THE PRINTED WORD DEFIES DOOMSDAY
Posted January 3, 2018 4:52 p.m. EST
retail trends Print is not dead, and Barnes & Noble is banking on it. In response to customer feedback, chief executive Demos Parneros, says the national bookseller will now focus on books while trimming its inventory of other items.
"We continue to be encouraged by the improving sales trends in our book business," Parneros said during a recent earnings call.
The decision lends further credence to the notion local independent booksellers have been holding onto for years: that more people want to read physical books.
"There's a general misconception about the state of reading and the state of book sales in the country," National Book Foundation chairman David Steinberger said.
Despite initial doom and gloom over the fate of traditional book sales in the e-book era, Steinberger said digital sales have leveled off, while physical copies continue to sell.
Between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores in the United States fell by 43 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association. Yet their numbers grew by 35 percent from 2009 to 2015. Steinberger predicts more growth ahead.
The Pew Research Center reported that 73 percent of surveyed Americans said they read at least one book in 2015. Of those readers, 65 percent said they read a printed book.
Traditional book sales increased almost 3 percent in 2015, while e-book sales lost about 3 percent of total market share, according to the Nielsen group's book industry review.
Despite reporting a net loss of $30.1 million for the fiscal second quarter ending Oct. 28, Barnes & Noble saw a 1.5 percent increase in comparable book sales during the back half of the quarter, its CEO said.
Declines in comparable-store sales were attributed to both falloff from the best-selling 2016 release of "Harry Potter and The Cursed Child" and poor performance of in-store gift items.
Like many retailers struggling to keep customers entering its stores, Barnes & Noble began offering games, toys and other gift items. It challenged Amazon head-on with its Nook e-reader meant to compete against the online retailer's Kindle.
Yet recent customer research finds more people want to browse book titles in store and interact with booksellers. That's no surprise at local indies like Blue Willow Bookshop.
"I think people shopping in retail bookstores are going for the serendipity of the experience," Blue Willow owner Valerie Koehler said.
Koehler credits the success of her 21-year-old shop, which increased sales from last year, to engaging the community with knowledgeable staff and a curated children's book section. For almost 10 years, the shop has been a major retailer for the Houston teen and tween book festivals.
Blue Willow also offers non-book items, and over the years there's been concern of distracting shoppers with too much "stuff," Koehler said. She seeks to ensure items are still book-related.
For instance, the store sell science kits to go with children's science books and plush animals to go with books featuring animal characters.
At River Oaks Bookstore, owner Michael Jones did away with non-book items years ago when he downsized and moved into the store's current location on Westheimer.
Over time, Jones said, a number of loyal customers switched to e-books, then shortly switched back.
"It makes me feel like people are reading more," he said, reporting 8 percent sales growth over 2016.
While he approves of Barnes & Noble's return to its book-selling roots, he doesn't see an easy pathway for the corporation to embed within communities the way indies do.
In the company's latest earnings call, CEO Parneros highlighted new concept stores including one in Plano. The smaller sites, including 10,000-square-foot stores, will focus on selling books.
Smaller store sizes have benefited indies by forcing booksellers to target their customers with inventory.
The Half Price Books chain of used-book stores reported 7.2 percent sales growth in the Houston market in November. Books accounted for 60 percent of items sold.
All Half Price locations range in size from 8,000 to 10,000 square feet and offer used titles customers won't find in bigger stores, chief strategy officer Kathy Doyle Thomas said.
She said the stores also sell gift items, but the focus has always been books. It started selling discounted newly released New York Times best-sellers a few years ago based on customer feedback, she said.
Over time, Half Price Books also expanded certain book sections including Young Adult, a genre that exploded thanks in large part to the "Harry Potter" franchise.
Steinberger of the National Book Foundation also credited growing engagement between authors and readers on social media, especially within the Young Adult genre, for some of the growth in book reading across the U.S.
"It's a very exciting time for readers," he said.
Even the National Book Foundation has firsthand experience with the benefits of combining the digital world with the literary one.
In 2016, the foundation livestreamed its National Book Awards ceremony on the foundation's website and got some 25,000 views.
This year, it partnered with Facebook, broadcast the ceremony on Facebook Live and reached about 500,000.