Like their Main Street bricks-and-mortar counterparts, bookstores at airports and train stations are benefitting from a print revival. Sales have been running ahead of projections, particularly during the busy summer travel season, as more passengers opt for physical books and transportation bookstores craft successful strategies for competing with online discounters.
“Book sales are strong and growing,” said Sara Hinckley, v-p of book purchasing and promotions at Hudson Group, which has 445 stores that carry books, including 50 bookstores in the U.S. And she’s not the only one to notice the trend. Sales are also up at Paradies, which has 350 retail locations in the U.S. that carry books, including 25 bookstores, under multiple brands. “Although there were some unexpected hurdles in 2014, we surpassed our sales plan for books and continue to do so in 2015,” said Shelley Trotter, who handles publications in the merchandise division.
Tanesha Taylor-Nurse, buyer for books, stationery, and media at World Duty Free Group, North America (which operates 19 stand-alone bookstores in the U.S. under the names Simply Books, Authors Bookstores, and Riverbend Books), noted that e-books are much less of a factor than they were two years ago. “The demand for physical books is back,” she said. “People continue to buy at the airport and sales have rallied.”
Although two transportation stores in New York City were forced to close over the past year—53-year-old Penn Concessions in Penn Station and Posman Books’ Grand Central location, which had been in operation for 15 years—others are coming back. Barbara’s Bestsellers closed its 417-sq.-ft. store in Boston’s South Station in April 2013 to make way for a Starbucks. But Barbara’s—which has five airport stores in Chicago in partnership with Hudson, along with several Chicagoland neighborhood stores—reopened at the train station earlier this summer. “They called us because they were getting so many inquiries,” explained president Don Barliant. He credited the decision to reopen to Barbara’s loyal customer base.
Barliant also said that book sales at airports have been “very robust.” He added: “Year-to-year book sales are up a substantial percentage. I attribute it to the misfortune of other booksellers, including the national chains.”
That’s not to say that Barbara’s, or any other transportation bookseller, is simply waiting around for loyal customers to walk in. Each has its own way of creating a compelling display and backlist selection. Ron Rice, book manager at Faber, Coe & Gregg (which has 44 stores that carry books, including three dedicated bookstores), likes to experiment with regional titles and strong midlist books. “I try to throw a few curve balls in there to show we’re a literary bookstore,” he said. “I’ll stack up Tin House or Melville House. I buy for my transportation stores like they were three independent bookstores.”
Books Inc., which has nine neighborhood stores in the Bay Area, also operates two Compass Rose bookstores in Terminal 2 at the San Francisco airport and a kiosk in Terminal 3, until its new 2,500-sq.-ft. store opens there in November. “We have always prided ourselves on being a bookstore at the airport rather than an airport bookstore,” said president Michael Tucker. “We realized early on that the reason people weren’t buying Stegner at the airport was because it wasn’t there.”
Books such as The Martian, The Girl on the Train, and Go Set a Watchman top Books Inc.’s bestsellers lists for its airport stores, just like at its other locations. But backlist titles such as Ian McEwen’s The Innocent, Pierro Ferrucci’s The Power of Kindness, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos have also hit its airport lists this summer because of staff reviews.
Sales were up 5.3% in 2014 at the Compass Rose stores in Terminal 2, compared to 2013, according to senior buyer Scott Kinberger, who noted that even the kiosk is doing better this year. Compass Rose also benefits from having 12 million passengers pass through its terminals each year.
While World Duty Free’s newsstand selections are more focused on trending titles in the media and popular culture, it adjusts its bookstore inventory to reflect regional authors and local interests. “On the West Coast, popular culture and Hollywood-related reads are popular, whereas in Minneapolis, the customer choice is centered on literary fiction and autobiographies that are heavier hitting,” Taylor-Nurse said.
Paradies’s Read & Return program, which it launched back in 2003, continues to get positive feedback and is “the best value in the airport,” according to Trotter. The program allows travelers who buy books at the airport to return them within six months to get 50% of the purchase price back.
Trade paperback is by far the biggest growth area for Paradies and represents over 50% of its sales, notes Trotter, who attributes its strong performance to movie tie-ins. Hudson reports a similar breakdown in sales at its stores: 55% trade paper, 25% hardcover, and 20% mass market. “We seem to have strength in the long tail across categories and binding types all year long, which is one reason why it is so important to have bookstores in airports, ” Hinckley said.
Like Books Inc., Hudson has been successful highlighting personal recommendations by booksellers. “Our biggest successes are often books that have a lot of buzz but that customers can’t find everywhere else on the day they’re released,” Hinckley said. She cited books such as Lily King’s Euphoria, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, and Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED. To compete with Amazon and other online retailers, Hudson added its own bookselling website in 2013. But it has also begun creating bigger, more visible in-store displays and offering more discounts. “A few commercial titles are marked down 20%–30%, and about 130 stores have a shelf or two of literary fiction that is discounted 40%,” Hinckley noted. She added: “Hudson also has an ongoing B2G1 trade paper fixture that works well. We market the discounts as ‘Why Wait for Paper?’ ” She questions why customers will wait six months to a year to buy a trade paperback edition of a title when they can buy the e-book and often the hardcover for less on the day the book launches.
Consolidation among airport bookstores could be another cause for concern. In March, Dufry (the parent company of Hudson) agreed to buy World Duty Free for $3.8 billion, making Dufry the largest travel retail company in the world. In a conference call at the time of the agreement, Julian Diaz, CEO of Dufry, said that the closing would occur in July 2015 and that the integration of the organizations would take 18 to 24 months. It’s not clear yet what impact that will have on airport book sales.