Why Shop at a Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

bookstores, barnes & noble, data, amazon, publishersDo you still shop at your local bookstore? I typically go once, maybe twice a year, and the last time for me was December 2015. This weekend, though, I made a rare summer visit to my local Barnes & Noble in search of books for my almost six-month-old grandson, Jasper. No matter how good Amazon makes its “Look Inside” feature, it will never replace the experience of flipping through a children’s book, especially those with pop-ups, pull-tabs and other fun elements you find in so many children’s titles.

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and there were at most 10-15 other shoppers in the entire store. That got me thinking: what are the compelling reasons to shop at a physical bookstore? The “buy local” movement is a nice, feel-good incentive for consumers, but it’s not a viable long-term strategy for brick-and-mortar stores.

Despite my love/hate relationship with Amazon over the years, I admit that I currently buy almost all my books there. Thanks to Prime, my wife and I spend a lot on plenty of other Amazon products every month, too. That’s the beast we consumers created, and it simply replaced another beast that preceded it: the formerly powerful combo of B&N and Borders superstores.

It’s sad to watch B&N shift square footage from books to seemingly anything other than books. I understand that the company needs to find a new path forward, but I’m amazed at the many book discovery and sales opportunities it has ignored or overlooked.

This particular B&N had been completely remodeled since I last visited it in 2015. Despite all the signage, it took far too long for me to locate the two sections I wanted to visit after finding my Jasper books. Why isn’t there an in-store mobile app designed to quickly help me find my way—sort of a virtual replacement for all the in-store personnel that used to assist you at every turn? GPS and in-store sensors are more than good enough to help consumers navigate a superstore. Plus, there’s a data collection opportunity these stores are missing out on; publishers would likely pay big bucks for reports quantifying consumer time spent in front over various promotional campaign types (e.g., end-cap vs. front-of-store vs. free-standing displays).

Why stop there, though? Since B&N knows I’m in the store, why not allow me to opt in to exclusive deals, customized for my interests, delivered via this mobile app and which expire as soon as I walk out the front door? This could limit the showrooming practice in which consumers sample in the physical store but end up buying, sometimes via their phone, while they’re still standing in the aisle.

While I was feeling bad for brick-and-mortars, I felt even worse when I picked up a couple recent publications from the blockbuster “For Dummies” series. I had the pleasure of spending a few years working at the publishing house where the series was created and expanded, and I think what we said back then is still true today: everyone is a dummy about something.

Branding was always an important consideration for those yellow-and-black covers, but you discovered the one-of-a-kind content personality when you flipped through any of the hundreds of successful titles. Sadly, that’s no longer the case. The two books I picked up had morphed into generic-looking covers and, surprisingly, plain vanilla interiors. The once playful heading fonts were gone, and so too was that powerful message, “a reference for the rest of us.”

Like any publisher of a highly successful series, I’m sure the “Dummies” team felt the time was right for a refresh. I think they made a huge mistake, though, with their new approach. It would be like Coke switching to blue cans or McDonald’s ditching its golden arches.

Once upon a time, the “Dummies” books would be showcased, face out, in a four-foot-wide display at your local store. Those covers were so powerful individually, but made an even stronger impression when 20 of them were aligned in a chain-wide promotional campaign.

Now the newer “Dummies” books mostly blend in with the rest of the white noise on the shelf. Given the scope of that series, I see this as yet another missed brick-and-mortar opportunity, particularly since impulse-buying seems to happen more in the physical store than online. Regrettably, consumers will no longer be drawn to the bright yellow-and-black covers that once served as a foot traffic magnet within the local bookstore.


This article first appeared on Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies.


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4 thoughts on “Why Shop at a Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore?

  1. Stephen S. Power

    I went to the 555 Fifth Avenue B&N a couple weeks ago to see my novel THE DRAGON ROUND in the field for the first time. It was face out on the fantasy and sf shelf, a promotion it received it every store. Sure, my book’s available on Amazon, but there it’s just another sku. B&N is actually supporting it. I can’t thank them enough.

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  2. Bill Gleason

    I go to B & N weekly (it’s right next to my gym) and used to buy 75+ titles a year there, mostly hard cover first run stuff. Now, I might buy a cookbook on occasion, or something from the remainder table (interesting that the remainder table often has a price advantage over their digital counterparts). But that’s it. I am a digital reader, and since I used B&N for discovery, I tried (for 2 years) to also use their NOOK. But that product was a failure, and their pricing was a disaster. So now I use the bookstore to find titles for my Kindle Fire, but still enjoy the browsing experience. Whether it is a library or a bookstore – nothing beats the experience for me. And, sadly, Amazon still doesn’t have it when it comes to book discovery… Strangely enough, I trust the jacket blurb over the Amazon synopsis AND Amazon reviews. But I do suspect this will change. There is no fun finding a book you want to read and then getting held up at the digital check out register ($ 14.99 for trade, $ 9.99 for soft goods). So my personal recommendation to you is go 4x a year at least – it is a fun experience. And to the big publishers – thank you so much for forcing me to find new authors to read at reasonable prices.

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  3. Finn

    Much as I agree with the logic to this article, I find the thought of bumping into somone gazing at their smartphone whilst navigating the store vaguely depressing. We get enough of that on the street.

    There may well be missed opportunities for B&N, highlighted here, but bricks and mortar stores – be they independent books shops or the larger chains – are as much about serendipitous purchases as those customers knowing exactly what they want.

    A nicer idea might be a tie-in between B&N and that coffee-shop across the road. Where you may have ‘dead time’ over a coffee. An alert pops up as you’re drinking to give you 2for1 at the bookstore opposite….

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  4. Gabriella

    Very interesting about what’s happened to the For Dummies series, Joe. And thanks for the thoughtful article.

    I vaguely remember them being published by IDG. I suppose they’ve been bought up or the company’s being merged… but it’s still a piece of the past that’s drifted away.

    I couldn’t make myself go into a B&N store now. And living in SF, I don’t even know where I would find the closest one.

    I tend to avoid things that have changed for the worse, which is a terribly bad habit, since most things have and invariably do!

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