The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are coming back to haunt retail outlets in our high street, or so it would seem. Three years ago I blogged about the depressing future facing retail, especially the world of book sales. The landscape today is not overly different from the clanging chimes of doom of three years ago. Some may say things have worsened but this is not overtly true. Things have shifted from the high street to online, though even here the furore of the arrival of eBooks has actually been slower to start than those who forecast the end of the paper book would admit.
What is clear though from a simple and unscientific test is that local bookstores are lacking constant footfall. The general consensus is that business is happening in waves rather than continually throughout the trading day. While stores rush to get in bed with eReaders as shown by WHSmith’s smart move to align with Kobo, some of these flirtations have been nothing more than a quick fumble in the back seat of a car. It is interesting to see that many Waterstones branches have ditched their eReader corners in their stores. Not a permanent dismissal of the technology since James Daunt’s arrival, but a move to pave the way for their own eReading device which surely must be on the way soon. The investment required to build from the ground up is huge as Amazon will testify. The question is though, even if Waterstones do announce a dedicated eReader, how is the supporting mechanisms going to enhance shopping in the store? What is Waterstones going to do to align the in-store shopping experience with this technology? Waterstones has experimented with a number of eReading devices from Sony to Eleonex and failed. Unless this question is answered they will be throwing good money after bad.
There are some simple, low cost things stores like WHS and Waterstones could be doing to make purchasing eBooks in-store a seamless reality. The fact is unless these stores educate consumers to purchase eBooks from the stores they bought their eReaders in; they are doomed to long term failure. Brand loyalty can only stretch so far.
WHS move with Kobo is smart as there is a dedicated store linked to the purchase of the eReader much like there is with the Kindle and Amazon, but this does little to increase in-store book sales. One may argue that these will erode and diminish over time, so is it a retrograde step or are there plans afoot to address store and brand loyalty with eBook and eReader purchases.
In this heated rush to get caught up with the excitement of ‘new’ technology are we also losing focus on the fact that traditional paper books still make great gifts, paper books provide hours of entertainment and are incredibly cheap (on the whole) when looked at the entertainment value they bring. eBooks offer the same value and often at a reduced price from their paper compadres but spectacularly fail as a gift. Again this is something books stores could capitalise on and easily redress.
In 2012 our high streets will face the toughest year ever and more empty retail outlets will occupy what was once prime space. The publishing industry and retail really does need to get to grips with the arrival of electronic books and find ways to integrate them into our retail space and not just our virtual retail space. For bookstores to remain on our high street there needs to be (as uncomfortable as it may be for some stores) a marriage of old and new book formats. If there isn’t it may take more than Kobo and James daunt to save what few book stores remain trading?