned the last of its American Waterstone's street superstores to embrace airport stores exclusively). Other concessionaires, including Paradies, soon followed its lead. Paradies, which operates in 57 airports, has seen its sales patterns change so much that "backlist sales sometimes are equal to frontlist," Bottino told PW. Where space permits, the company has even added its own line of stand-alone bookstores, called Heritage Books, to supplement Paradies's "traditional" newsstands.

Other longtime airport vendors, including Host Marriott Services Corporation and the Hudson Group, have followed suit with their own scaled-down airport superstores, Simply Books and Book Corner, respectively. Chain bookstores are also starting to move in after exhausting most other land-based retailing opportunities. Waldenbooks, which has almost 900 mall stores, is starting to increase its airport holdings--now up to eight stores, with one soon to open in Newark. Even independents such as Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., and Books Inc. have taken flight seriously (see box). "It g s back to the demographics of who's in the airport," said Cathy Landry, buyer for Host Marriott. "Flyers are better educated and have a higher income than the average customer you'd find in a street store. That's why airports are a new target for many traditional retailers."

Arrivals--New Stores

Like other airport bookstore concessionaires, Michael Joachim, v-p of operations for the Hudson Group, retail division, with responsibility for management of Book Corner, based in Nashua, N.H., emphasized that "we don't operate 'airport bookstores.' The Hudson Group has 'bookstores in airports.' There is a world of difference, and all of us act from that premise every day."

Hudson has more than 150 stores in transportation locations around the country, including at least 20 Book Corner bookstores, which stock 3,000-5,000 titles each. As it continues to actively pursue the airport Book Corner concept, which began in 1995 when the last 13 Book Corner mall stores were sold to the now defunct Lauriat's, Hudson is trying to turn Book Corner into the leading specialty bookstore player. The secret of Book Corner's rapid growth has been "to re-create what people think of as a bookstore in just under 1,000 square feet," according to Joachim.

"Obviously, the books that are on the New York Times bestsellers list are going to sell, but it's fun to make a bestseller--to take a midlist book we like and sell it," Joachim told PW. He also g s against both the street and airport store trend of pushing trade paperbacks. Instead, Joachim prefers mass markets, because his customers prefer them. "We have more mass markets than anyone else. We really look at what people are looking for and what titles are moving regardless of the format. The challenge is to keep constantly analyzing sales. It's a battle to replenish the right way. You can't have any dead spots."

Book Corner is one of the few airport bookstores to cater to parents who need to pick up presents for their kids as well as to the increasing number of children traveling. It recently added separate Kids Corner sections to its bookstores, which, according to Joseph DiDomizio, v-p of business development for the Hudson Group, contribute "approximately 40% of the bookstore sales."

The traditional Hudson newsstands are also changing. "Customers want reading material," DiDomizio noted. "If you look at any of the customer surveys, they're crying out for more to read." Hudson News stocks between 700 and 1,500 individual magazines, which continues to be a key airport draw; Hudson sells roughly eight magazines to every book. However, travelers seem to want more than just something to read, as demonstrated by DiDomizio's experimentation with new store configurations.

Last year, Hudson rolled out its first Hudson News Euro Café at Dulles Airport, with a Hudson News, a Book Corner and a Euro Café coffee shop all in one storefront with a single cash wrap. In effect, the cafe offers travelers the equivalent of a street superstore experience--books, magazines and gourmet blends. In the first part of this year, Hudson will open three more cafes: at New York's La Guardia and JFK Airports and at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

DiDomizio is also developing a multiple-concept store that would combine other Hudson Group stores with a food-to-go convenience store, or Aeromart. "The ultimate goal," explained DiDomizio, "is to always raise the level of customer service. Wherever we've done this, we've been able to raise sales as high as 300%, which is a benchmark for providing customer service.

Unlike Book Corner, Host Marriott's Simply Books, which opened in May 1998, at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., subscribes to the philosophy that what flying customers want most is "a general oasis from the airport," said Landry. She describes the company's six bookstores, with more on the way, as having anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet and most closely resembling a street bookstore that caters to two very different types of travelers, "the hurried customer and the dweller." Initially, the stores, which have armchairs and lamps, were a little too comfortable. A few "dwellers" actually fell asleep and missed their flights. Now all Simply Books have large clocks visible from anywhere in the store.

Host Marriott came up with the Simply Books concept by talking to focus groups. Among the groups' requests was a much broader range of stock than New York Times bestsellers. In fact, Simply Books' top sellers include business and literary trade titles. Host Marriott Services serves as the license for Starbucks in airport and travel plazas in North America. Wherever possible, there is a pass-through between Simply Books and Starbucks.

Continuing to shake things up, Waterstone's is about to roll out its own new concept for airport stores, emphasizing its W.H. Smith connection. With Smith no longer able to use the Waterstone's name in England and with the Waterstone's trademark about to expire in the U.S., the company has dubbed the new enterprise WHSmithBooks.co. Scheduled to debut in a major U.S. airport at the end of May, it is already being tested in Leeds, England, where the first dot-co airport bookstore opened late last year. The idea, explained senior buyer Stacey Crawford, "is to have a specialty bookstore combined with an Internet offering. We wanted to do something aimed at the business traveler and offer access to 100,000 titles." By enabling travelers to buy their books in store or to order them over Smith's in-store Internet terminals, the company hopes to capture more business. Crawford believes that travelers will appreciate having the option of sending their books ahead to their hotel, home or office.

As the Smith branding process gets underway, the company is aware that it must make allowances for each country's special needs in regards to the dot-co concept. For example, "The American version of Books.co will have magazines," Crawford told PW, because "the American customer expects magazines in a bookstore." Then there is the problem of Smith's U.K. Web site. They've hired a company that will take care of the technology to enable visitors to the U.S. WHSmithBooks.co stores to key into an American Web site with prices in U.S. dollars, as well as link to the company's British Web site (which can currently be accessed at www.whsmithbooks.co.uk or at www.bookshop.co.uk).

At present, there are 22 Waterstone's airport specialty bookstores, 180 W.H. Smith News & Gift stores and 280 W.H. Smith hotel stores in the U.S. It is not yet clear how this new concept will change that mix.

Departures--What's Flying Out of the Stores

For most airport retailers, there are three key selling points: location, location, location. Well-placed airport bookstores do a high volume of sales and have low inventory and few returns. Dan Rodgers, buyer at Benjamin Books in East Brunswick, N.J., with 12 stores from Denver to Boston, explained, "We rely heavily on jobbers. It's absolutely essential that we get restocked every day. We have no backroom, and we have no overstock area. We sell a lot of onesies and twosies. If for some reason our supply lines broke down, in two weeks our shelves would be half empty."

Rodgers estimates that Benjamin turns its inventory as much as 12-15 times a year, and its returns rate has been steady at 11%. "Our business category is huge for us. It just speaks to our traffic. The business publishers recognize that we are one of their most important accounts. Paperback fiction is incredible, and trade paperback fiction is really great. We've seen a lot of growth in that market." His stores also do well with such male-oriented adventure writers as Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin. "They stick around our bestseller list long after they have departed from the New York Times," he commented.

Like street stores, Benjamin relies on co-op to attract customers. Publishers can choose among light boxes, belly bands on newspapers, front of store, cash wrap, endcaps or featured titles as a way to make their books stand out. Promotions typically run for 7-30 days and can involve one or all the Benjamin stores. Everything is geared around placement, because real estate is so valuable.

At the Waldenbooks airport stores, which first opened in July 1997, "Fiction d s the best," said senior marketing manager Linda Caine. "It is our highest category in our mall stores, too." Romance, biography, history, mystery, business, science fiction and travel--not necessarily in that order--are all strong sellers. Frontlist also d s well, perhaps because most Walden's airport outlets don't have space for typical backlist sections, such as cooking. Caine estimates that frontlist accounts for as much as 65%-70% of the company's airport book sales.

Waldenbooks has also chosen to forego a large magazine selection in its airport locations. With so many news vendors nearby, the company decided to carry only the top 15 magazines. "We knew people wouldn't come to us looking for a magazine, but they might pick up a magazine with a book," Caine remarked.

Magazines continue to be strong for news-oriented stores such as Paradies. Their typical 600- 700-sq.-ft. newsstand carries roughly 20 feet of magazines and eight feet of books. Still, Bottino noted, "The book category is very important to us. From a percentage of sales, it is usually the third largest category, and we are devoting more space to it as we go through new store designs."

How books, magazines and gifts are displayed is especially important in an airport setting. "There's merchandise in our stores that's needed and wanted," explained Bottino. "You have to put it in the right place. It's a different business than Borders or Barnes & Noble, where you have people lounging or drinking coffee."

Rhonda Rose, book buyer for transportation for Charles Levy Co., one of the largest distributors in the country, believes stock is the number-one key to the airport business. "It's a very fast-paced business, and it's essential that you're timely and noteworthy. There's no time to think about putting in an Oprah book. It's imperative to make those street dates." Levy even has its own stockroom at America's busiest airport, Chicago O'Hare, so that it can restock its concessionaires there twice a day. Comparable mass merchandisers, such as Target, only get serviced three times a week.The stock at airport stores is also different. "We have a lot of business books, a lot of action adventure and very little romance," said Rose. "We find that the female traveler will go for more sophisticated titles. Cornwell, Crichton and Grisham appeal to both men and women." Rose, a former children's book buyer, enthused, "I'm a big proponent of children's books at airports. It's a wonderful impulse purchase. I like to have books [that] kids can actually do, like Etch-A-Sketch, coloring, stickers."

As for format, Rose disagreed with the Hudson Group's Joachim: "There's no question that trade paper is dominant right now. Hardcover is on the downside, and [mass market] paperback sales are average. In an airport, trade works very well. It's the right price, and it's perfect to slide into a briefcase. Mass markets will get left in hotel rooms."
Back To Bookselling
Search | Bestsellers | News | Features | Children's Books | Bookselling
Interview | Industry Update | International | Classifieds | Authors On the Highway
About PW | Subscribe
Copyright 2000. Publishers Weekly. All rights reserved.