Why indies can’t ignore online shopping

I know there are a number, perhaps even a lot, of independent bookstores that are very reluctant to take part in e-commerce—the reason is usually something like: “we want people to actually come IN the store” or “this is a neighborhood bookstore.”  Which are both very good reasons, and independent stores generally have a strong sense of mission and purpose that drives the people who own and work in them.  Many stores have, even though they feel like it’s giving in, put up an e-commerce website.  But very few indies (although there are notable exceptions) have done a solid job of harnessing their websites to really increase sales.  IndieBound has been helping with this in terms of getting the word out, but it feels to me like there are still a lot of booksellers who are on the fence about being online in a serious way.

I have been thinking for some time that this is causing indies to lose business, even among their best customers.  People who love to read tend to spend more time online—and most of online is littered with Amazon links.  In fact, there are a number of compelling reasons why people choose to shop online, whether we like them or not.  Of course, I am just one person and there’s no compelling reason to believe me, so instead, I invite you to listen to your (potential) customers.  Read the comments on this post on litpark, “Question of the Month: Amazon, B&N, or Indie?”  Resist the urge to chime in for a minute—I think this post is better off with customers stating their true preferences and booksellers not jumping in.

You’ll see that the majority of the commenters, as of this moment, really like indie bookstores, and do shop there when possible; many consider Amazon “a backup,” as Susan puts it.  They seem aware of how awesome a good indie store is, the benefits of shopping local, and the joy of browsing a well-stocked bricks & mortar store.  We talk a lot about needing to educate customers about the good things about keeping it local and indie, but these folks could teach a course in it.

They also almost all buy books on Amazon.  Why? Well, there’s a lot of reasons—read them.

Too many customers don’t know that they can have essentially the same experience on your website, if you have one.  They can have the instant gratification of BUY IT NOW and also support their favorite indie bookstore–why don’t they know that?  They can order a book online for in-store pickup, so they never have to worry if the book they want is in stock.  They can have all the convenience of shopping online AND all the things they are telling you they love about our stores.  Why aren’t we telling them?

The bricks & mortar experience is an important one, and I’m confident that with the right tools, we’ll get through this latest downtrun, and we’ll keep having the stores we love to go to every morning.  But it’ll be a lot easier to keep those stores open if we start re-capturing sales that we are losing everyday by stubbornly over-emphasizing our physical presence.  Show people how our in-store presence and service will extend to online purchases—show them they can have convenience AND service AND curated selection AND support their communities even when they’re too tired to go downtown—and we’ll see a change.  Go read the post.  You’ll see why I’m convinced that this cannot be ignored.

As an aside, one of the ways we can work towards this is to keep encouraging bloggers, publishers, authors, and other bookish folk to LinkIndie.  Utne Reader blogged about it yesterday—how cool!

(h/t @AnnKingman for bringing the link to our attention on Twitter, h/t also to many various tweets I’ve been reading by people who like indies but also use Amazon–I appreciate getting a peek at your thinking!)


19 comments so far

  1. readandbreathe on

    You’re so right about this. I understand if people want to use Amazon as a research tool, but I wish more of them would turn to IndieBound’s website now that it’s easily searchable for information on books. I’ve read some complaints where people say that Amazon is still the best place to go for detailed reviews on the books, etc. I think we indie booksellers should really think of ways to make the IndieBound links more user friendly in the average customers mind. Even if that means people initially go to Amazon to do research, but then go to our websites to see what we’re recommending or go to IndieBound to link to their local bookstore and then order the book, we’re making progress. I just worry that a lot of people see the discounts on Amazon and when it comes down to it, especially in these difficult economic times, people choose discount over supporting the local brick and mortars.

    How do we encourage readers to spend the extra bucks at our stores? Do we need to do a better job of showing how local stores give back to the community more than the box stores and Amazon? I know that shop local is something most towns have programs around now. We do, and I think it’s made a difference!

  2. Rebbie Macintyre on

    Great article. I’m passing it along to the people who own a store near me. They bemoan Amazon, but have nothing on the web. Maybe this will spur them on!

  3. Ann Kingman on

    Excellent thoughts. I want to take it one step further — a rudimentary e-commerce system is not enough. Customers will only use a store’s e-commerce system if it meets their needs — for many, they want convenience, ease of use, and as few clicks as possible. They want to store their credit card number so that they don’t have to input it each time. They want a very clear indication of whether or not a book is in stock, and they want a reliable delivery date.

    I believe that if you meet your customer’s needs for e-commerce, they will often choose your store over other, larger online booksellers. It’s not always about price — it’s about convenience.

  4. Rich on

    I agree with Ann. I feel indies has been intimidated by the discounts AMZN offer on bestsellers and have allowed the construction of a killer ecommerce platform to become a low priority. No disrespect to the ABA folks who have kept indies in the game with the ecommerce solution for the past decade. It was an essential tool. I’m hopful that the new Drupal system is a step forward, but it all depends on how active indies are in using it. If your ecommerce is just a URL at the bottom of all your ads & flyers it will not add to your customers experience when they go there. Indies need to make sure the titles featured on their site reflect their in-store face-outs, favorite handsells, visiting authors and the reviews need to be written by your own booksellers, reflecting the personality & spark customers come to your store to enjoy.

    A new ecommerce backbone is all very well, but unless indies personize it and use it actively customers won’t notice much difference.

  5. Laura on

    You know, I hate to say this because it makes me sound 100 years old, but the concept of buying local (or even buying American, but that’s a different topic) has not really been in the forefront of many people’s minds, especially those younger than Generation X.

    People whose parents or grandparents bought groceries at the corner store are now shopping at large chain grocery stores.

    People whose parents or grandparents bought 45 records at the local record shop are downloading songs from iTunes.

    I agree with Ann — just having e-commerce isn’t enough, it’s got to work well and look & feel professional before we’re going to type in our credit card number. You’ve got to compete, on some level, with your actual competition — Amazon.

  6. Jessica on

    Stephanie – obviously I totally agree. My current indie bookstore employer made the decision a few years back to pass on the ABA ecommerce solution, on the grounds that the monthly fee was too high to be justified by the percentage of sales we were likely to see from it. Not only is that percentage changing, but I feel the very perception that customers can check our inventory online is a powerful marketing tool that can be parlayed into more store sales AND online sales. Needless to say, I’m hoping to make my own indie bookstore effort fully e-capable, and promoting it through all the tools I’ve been learning with you and my fellow booksellers.

  7. anndouglas on

    I’m an author who is passionate about all aspects of the book business. I buy a lot of used books online through http://www.abebooks.com (which is basically an online market connecting thousands of websites operated by business who sell used/vintage books).

    Couldn’t this same model be adapted for indie bookstores selling new books? Every store tends to have its own niche, whether that niche develops because of geography, bookstore focus (children’s, mystery books, scholarly etc.)

    Considering the field I specialize in as an example, it would be possible for groups of bookstores to cluster together under umbrella sites specializing in the pregnancy/parenting market, the women’s health market, the non-fiction market (with a women/family/consumer advocacy focus – or some other focus entirely). Then there is the tone that could be adapted: serious, fun, hip, savvy, or a combo of some/all of those elements.

    To look to another field for an example of how this can be done well, consider http://www.etsy.com — a market of indie/handmade craft shops. Obviously, each of these businesses is a microbusiness as opposed to a small to medium bricks-and-mortar enterprise, but I think the model has much to offer in terms of the way the community has developed.

    This brings me to my final point. I feel that there are all kinds of ways that authors and indie bookstores could work together in new and innovative ways. Because indie bookstores have one-of-a-kind niches, they can identify the types of authors that are most likely to be of interest to their customers and forge relationships with those authors — and vice versa. There really are some very exciting possibilities.

    I imagine that a lot of you are on Twitter. You can catch up with me there @anndouglas if you’d like to discuss this one-on-one. I’ll also, of course, follow comments on this thread.

    Note: I started @bookpubs and @litmags over at Twitter, to make it easier for people to tap into those kinds of resources. Does anyone know if there is a list of indie bookstores on Twitter? Thanks, Ann

  8. Gwendolyn Zepeda on

    Let me just throw this into the mix: As an author, if I’ve done a reading at an indie and they have a web site, I’ll link to their site from my book’s page.

    However, as all authors know, most indies won’t host readings by local or mid-list authors — only by best-selling ones. :I

  9. bookavore on

    Great comments so far–agree that indies still have to step up their e-commerce game. Ann, I also like your idea of looking to etsy. Obviously it’s a completely different model, but it’s at least worth looking at why it is so popular and how it became popular so quickly.

    Gwendolyn, I have to say I’m really surprised to read your comment. Perhaps it has to do with the area of the country? At my old store and at this one, I’d say the vast majority of signings were/are with local or mid-list authors. I don’t think all but the most well-known indies are even in a position to only host best-selling authors, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a bookstore owner who didn’t host local author events (but again, perhaps it has everything to do with where you are?) Also, Amazon will never be in a position to host an event for you–why do they get a link anyway? Sorry if that sounds rude, but I am genuinely curious.

  10. Mandy on

    I completely agree with you that indies can’t ignore e-commerce. If we take our names out of that market, what do we have left? Even our most loyal customers shop at Amazon for the convenience and price. Which brings me to the platform that most of us use for our e-commerce, the old Booksense. It’s not competitive. The search feature is ancient and ineffective. The check-out process is clumsy and time consuming. Now, I love the look and feel of the new Indiebound site and I’m just hoping that when things get switched over, the e-commerce aspect will look and feel much newer and user-friendly. It will be nice to have a website that we can push our customers toward without worrying that they will get frustrated and stop shopping with us.

  11. Praveen Madan on

    Great discussion here, and I generally agree with most things being said here about e-commerce. As relatively new booksellers, we started looking recently at the landscape of independent booksellers to find best practices in e-commerce and found that with the sole exception of Powell’s, nobody else seems to have done a decent job. And Powells.com is mostly succeeding with used books. Can anyone point to other success stories of independent booksellers doing well online with new books?

  12. […] it, move on and start getting shit […]

  13. Patrick on

    Here’s where I think many independent booksellers get hung up: They identify themselves as a local business, focused on their community and can’t reconcile that with the web, which obviously operates globally. How do you successfully leverage your “localness” online to generate sales? On the internet, the fact that your store is located in Jacksonville or Little Rock or Terra Haute or wherever isn’t likely to help you close a sale, and in some cases, it might actually hurt you. If I’m shopping online, I don’t necessarily need to know the physical location of the store from which I’m making my purchase. Indeed, if I’m in California, why would I buy from a small store in Indiana? Are they going to make the experience better/cheaper/etc. than it is on Amazon or Powell’s? So what you’re trying to do with your ecommerce site is keep sales from your local area that are currently going to Amazon or Powell’s or whoever. I think Ann has it right when she says stressing in-store pick-up, real-time inventory, signed stock (I know stores that do major business with signed stock online) etc.

    I believe if you set up an attractive, easy site, you will sell books on it. We’re definitely more than breaking even on our site, and nearly all the sales are coming from Southern California.

    That being said, I think Praveen has a great point that frankly, there aren’t any stores doing a great job with selling new books online. And I would argue that Powell’s has succeeded largely by building a great site and somewhat abandoning the fact that they are a local store in Portland (on their website, that is). If you look at their site, their store location and events tab is way over on the righthand side of the screen. The phone number they list is an 800 number. There is no address for the store in the upper lefthand corner. The effect is that you think of them as an online retailer, a store that exists not in Portland but rather in the vague area of cyberspace. And the kicker is, it hasn’t hurt their standing in Portland (at least not from what I can tell on the various blogs and message boards that I read).

    The truth is that we can all talk about making our sites as good as Powell’s but in the end, it takes a lot of time and money to do so. And even then, why would somebody shop with you instead of Powell’s? The things that are strengths of indies are locality, events, curation, etc. Those can come across online, but I think that a large number of e-shoppers are looking for none of that. They want ease of transaction, cheap price, and – most importantly – somebody they know and trust.

    I think our new Drupal-based site is better than our old site: the search functionality is better (still not great), the performance of the site is better, and I think the design and checkout of the site are better, too. And so far, the sales numbers back me up on that. Are we going to take a lot of business from Amazon? No. We offer the option, and we make money some money at it, but our site is mainly a promotional tool. It’s a place for our blog to link to, a place to find out information about our store, and an online calendar for our instore events.

    Can anyone reading this post think of a site on the web that they frequent because of where the brick-and-mortar outlet for that site is located? In other words, can anybody name a store that is successfully leveraging its locality on the web? I can’t, and I spend all freaking day online.

  14. Gwendolyn Zepeda on

    Bookavore: Now I’m starting to feel funny, realizing that Texas indies must be in way more trouble than those in other states. Specifically, new and mid-list authors I know here can’t get booked in Houston or Austin indies to save their lives, and that’s with Austin’s BookPeople charging authors for readings.

    Why link to Amazon: because you figure people who are looking up authors online most likely shop Amazon, anyway, and because it has a convenient interface for “researching” to purchase IRL. But, as I said, I link to any store that lets me do readings.

  15. anndouglas on

    Patrick, online grocery stores and other food-service businesses seem to be able to use the internet effectively to throw to bricks-and-mortar operations. Of course, there are always issues to be worked out in translating bricks and mortar to face-to-face. People complain because they can’t pick out their own head of lettuce.

    I think, in the book trade, it’s a case of offering enough extras on the online side to attract the local bricks and mortar shopper.

    I don’t think these things have to be high-end or expensive if they are unique. (Leave the glitzy toys to the big boys.)

    Here’s what I’m thinking….

    One of the most popular events hosted in my town by the one indie bookstore that has really thrived for over 20 years is local author book night (right in the midst of holiday shopping season). That type of “connect with local authors” content can, of course, be offered via the bookstore’s website all year round: via a blog; via author podcasts (when the author drops by the store to do his/her own shopping); via postcards from the book tour trail (even if the book tour is simply to neighboring towns); via ask the author/illustrator/photographer Q & As.

    Doing workshops with local in your store (if you have space) or at content-relevant locations in your community (gardening author @ community garden; cookbook author at community center teaching kids how to cook) will also give you video footage for website, amazing community goodwill, happy authors.

    It’s a really exciting/amazing opportunity. And with linkages to other indies doing similar things in their communities, it could be so powerful.

    Ann http://twitter.com/anndouglas

  16. Ann Kingman on

    I’m not sure this is exactly what you are looking for, but what sprung to mind is my favorite yarn store, WEBS (http://www.yarn.com). The store is a single-location independently-owned brick and mortar store, and they also have a thriving web business. The two are tied together brilliantly (IMO) through the use of social media. The owners of WEBS do a local Saturday morning radio show, and then take that file and make it into a podcast. When they talk about yarns they have, they make a point of telling listeners to support their local yarn stores but if they can’t find it, feel free to order from WEBS. They talk about events in town and community service projects. They talk about the classes they offer, and other things local. And yet the remote listeners don’t seem to mind. WEBS has become a destination for knitters, and people will travel hours to visit. (I will say, however, that it is the largest yarn store i’ve ever seen and I often refer to it as the ‘Powells of Yarn’, so in that regard it might not be the type of brick and mortar business you are referring to).

    Kathy, the owner, is also on Twitter and Ravelry (the biggest knitting site on the web) and has relationships with her customers and potential customers.

    As I said, I’m not sure it’s an adequate parallel, but it works brilliantly for them.

  17. Jack on

    As a former publishing senior exec, and unabashed lover of independent bookstores, I am fascinated and impressed by the above exchange. The narrative on the indie community needs to change to one of growth and innovation directed at the web. The opportunity exists for indies to “own” the customer relationship via the Internet, filling a vacuum created by publisher downsizings and chain-store rigidity.

    For the last eighteen months I have been involved with a start-up vertical ad network dedicated to book publishing. We have assembled a pool of 4,300 specialty-content websites and 110 million monthly users, which we slice into vertical channels based on content and genre preferences. We also can target geographically down to the Zipcode level. It tracks beautifully with Ann Douglas’s comments re: specialty “umbrella sites.” Despite considerable success so far working with publishers’ advertising budgets, we have yet to crack the bookseller community. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to deploy publishers’ coop dollars to drive website and brick-and-mortar traffic to the indies using these channels? We are working on it.

  18. Patrick on


    Interesting site. Thanks for the tip. Looking at it briefly (and keep in mind I know nothing about yarn or knitting), it reminds me a bit of the Powell’s site. You can find the store location, but you have to dig for it. The buying function is front and center here.

    I guess for me it comes down to a question of emphasis: are you going to get a greater return by pushing your events and your local, community involvement, or are you going to do better just trying to sell books. I tend to think for most indies, at this point, the former is the better route to go. They’ll still sell books (and really sharp design wouldn’t hurt), but the site’s primary focus is on drawing local customers to the store.

    The big wild card here is ebooks, the market for which is likely to be entirely online. I think most indies should continue to improve their ecommerce sites if for no other reason than to get better at selling ebooks. The idea that ebooks will somehow work in the physical store is a big mistake.

  19. […] (aka Bookavore), of WORD bookstore in Brooklyn, talks about Why Indies Can’t Ignore Online Shopping. Excellent comments point out some of the […]

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