retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Interesting piece in the Washington Post about the unlikely growth of independent bookstores, especially at a time when an iconic chain like Borders is going through a going-out-of-business sale.

According to the story, “The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.

“The American Booksellers Association, the national trade organization for independently owned bookstores, counted a 7 percent growth last year and has gained 100 new members in the past six months. The association now counts 1,830 member stores across the country, up by 400 since 2005, according to Meg Smith, the association’s spokeswoman. The new stores have opened in at least 35 states, from New York to California, an indication that store owners across the nation see an opportunity to find a concrete niche in the e-book world.”

Smith tells the Post that “the growth appears to be due to a number of factors — the demise of large bookstores; a general social identification with locally owned businesses, an offshoot of the ‘go-local’ movement in restaurants and grocery stores; and a number of store owners who have identified a small but viable market in their communities.

“The steady growth is surprising, as the number of independent stores had shrunk by as much as 30 percent in the early part of the decade, hit hard by the growth of big box stores and by online sellers such as Amazon, where the supply was almost limitless. E readers, such as the Kindle and Nook, had further put a dent in brick-and-mortar businesses. Lastly, the recession of the past two years has cast a shadow over the entire retail market.”

But, “the lesson in the decline of big stores, these owners say, is not that no one wants to buy books. It’s that the big stores were too big. They had overreached and, in trying to be all things to all readers, had lost a sense of intimacy that books and reading seem to thrive on.”

This is part of an ongoing theme that can be seen in the retail business, one that has been noted again and again on MNB. It is the same story as when we point out that minor league baseball teams are exploiting the differential advantages of their ballparks because they can’t market players who, if they are any good, will be shipped out. It is the same story as when we talk about video stores that are finding new ways to turn their customers into a community, understanding that this is the only way to compete with the likes of Netflix and iTunes. Or the same as when movie theatre chains such as AMC offer better food service and even full-service bars as a way of competing for people’s entertainment dollars.

‘Compete’ is a verb. MNB Rule # 1. if you;re going to compete, you actually have to identify and exploit your differences ... and if you don’t have any, you’d better create some.
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