The battle against the online retailers by independent bookshops has been going on for over 15 years. Many people wrote off the ability of indie bookshops to survive this competition, many did go under. From 1995 to 2016 the number of indie bookshops in the UK and Ireland had declined every year from 1,894 independent bookshops to just 867. But 2017 marked a tiny turnaround, the total number of indies in the UK and Ireland increased by just one. The, again,2018 saw the number increase by 15. Even greater news is that many of the independent bookshops I have spoken to, say their Christmas turnover was up between 8% and 15%. How did this happen? How has bookselling bucked the retail downturn. When shops such as HMV, Debenhams even Orla Kiely are closing, how is it that bookshops are opening and thriving.
There are many reasons, however, one that I believe had a huge impact is the positive message that the Booksellers Association (BA) has been pushing for the past 5 or 6 years. Gone are the sad, sob stories of “poor us” and in came the Books Are My Bag (BAMB) campaign and Independent Bookshop Week (IBW). These are all celebrations of bookshops on the high street and at the core of the message is a reminder to book buyers that bookshops are important, are essential to provide them with choice and personal recommendations.
The BAMB campaign was conceived by one of the world’s leading PR campaigners and the heart of his message was that we must push the positive message. What the message must never be about is “use us or lose us” or “shop with us or we’ll close”. If the book buying public, no longer want to buy books from a bookshop or a chain, because it no longer meets their needs, no PR or marketing campaign will save them.
BAMB gave booksellers the framework around which to develop strategies to engage more with their customers. Event programmes sprung up all over the country, publishers were beginning to “complain” that they were inundated with requests for author events from hundreds of independent bookshops. Authors were now travelling up and down the UK and to meet readers. Bookshops were linking up with musicians to host performances, making their own ice cream for each author event, incorporating deli’s and of course including coffee shops in their space.
It was also interesting and wonderful to see the impact the BAMB had on the team at the BA. It seemed to give them the confidence and permission to celebrate bookshops. Before an air of depression appeared to hang over BA HQ but an energy and enthusiasm was now inspiring them to take on major issues.
What I am less sure about is whether those campaigns have had any impact in Ireland. It is encouraging to see a much higher profile presence of Bookselling Ireland (BI). BI is the Irish arm of the BA and the committee consists of key Irish bookselling people.
There are some startling statistics recently reported by PricewaterhouseCoopers. They found that 67pc of Irish consumers now shop on Amazon. But an even more significant statistic is this one: 18pc of Irish shoppers say that they shop less often at other retail stores as a result of Amazon. It is unlikely that the number of people shopping online will decline in the foreseeable future and this is a challenge that Irish bookshops must be prepared for. Online shopping in Ireland is now the norm, often direct from the UK thereby bypassing Irish retailers altogether. This article is fascinating albeit scary reading:
What can be done? How, as an Irish retailer, can you meet that challenge. The short answer is that it is not be easy however, on the evidence of independent bookshops in the UK, it is possible and, in many cases, very successfully achieved. In the mix needs to be the creation a space where book lovers want to spend time, a space where they can browse books for hours to find the right book. Bookshops need to communicate with their customers on a regular basis.
Look at the brands that are not only surviving but thriving such as Next or Avoca. They send mailings to their customers on a very regular basis. The short emails often support the nationwide campaigns. What these emails achieve, I believe, is a constant reminder about the shops and what they offer. If you’ve ever queued from the Naas Road to get into Avoca at Rathcoole on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll have a real sense of how successful their shops are. In an age where online shopping is increasing people are still willing to drive out there and queue to get into that shop. Avoca have created a destination shop in the middle of nowhere.
I have been fascinated by the growth and positioning of the Press Up Group. Mainly operating in and around Dublin in the bar, restaurant and hotel market they are a high-end brand. They are aiming at the people who don’t mind spending €19pp to go to the cinema at 12.30 on a Sunday afternoon to see Four Weddings and a Funeral (A movie they could just as easily watch on TV). What the Stella Cinemas is offering is a movie experience with the same ambience of their bars and restaurants. It is a social experience and markedly different from viewing a movie at home on the telly.
Most bookshops are selling books at recommended published price + currency conversion which results in a price to the consumer of often 50% more than a certain online retailer. This is a difficult business strategy to operate with. I believe that the trick is to build that relationship with your community and customer base so that, whilst they know you are more expensive than buying online, they want to spend their money with you. The customer knows that online retailers don’t pay the same tax as you, doesn’t come into their schools with authors to talk books. For every €10 spent in an Irish bookshop €7 stays in the local economy. The local bookshop is employing local people. The online retailer doesn’t bring the best authors to their doorstep, doesn’t introduce them to a wonderful new author. We know, from research, that half of all bookshop purchases are first-time discoveries. If your customers continually get wonderful recommendations from you and your team, they’ll be back time and time again for more. There’s no online algorithm to replace a real person chatting about books to customers, the trick is to turn that chat into a purchase before they leave the bookshop!
Bookshops such as Booka Bookshop in Oswestry or Bookish in Crickhowell are shining examples of how the modern-day bookshop becomes the centre of their community. They run events, offer locals the opportunity to meet authors. They have coffee areas and in the case of Bookish they can serve food and wine in the evening. They engage with the local schools by not only visiting the schools but also inviting classes into the bookshop for events. They have anchored themselves firmly into centre of their towns so that customers automatically think of them when they want a book. Their customers know how important it is to shop there because to support the bookshop is to support their own community. These bookshops are having a wider positive impact on their communities and the locals want that to continue and support it by buying in the bookshop.
There are fantastic opportunities throughout Ireland for bookshops in towns and villages to anchor themselves into their communities. Many are already doing this and have passionate supporters and shoppers. Many towns don’t have bookshops and so opportunities will arise for the most ingenious and energetic future booksellers. The bookshop could be one of the anchor shops in the villages, towns and suburb that pull shoppers to that area and adds value for the local community.
For me, heading out to Blessington village in Co Wicklow, knowing that there is a vibrant main street where I can spend a leisurely afternoon before stopping off at Blessington Books for a browse followed by coffee and cake. Alternatively, I’ll stop off at The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar for a browse and always a purchase, knowing that there are several other wonderful shops along that street such as Design Lane or the likes of Scout.
To answer my own question yes, I believe there is much hope for Irish bookshops against the backdrop of increased online retailing. I see an opportunity for the next generation of Irish bookshops to spring up around the country and help the Irish town revival.