With both Barnes & Noble and Amazon building smaller bookstores, one might think the day of the big box bookstore is over. Matt Blind, formerly a bookseller with B&N, has a different opinion.
The following post was originally published in 2012, and has been updated and minimally edited for context.
I think it's as valid today as six years ago, and I would like to know why it wouldn't work.
What might be next for bookstores, if the chains fail?
Let’s take a typical metropolitan area – say, 4 million people spread across multiple counties in mostly suburban densities and nothing like Atlanta, as this is a just a model & not specific to where I used to work. Say you have 12 big box stores spread across the region, but nothing too close to each other — you know, standard retail practice, at least 5 miles between outposts.
As stated, despite the glories of a Big-Box Bookstore (I’d have killed for one anywhere near my hometown in 1986) if we’re only stocking 100,000 books, the store is too small.
Thankfully, I work for a big bookstore chain and so, there are other locations. Sadly my customers also know this so the very first thing out of their mouths when I say ‘we don't have it in stock’ is, “Well, does another one of your stores have it?”
With 12 stores across our sample metroplex, that’s 12 sets of all-but-duplicate inventory — and it’s great that we can treat our extended storefronts as a single ‘store’ and search the million-or-so books in town like it’s a single inventory. We want to sell you the book. But there are problems: 50% or more of the inventory store-to-store overlaps. Still, and as is most often the case when a customer has to have a book, sell-outs are temporary, and likely another store does have it. We call around, we find a copy, we pull it off the sales floor and hold it for you.
There is a disconnect & breakdown before we close the sale, though, and the deal-breaker (apparently) is the distance between stores. Out in the ‘burbs individual stores may be 15 or 20 miles from each other, but only 8-10 miles from the in-town location — which also partially explains my increased call volume (for my theoretical bookstore located in the center of town, not where I used to work, blah blah yeah I’ll stop pretending)
After we’ve tied up booksellers at two stores, for however long the search took, and found your book or books — you don’t bother to pick it up. (Stuff happens, we all know that, and I know 5 miles is so far and what book was I asking for again? I’ll just ask again later or order it online.)
We’ve pulled a book off the shelf that might have sold to someone else, too – particularly if you heard about it on TV or the radio. Alltogther this is a major headache — and yet, it’s the obvious thing I have to do for every customer when the question is asked. In fact, I bring more pain upon myself by offering to search our entire chain for the one copy of your book without ever being prompted.
When I say current bookstores are too small, that’s exactly what I mean: A typical B&N store could easily stock five times its current inventory and still not quite meet current demand, even for books that ‘most’ stores would carry – as any one store cannot match the gestalt selection across the chain.
And when I say chains are too large, again, that’s exactly what I mean: why maintain duplicate inventories with only small differences (typically books we’ve sold & are out of today but would’ve had in stock) across a dozen stores when a single, landmark location could encompass all the stores, actually stock less dollar-wise, but stock more individual titles?
Don’t just rethink the box, rethink the chain. Instead of opening up a smaller, pale imitation of a New York 5th Avenue bookstore everywhere, open up just 50-80 landmark bookstores. That might mean just one each for many cities – or one in a nearby city for some. Why dilute your single best selling point: stacks packed from one end to the other and to the ceilings, chock full of books. Double down on that bet – forget the ‘standard big box retail’ model and think big.
Sure, right now a bookstore clerk can special order books for customers from the warehouse. Takes about a week, down here where I’m currently located. (I’m sure it’s better up at corporate HQ, since they built the damn warehouse in the state next door — fine for you, sucks for 200 million of your potential customers.)
Let me turn it around though: If all the books are in the warehouse, why not throw in a coffee shop right there inside the distribution center and open it to the public?
I would aver that the bookstore chain is too big, too spread out, and also played out: our customers don’t care enough anymore to support neighborhood bookstores at that scale. We need to open a truly humongous bookstore. Much like amusement parks (Six Flags, Sea World, Disney, et al.) maybe each US Census MSA would only support one – or rarely two or three. While we all love a neighborhood bookstore (and there is a place for such; I personally could generate business plans for bookstores on a sliding scale from bistro to Strand) the real need of most communities is for a single landmark bookstore like the Tattered Cover in Denver or Powell’s in Portland — or yes, the Strand in New York.
I’m looking beyond books, however.
The future of retail depends on managing inventory, especially in the face of internet competition. Let’s consider a new model, a truly humongous bookstore that doubles as a distribution center: with a little advance planning you could open up a very small chain that covers hundreds of millions.
Let me give you a list of zip codes — my book oases, or nirvanas — and show you 1-day UPS ground delivery times covered by each.
- 32816 Orlando
- 30305 Atlanta
- 27514 Reasearch Triangle Chapel Hill
- 19104 Philadelphia
- 02467 Boston
- 43201 Columbus, OH
- 60607 Chicago
- 92102 San Diego
- 94305 San Jose
- 97212 Portland
So. 10 stores — 10 Massive Stores, each equivalent to 3 or four football fields, or equivalent to a regional book distributor’s warehouse, or to the all the outposts of a chain bookstore in their own particular metros.
The 3 stores on the west coast are within 1-day UPS delivery of 48-50 million people.
The 3 stores in the south east are within 1-day of 48-50 million people.
Two stores in the midwest are sufficient for another 48-50 Million customers.
A single store in Philadelphia is within 1-day of about 35 Million, as is the single store in Boston.
Not everyone would be willing to drive to a bookstore just to pick up a book — even if that bookstore was 4 acres of bookshelves under a single roof (about the size of a large IKEA, for scale). But if you could pick up a phone and call (or use a website) and know the book you need is there, that might change your mind. If you could know they had 20 copies of the book, and you needed 20 copies for your employees or clients, you’d be sending some lackey driving the 2 hours before he could sit down at his desk in the morning.
If this huge bookstore had not just a coffee bar, but also a pub, sit-down restaurant, hot dog cart, and ice cream shop — you’d plan your weekend around a trip.
There would be other ways to maximize the investment and key into “bookstore tourists” — topics I hope to cover in other posts. My point here was to build on an earlier column and show that there is a future for bookstores past the Big Box chain model. Additionally, if you chose to compete with Amazon on the internet, your massive bookstores are also fulfillment centers.
You don’t have to compete nationwide. Pick a market, serve that market. A single store in the right place can be the best bookstore for 30 million customers — in person or with guaranteed 1-day delivery (at UPS ground rates, or via the post). A small chain of just 3 stores could easily serve 50 million.
The 10 stores outlined above are within a 1-day delivery zone for 220 million people, and within 2 days of another 70 million customers. Looking at the map, a nice store in Denver would certainly plug in most of the rest to your network.
So, you want a nationwide brand that makes the most of internet searchability, access to customers, and that also features truly amazing bookstores that have the potential to be not just storefronts, but destinations?
Do we need a chain of 500 stores or do we just need 50? Or do we just need 10?
image by sputnik 57