Sunday, December 29, 2019

Book Retailing - Retail 2020 (Article #5)

Who killed the Sony Walkman? Apple iPod. Who killed Kodak Films? Digital Cameras. 


There are many such presumptive answers most of us carry, mostly opinions I would say. When the iPod was launched in 2003, it was helmed as the most disruptive Music innovation of our times. For, a small device that could be kept inside the coin pocket of a Levi’s Jeans could carry over 1,600 songs in a format created exclusively and patented by Apple. This, compared to an Audio CD which could carry at most, over 300 songs and that too in low audio quality and also needed a player with electricity to play while the iPod merely needed an earphone with a battery charged in advance. No, the iconic iPod didn’t kill the Walkman. Sony failed to innovate, despite having held a leadership position for 3 decades.

Now, let me ask – who killed the Bookstores? Amazon? Flipkart? Guess my response in the previous paragraph would have clarified the position I take while answering this question. 

Book stores worldwide and in India are not just a retail outlet but an intrinsic part of the cultural and community fabric of the society. “Do not live in a city which doesn’t have a bookshop”, goes a saying. With less than 10% of Indians using English as a medium to read and communicate daily and an average literacy rate of less than 50% across India after 72 years of gaining Independence, I guess we have a long way to walk as a country. While vernacular books (and the habit of reading is reasonable), this segment of the society is not a voracious reader, thanks to our education system which believes in the habit of mugging answers and not really cultivate the pleasure of reading. I take pride in saying that the erstwhile Madras, now Chennai is perhaps the first city in India to get an organized bookstore in the name and style of “Higginbothams” which still stands an edifice for the retail business of selling books and beyond after a century and a half. With the iconic structure on Mount Road that stands an icon in the city since the 19th Century to the less than 120 sq. ft store which opened earlier this year through the new franchisee who has taken up space at Chennai International Airport, the brand has stood the test of time spanning decades. Alongside came many hundreds of independent bookstores across the country over the past 5 decades or more. Many of them were first time Entrepreneurs who merely opened a bookshop because they didn’t get what they were looking for at other bookstores. 

Many of these bookstores have, interestingly survived not just the competition from organized book retailers over the past 25 years but also from e-commerce companies who sold books online at insane discounts, at times forgoing their business margins and most recently from E-Publishers led by none other than Amazon through Kindle Direct Publishing. With the onset of Malls around 2002 onwards, almost every one of them would have a bookstore of repute in premium areas. Brands which most Mall rats would remember including Landmark, Crosswords, Odyssey, Oxford Book Store, to name a few were a regular meeting spot to browse, read and buy books of various genres, cults and subjects. While the Tata Group bought the Landmark Retail chain for an estimated Rs. 100 Crores, Odyssey was acquired by Deccan Holdings and went on to become India’s first “retail” brand to be featured on the jersey of a cricket team during the IPL Tournament in 2009. K Raheja Group owned Crossroads, which is part of Shoppers Stop and Hypercity chain (eventually Inorbit Malls as well) commanded premium retail spaces, thanks to the bargaining power of the group. 


However, over time, these organized retail businesses became sluggish and slowed down on Sales. Visitors and shoppers to bookstores declined and ultimately many of the chains went bust, hailing a new era of depending on online booksellers like Flipkart and Amazon to order books and getting them delivered at home for reading at their convenience. Honestly, this is similar to ordering a crisp Masala Dosa from Swiggy and eating on your personal dining table, if you know what I mean. Just like fresh food consumed at a restaurant, books also have an aroma and a feel, the smell of paper that is unique to bookshops and to lending libraries. 

But then, the world had another view, an alternate view. Akin to how we felt that the iPod killed the Walkman, the world believed and still believes that E-Commerce killed the offline Bookstore business. I humbly beg to differ. There was an impact of online retailers on the over retail industry but to say that the retailers went bankrupt because of them is a skill of over imagination and an act of blaming the burgeoning technology industry for all our miseries. Having firsthand seen many of these bookstore chains as well as “Indie” bookstores as a consumer, as a Trade observer, as a Retailer, as a Retail Leasing Manager and as a Key Account Manager negotiating space inside book stores (during my stint at CCD), I can say with confidence that the Retail Industry themselves was mostly responsible for this calamity. 


During the 90s, when I would visit the basement store of Landmark bookstore in Chennai, the boys and girls knew exactly where a title was; they could recommend more titles based on the reader / consumer interest. However, over time the staff were untrained about the business and most importantly, lacked a passion for book reading and retailing, let alone a sense of camaraderie with the book lovers. This, in my very humble opinion is the sole reason for the decline and demise of the book retailing business. Customers expected the sales guys to know about the book itself, not just which shelf they were placed at. And they missed this in action. Their only choice was to move online where they got what they wanted. Not the discounts, if you know what I mean. 

Until last Saturday, this hasn’t changed. At the Chennai Airport’s Higginbothams store, I went to check if they had a title of JK Rowling which my daughter wanted for her vacation to which we were headed. The staff was puzzled even with the name of the author and showed his palm to a section where the Author’s books along with others was placed. A young girl came and told me that the book was not so great to which I replied it was for my kid. She glanced at me and perhaps said to herself that kids could get interested with “Fascinating Beasts” and not really adults. Now, these are the kind of interactions that book lovers expect at a “physical bookstore” while the over-hyped “phygital” concept can be put to use meanwhile by leveraging technology. For Ex., the staff at the airport could have taken my request and placed it with the HO immediately who would call me in a while and confirm if I needed the book for sure based on which they could have sent it by courier to my vacation location or to my home. Sadly, this wasn’t happening. The sales guy (and the company) perhaps thought they simply lost a sale – No, they are losing the business model itself.


There is a slow resurgence of bookstores once again, what I call as Ver. 3.0. This is mainly led by “Indie” bookstores who are getting passionate about the art of book selling.  But even they are not embracing change (Read: Technology) and adapting themselves. I can only wish them good luck as I am key in the OTP for the card transaction on the Amazon App. The book is expected to reach my home by the time I return from the vacation. 

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