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Publishers Weekly Bookselling

Bookselling in Hong Kong
Sally Taylor -- 4/3/00
New English-language mom-and-pop bookstores are heating up the Hong Kong book business

When Britain returned Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, the exodus of aging English ex-pats had already begun. Government jobs disappeared, and Hong Kong's cost of living was one of the highest in the world. With the subsequent Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand on the same day as the return, Hong Kong seemed doomed.

But a rebirth has begun. Rents have dropped, bringing a new generation of 20-something fortune seekers from Europe, America and elsewhere in Asia. And the popularity of the Internet has made English de rigueur. Booksellers are responding with a flurry of new stores offering English-language titles at lower prices and a more customer-friendly approach.

"For about 10 years," recalled Page One's bookstore marketing manager, Owen Ngau, "Hong Kong book retailing was stagnant. It was really behind."

Started in Singapore 15 years ago and specializing in international design, art and architecture titles, Page One--one of several new chains in town--first opened in Hong Kong's Times Square five years ago. Two more have been added recently, and Ngau reports business is good.

"We decided to try a general bookstore here that would appeal to young people," Ngau said. "It used to be bookstores were always on the second floor, and people were intimidated to walk in. Now we offer inviting, street-level access, music and coffee."

Another bookseller expanding in Hong Kong is Dymocks, one of the three large Australian chains, which wanted to get a t hold in Asia and saw Hong Kong as the easiest entry. The company has more than 100 stores in Australia and New Zealand, all run as franchises, mostly by husband-and-wife entrepreneurs.

Dymocks's first Hong Kong store was a joint venture with the South China Morning Post Co., owner of the major English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. It took over an 800-sq.-ft. shop that the South China Morning Post itself had run for decades.

Bigger and franchised, the second and third Dymocks are within a couple of blocks of each other.

Store liaison manager Matthew Steele coordinates with the design team in Australia to lay out the spaces and put together the first orders. "Then we work closely with the franchisees."

Except for the Star Ferry joint venture, the Dymocks operations are similar in size as well as philosophy to the Page One outlets, which are the biggest English-language bookstores in Hong Kong. (One is more than 4,000 square feet.)

Hong Kong is an open market, with both U.K. and U.S. editions available, but prices have always been high, as much as 50% above cover price, due to the small market, the cost of shipping and the difficulty of returns. The new stores and popularity of services like Amazon.co.uk are changing the traditional mindset, to customers' advantage.

U.K. publishers tend to offer more competitive discounts and cheaper shipping, according to Steele. Hong Kong buyers prefer the British cover designs, even if the cover price is a little higher. But fast delivery may be even more important.

"We will get them from wherever we can," Steele told PW. "The U.S., the U.K., Australia or Singapore... wh ver is faster and cheaper."
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