Customer Experience Marketing Marketing Communications Retail Strategy

A token effort: Marketing books

How can bookshops compete with Amazon?

I’ve been given a book token as a gift. Sounds rather old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s a hi-tech stored value card, which comes with a tiny receipt, telling me how much has been loaded on it. What do book tokens make you think of, once you’ve been given one?

I’m thinking of browsing through a small independent bookshop, having a look at what they’ve got on display, and having a bit of a chat with the owners (usually book-obsessed) about their recommendations, before I hand over my book token and spend my £15.

This must read like I was born in the 1800’s, so I’d better bring it up to date.  As I’ve been chatting to people over the last few days, they’ve been recommending books to me. I’ve been searching for them on my Amazon app and then adding them to my Amazon wishlist. Sometimes I’ve been

able to take a photo of the book and submit it to Amazon, so it can find it for me. Pretty neat.  So the Wish List in the Amazon app is a great place to store my wish list (obviously) but do I really want to hand over my £15 to Amazon? Yes, I know they are cheaper, and I know they are probably more efficient at delivery. However, without going too Mary Portas on you, do I really like what they could be doing to the retail landscape?

The latest report I could find (Feb 2010) shows me Amazon controls 22% of the overall book market. However in many towns and cities across the country, I’m sure that figure is much higher.

You know the same report said that Amazon owned 90% of the digital book market in 2009. This was expected to drop slightly, but not significantly. Looking at it back-to-front, Kindle sales were expected to account for 10% of all Amazon’s revenues this year. That must start to worry bookshops, surely.

The MD of Daunt Books, surely one of the best independent book stores has just got a job running Waterstones.

I don’t want my local bookshop to shut down. I’d like to find a way that it adapts, to become more relevant for my way of life, benefiting from some of the changes in technology that present new marketing opportunities. I wanted to put a link to my local book shop, so I typed their details into Google but I couldn’t find their website.

And that’s what got me thinking.

What could bookshops do to retain my business, and more importantly, how could someone like Amazon protect our retail heritage? This is a story that has been told many times before, and I’m not an expert on books, but I think there are a couple of things to consider from a retail marketing angle.

  1.  Share the love:  I subscribe to the blog of a real booklover. Actually, as the ex-CEO of Borders, he probably understands more about books that almost anyone. Over the past few weeks, he’s been writing about his favourite books of all time. With a scan of each dog-eared and coffee-stained cover leading the story you can almost feel them, as you read what he enjoys. I’d love to see the local bookshops doing this, giving me an offer if I went into the store at the weekend to pick up a copy. I’d also like to see a feature for me to reserve a copy.
  2. Read all about it: If the bookshops ask for my email address, they can have it. But in return, I’d like to hear what’s happening, but not too often- perhaps once every couple of weeks. Maybe they’ll give be the option to opt-in for a weekly or monthly newsletter.  Sounds like a lot of effort but here’s a little secret: there are associations and networks of independent bookstores. Given that people won’t tend to visit many different bookstores, the associations could generate the copy for their members newsletters and share it amongst them. They could even distribute the newsletters centrally, sharing the cost of their systems.
  3. I’ll be loyal because I’m local: If I’ve been into a local bookshop, there’s a pretty good change that unless I’m a tourist, I would be able to visit again. Perhaps you could sign me up for your loyalty programme and increase my level of benefits as I demonstrate my loyalty to your little store.
  4. Fully booked: Conscious of costs, give me a reward if I visit again within a couple of weeks. Don’t give up if I’ve only visited once, because I’m sure you have other books I don’t own. In the marketing trade we call these ‘bounceback offers’ and they can be pretty successful if pitched properly. Imagine if you were a small bookshop and you could measure the number of customers who have only visited once. Now take a third of those customers and bring them back into your shop again. That’s the basic idea and the maths can rapidly add up to a significant sum.
  5. Let’s play fair. OK, so here’s an idea. Let’s assume I completely ignore my local bookshop and instead use the superior search facilities and other impressive features available through Amazon’s website. However, when it comes to the final stage – ‘Click here to play your order’ – I’d like to be given the choice whether I could buy from Amazon or buy from my local bookshop. My local bookshop would naturally have to pay Amazon a referral commission for the business but that wouldn’t be too hard to swallow if it leads to lots of new customers. The local bookshop could sell at their own prices, which would give consumers the Tesco vs Village store choice- many would be willing to pay a little bit more to help keep that local business alive. Alternatively, the local store could choose to match Amazon’s prices, given that the increase in sales volume could make up for the loss of margin.  And if this goes well, perhaps Amazon could run the email and newsletter marketing services, allowing the bookshops to brand each email as their own.

Now I know Amazon could argue that they are doing so much already to support the local bookshops, allowing them to list their stock and promote their business on the website, but I’m not sure it’s enough. If the bookshops are starting to shut down and Amazon continues to grow in market share then surely that’s sufficient evidence to support the case for the independent stores.

Please support your local bookshop, if you want it to still be there in the future. And if you feel there is a reason why you need to buy books elsewhere, please tell them , so they have a chance to do something about it.

(Featured Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)


  1. I’d like to comment on Points 3 & 4. I’m not convinced that rewards for small retailers would work. I can understand why it is successful for the larger brands, where you’re spending a lot and often. But is a little discount here and a reward scheme there going to make me shop in an independant retailer over Amazon? In my experience? No. Certainly anything physical like a voucher would have been lost long before I return to the store, and I won’t carry a reward card for somewhere I rarely (less than once a fortnight?) visit. I’ll use independant retailers for the experience alone, and I’ll recommend them for the experience alone. In my experience (I own a bespoke tailoring company) customers do not respond to loyalty schemes or referral programmes. They return because they want to. They recommend because they want to.

  2. I like point 5 but am shocked at your sentimentality Johnny… in a nice way by the way ! I was thinking that the opposite may be true, the retailer has the physical touchy-feely book on hand in the store, and you can “buy it now” in the shop… or you can “buy it now and have it mail ordered to you” and the bookshop places the order on Amazon under an affiliate scheme, Johnny gets his book in brand new condition super fast, and book shop keeps his only copy to be thummed again in the shop and saves himself the re-stocking costs. Topsy-Turvey ideas but come on Johnny, the high street is in the midst of a massive change in function and nothing will stop it. The HMV’s will dissappear to the online world, and may be, just maybe, the unique one off shops will come back as that is where they will have niche to play.

  3. Hi Johnny, thanks for the link!
    Of course, you’ve every right to get a little steampunk about book tokens, because Amazon don’t accept them. That’s because Amazon has never joined the Booksellers Association, a body that has its supporters and detractors, but is still the only thing close to a unified voice for bookselling businesses in the UK.
    I like point 5 – an alternative route might be to have a universal database accessible to all (let’s call it “Nielsen BookData” –, which allowed the reader to browse and select, and then purchase where they wanted. Unfortunately, I don’t think Amazon would play ball! – but hey, this could be a whole new blog entry for me, so I’ll let those thoughts marinade for a bit.
    Lucy Thomas is welcome to link her opening lines to my site too!

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