The toilet paper analogy: how can local book stores compete?

In an editorial on, Diane Evans calls for independent booksellers to forget about the tips for survival offered by ABA (American Booksellers’ Association).  Citing the continued effects of the expansion of big box retailers and the compression of the economy, she notes the tightening environment under which independent booksellers operate these days.

I do think she underplays the importance of the feel-good of “shop independent” – I think that’s important to some folks.  Granted, a small minority, but even a minority 0.1% capture of the marketshare of a megacorporation like Barnes and Noble or Amazon is beyond a small business’ wildest dreams.  But, I think there’s still a hook in there:  you still have to sell something to the customer that has a positive value proposition to get them to bite for your egalitarian message.  Put it another way (my coworkers love hearing this analogy from me constantly):  I may want to be environmentally responsible and purchase recycled toilet paper, and don’t mind paying more to do so, but if the quality is substandard, I’m heading straight back to good old Snuggly (or whatever the name is).

But as an independent book store, you’re selling the same product, generally at a slightly higher cost, right? So what’s the problem?  The same product, an elevated socially responsible pitch, why doesn’t the community get it?

Often its simply because there is unfortunately no textblock inside the endpapers.  You’re telling customers to support local business, get involved, etc, etc.  Are you doing the same?  Are you shelving books at a local homeless shelter?  Helping out at library book sales?  In short, are customers seeing you engaged and supporting the community?

This is what she means when she says that simple cost-cutting and “feel-good-rhetoric” about shopping local isn’t going to be enough:

…the appeal of a local bookseller must go beyond emotional, altruistic reasons…

While I’m a little disappointed that the article has little in the way of practical ideas for what this “beyond” might look like, I do think she has a point:  independent book stores need to get pragmatic about what their survival will look like, and perhaps more importantly, what their survival will look like to their communities.  And I wholeheartedly agree with her suggestion that booksellers look at how they can get involved in community programs.

Its no longer enough to passively run a business and count on your great location, domain name, or just plain goodwill.  We live in a wholely interactive world of Facebook, Twitter, community activism, and blogs.  Customers increasingly want their businesses to engage with them and their community, not just sell them stuff off a rack or sidewalk shelf from behind a counter.  For the latter, they are inevitably going to drift to the megacorporations like Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or Walmart.  Honestly, they are always going to be better – more efficient at getting discounted products into customer hands – than any of us will or could ever be.  They will always have a bigger, more well-known brand, so you can’t out advertise them.

You can out-community-participate them, though!

But there’s more:  local book stores also need to be pragmatic about what they’re offering the customer as an individual, too:

In a retail environment, you are selling way more than the product itself, and you need to compare how your – I’ll call it total offering – compares against your competition.  You’re selling the experience of buying the product.  You’re selling the interaction with yourself or your staff.  The ambience.  The ease of finding books.  You get the idea.  You’ve got to critically analyze everything you offer to customers in comparison to everything offered by soulless megacorp down the road.  (For an interesting way to organize your thinking about market strategy and postitioning, I highly recommend The Myth of Excellence : Why great companies never try to be the best at everything.  The authors suggest there are five distinct points on which a company can compete: price, service, quality, access, and experience).

So the independent book store needs to look at the total offering – is it really on par with the competing chains?  Maybe you’ve got the hippest ambience in town, or have a corner on your community’s main street.  But, if your staff is surly, if your shop is heavily disorganized, you still might that customers won’t want to pay the extra buck to support your business.  (And online book stores – Biblio included, you’re not off the hook – think about the total experience you offer the customer: do you offer her a high quality book lovingly brodarted but then haggle with her for an additional 50 cents in shipping?  Do you offer a great selection of books, but make your site a bungle to navigate?  Yep, she’s headed off to the online soulless megacorp that starts with “A”).

All this to say, as fellow small businesses looking to our own future, the fundamental thing we need to be asking ourselves is “what are we actually giving our customers and communities beyond a widget in exchange for supporting us and helping us to grow?”

Independent local book stores have long been the great champions against the negative effects of chain retailers in a community.  I’m not suggesting they abandon the resistance fight, but maybe its time that they also look to how they can be the champions for the positive effects of small businesses on a community?

Perhaps we should ditch the all-too-familiar David vs Goliath analogy…  something more about positive service and change.  Suggestions?

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