Unit sales of print books sold through Nielsen BookScan’s mass merchandisers/other channel fell 9% in the first 10 weeks of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013. But companies that PW spoke with believe the decline has more to do with one-time factors than with a long-term weakening of mass merchandisers as viable bookselling outlets.

Harsh winter weather was the top response given by publishers when they were asked why book sales via mass merchandisers have fallen much more sharply this year than those via the retail & club channel. According to one publisher, severe weather reduced customer traffic at mass merch outlets and shoppers were focused on buying staples rather than ancillary items.

Several publishers also said that book sales at mass merchandisers are driven by brand-name authors and big media tie-ins, and they noted that there has been a dearth of both so far in 2014. Publishers acknowledged that the decision by a number of chains to cut the amount of space devoted to books has also been a factor in the sales decline. “Space reductions have been a killer,” said the head of one independent publisher, who added that his company’s sales through the channel are flat. The decline in the popularity of mass market paperbacks—a favorite format of mass merchandisers—has also contributed to the drop-off in sales (mass market paperback sales have fallen more sharply than overall book sales through the mass merch channel).

Despite these issues, mass merchandisers, whose ranks include Walmart, remain important outlets for publishers—especially for fiction. An analysis of sales patterns of the top five bestselling books in each of four categories in the week ended March 9, 2014, based on BookScan data, found that, of the 20 titles, seven had higher sales through mass merchandisers than through the retail and club channel (which includes Amazon and Barnes & Noble). The argument that better weather will lead to improved mass merchandiser sales gained some support with the BookScan report for week 10. With fewer storms in that week than in other recent weeks this winter, the 6% decline in the mass merch channel (compared to the similar week in 2013) was the smallest weekly decline for 2014 to date. And publishers are counting on a rebound in the channel. Although most wouldn’t speak on the record about book sales via mass merchandisers, Stuart Applebaum, a Penguin Random House spokesman, said that the company remains confident in the channel. “While it has been a difficult winter for some mass merchandiser accounts’ book programs, we enjoyed across-the-channel increases for our Dr. Seuss and other children’s licensed titles,” Applebaum noted. “Penguin Random House is looking forward to many major successes in partnership with our mass merch customers in the months ahead.”

Total Unit Sales Through Week 10

(in thousands)

Channel 2013 2014 % Change
Retail & Club 90,812 89,443 -2%
Mass Merchandisers/Other 21,629 19,589 -9

Unit Sales of Major Categories by Channel

Juvenile Fiction Bestsellers for Week Ended March 9, 2014

Title Format Retail & Club Mass Merchandisers/Other
Divergent Trade Paperback 213,000 204,000
Insurgent Hardcover 143,400 137,500
Green Eggs and Ham Hardcover 19,500 142,000
Allegiant Hardcover 143,800 111,500
The Fault in Our Stars Hardcover 209,000 75,000

Juvenile Nonfiction Bestsellers for Week Ended March 9, 2014

Title Format Retail & Club Mass Merchandisers/Other
Oh Say Can You Say Di-No-Saur Hardcover 1,300 36,200
Minecraft: Essential Handbook Hardcover 21,000 14,500
Ultimate Sticker Collection: Infinity Trade Paperback 37,000 67,000
Lego Movie: Calling All Master Builders! Trade paperback 28,000 27,000
Lego Movie: Awesome Adventures Trade Paperback 23,000 27,600

Adult Fiction Bestsellers for Week Ended March 9, 2014

Title Format Retail & Club Mass Merchandisers/Other
Word of Radiance Hardcover 29,000 430
Alex Cross, Run Mass Market Paperback 24,000 28,000
Tell Me Mass Market Paperback 8,000 41,000
The Heist Mass Market Paperback 18,000 31,000
The Bootlegger Hardcover 18,000 4,800

Adult Nonfiction Bestsellers for Week Ended March 9, 2014

Title Format Retail & Club Mass Merchandisers/Other
The Blood Sugar Solution Hardcover 43,100 2,700
Uganda Be Kidding Me Hardcover 19,000 1,000
Jesus Calling Hardcover 124,000 21,000
The Body Book Hardcover 68,500 18,200
Killing Jesus Hardcover 91,000 29,000