Book shopping US style

On a business trip across “the Pond” this week it struck me just how different bookstores are in the States compared to back home in the UK. 

First thing that struck me was how much more expensive it is to buy books here than at home. Fifteen dollars seemed to be the going price for most of the books I picked out of the shelves, which at current exchange prices would be around £11 – this for a novel that I know would come in about £9 if I went to Waterstones. Since I was browsing rather than looking for a particular title, it made name think twice about buying anything that seemed just ok. 

A bigger surprise however was the lack of any marketing promotion to encourage me to buy. I know the ‘buy one, get the second book half price’ has been questioned by the book publishing world and authors who fear this cheapens their work. But it encourages me to buy more on spec and to try authors I have not read before. So on the whole its good for business. 

But in the large branch of Barnes and Noble (a chain I view as equivalent to Waterstones in many ways) that I visited last night, there was little sigh of any real promotion. They had two tables near the one entrance which contained recommended novels but nothing close to the numbers of titles you’d find on the tables at Waterstones. A few end of aisle promotional stands were doted around featuring low cost copies of the classics or a movie tie in. But otherwise they seemed to devote more space to books linked with St Patrick’s day. No evidence of any discounted titles other than the kinds of hard back science, nature or cooking books you’d see in the discount stores like The Works. 

Even among the shelves themselves there wasnt any real marketing going on, just the very basic categorisation into Literature, Romance, Young Adult and then straightforward alphabetical ordering. No end of shelf labels pointing me to particular popular authors and none of those personal touches like the handwritten notes from sales assistants with their recommendations. 

As a shopping experience goes it was less than impressive so I left empty handed which is rare for me. Ok they had comfy sofas in amongst the aisles as well as a coffee shop but I was there ready and willing to buy and they did little to encourage me. At a time when the real bookshops are fighting for survival against the virtual outlets surely they should have been trying harder?

Is my criticism too harsh. Am I being unfair? I’d love to hear what some this our experiences have been of bookstores around the world and how they try to create a positive experience for shoppers. 

About BookerTalk

After a day at the coal face of corporate communications, what better way to wind down than by sticking my nose into a good book. My tastes are eclectic. I find it easier to say what kind of books I don't especially like - gothic, science fiction and science fantasy do absolutely nothing for me. It doesn't mean I will never read them, because I am trying to broaden my reading horizons - that's the idea behind my challenge to read books from each country touched by the Equator or the Prime Meridian. Regardless of the author or country, the acid test of a good book for me is whether the characters are engaging, the plot realistic and the setting evocative. If I make it to 100 pages then I know I'll finish it.

Posted on March 12, 2013, in English literature. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. severalfourmany

    Not too harsh. I think you’ve understood the reality of bookselling in the US. That $15 book at B&N is $10-$11 at Amazon and that’s where most of us are going to buy it. There is very little value to buying books at B&N. The selection has dropped. The staff is under paid and uninformed. B&N has turned into a coffee and gift shop that promotes Nook sales. (See this: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3167).

    It seems likely that B&N will eventually turn into an online retailer and hold onto their profitable university bookstores, but their brick and motar stores are unlikely to last the decade. There are a few independent book retailers that offer a unique customer experience in the US. The Harvard Bookstore is one of the best. http://www.harvard.com/

    • Thanks for sharing that link severalfourmoney. I heard that they developed the nook as a way of staving off their demise but they face pretty fierce competition.

  2. Agreed, the UK just does bookshops better and that’s all there is to it!

  3. I’ve never shopped for books in the US so I can’t comment from that point of view but severalformany’s comment above echoes what I’ve heard from a number of American friends about the current state of Barnes and Noble and I think that it a great shame. Every town should have a bookstore where people can just go and browse, but preferably one where the assistants know about books. I don’t know if it is still the case but when Tim Waterstone first started his chain you had to have a degree in your area to work there.

    • I think I remember hearing that about the qualification requirement Alex. I don’t think it’s the case any longer but I still find the staff are always very helpful

  4. Kristina Marsh

    Ahh, you just aren’t going to the right places in the U.S., Karen. Large chains are disappointing, but we do have some wonderful, small, independent book shops in the area. Next time you’re in town, drop me a line. I’ll take you on a great book tour! :)

  5. I have to say that I loved Waterstones, but then they somehow seem to loose their way and that was before the economic downturn. They have lost their zip, their ability, at least for me to be unable to leave without buying a book. Now I often browse and check Amazon. Sad, but true.

    Your comment about book buying in the UK being more expensive that in the US. I was in Australia last September & October and thought exactly the same.

    I was in a bookstore in Geelong (Victoria). The had a hardback size paperback edition of the wonderful The End of your Life Book Club for AU$37, now that was about £28 – hugely expensive for a paperback even if it is hardback size. Because of weight issue for the flight home I only bought 2 books and one of those I had purchased whilst in the UK and collected when downunder, so I noted the book title down.

    Back home I nipped onto Amazon and bought the hardback edition of this book for £6.38

    • That’s an eye watering price Julie. Little wonder you didn’t buy.

      • It is examples like these that make you consider the financial market. Is it little wonder that bookstores (and anything else) go to the woolves when the can not compete with an online market.

        There was almost an out cry here with the supermarkets started to offer best sellers at reduced prices – a paperback chart topper retailing in Waterstones with a recommended price of say £7,99 – 10.99 was on sale in Tesco for £3.86. The prices have gone up in the supermarkets more recently, but still cheaper.

        That said there is little appeal of book buying along with toilet rolls and a loaf of bread compared with the wonders of browsing (and hopefully buying) in a bookstore.

        In order to survive, bookstores need to diversify slightly – book marks, notebooks, cards and bookish items and be competitive otherwise they may simply close and towns loose another valuable retailer etc.

        Rant over!

    • Now that Griffiths has closed I never buy my books in Geelong except for Barwon Booksellers, a secondhand and collectable shop. If I can’t find a second hand copy there I get it from The Book Depository in England and suffer terribly-guilty unpatriotic pangs ! I don;t suppose anyone told you about Barwon Booksellers.

  6. I don’t think it’s a perfectly accurate view. I agree about B&N and actually like that there is so little promotion, but they can get away with it as they’re really the only remaining big box book retailer. I try and shop the independent stores but they sell at cover price (which is generally the same as BN, but with fewer mark downs options) and LOVE the local bookstores. There’s a huge used bookstore market here which is where I do most of my buying. One day I’ll be able to afford all sorts of new books.

    • It’s one data point to be sure. I’m certain there are great indie stores also but in this particular town they are not in evidence which is a shame since I try to use them when I can.

  7. There are great Indie stores, particularly in college towns, but Amazon can prove too convenient.

  8. The B&N book shopping experience can surely be blech! It’s no wonder you had an unfavorable and unsuccessful book buying & browsing time there. I would run from there quickly … right to the good indies ….

  9. I got overwhelmed the two times I tried to shop in big box stores in the US but had some wonderful experiences exploring indies and secondhand stores. I really loved asking locals where they bought their books – it was nearly always, “Oh I like Indie Store X and there’s that Other Place Y and er, I guess sometimes I have to go to B&N but I try to avoid it…” Very different book shopping scene here in the UK.

    • I wish there had been an indie Alex, but it was just the one chain unfortunately. To be fair to our US cousins though, the town where I live doesn’t even have a bookshop of any description. There was one independent store but it just couldn’t compete so closed. Which leaves us just a small branch of Smiths…

  1. Pingback: Book Shops and Their Survival

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