We’ve all heard the sentiment, I think. Independent bookstores are better than those inhuman chains, whose employees don’t even know books and whose policies made it impossible for new authors to break into the market. A few months ago, a friend made these same familiar claims, that chains of bookstores, especially Barnes & Noble, are somehow “evil” organizations destroying the virtuous, hard-working independent bookstore owner.
It somehow sounds like the plot of an early silent-film melodrama.
[In fact, there were such films, (and books) not talking about bookstores, but about general stores, those independent predecessors of today’s drug stores and department stores that sold everything from groceries to shovels.]
In historical context, Barnes & Noble and other bookstore chains are really not too different than many other chain stores that have arisen over the past century or more. Woolworth and its competitors took out the general stores in many communities, followed by the generally larger Montgomery Wards and Sears and their competitors, followed then by Walmart and Target. This cycle has repeated in many different special interest areas over the years — men’s clothing, women’s clothing, records, and even video stores.
Each of these chains have offered some benefit or benefits to customers (lower prices, better service, wider selection, etc.) that competitors either weren’t offering or couldn’t offer. In many ways, Internet retailers are just the latest iteration in the saga, they offer wider selection at lower prices than the chains do. And, each time this has happened, much of whole categories of independent stores have been taken out, often to the complaints of neighbors and friends of the stores, and even, less frequently, leading to new fodder for novelists and Hollywood telling the sad story of the destruction of the neighborhood store by the big bad chain. (The film You’ve Got Mail, strike a note for anyone?)
The truth is that this is a “Bambi” story, tugging at the heart strings, but lacking much underlying sense. Just as protecting Bambi from the evil hunters makes no sense given the fact that the deer population will become a problem (like we have north of New York City these days) if it isn’t checked, so too complaining about the Chains and calling them evil makes no sense if the chains offer something that the public wants that competitors don’t or can’t offer.
The key question is not whether some store is lost, but whether some benefit to consumers might be lost due to customer short-sightedness, focus on novelty, focus on cultural biases over substance or focus on price at the exclusion of other factors.
There is an irony that one of the chief benefits that B&N gave the book-buying public (wide selection) is the chief benefit that the Internet (esp. Amazon.com) gives buyers. I can’t wait to see what comes along next that will benefit customers more than what Amazon.com and other Internet bookstores now offer. [There are some possibilities — instant delivery via ebooks, as the Kindle facilitates, and on-site Print-on-Demand stores are both conceivable.] I am also interested to see what those independents that survive offer to consumers as a balance to the price and wider selection advantages that Internet retailers and chains offer.
The idea that “chains are doomed” or that “independents are doomed” because of the Internet goes too far. None of the waves of chain stores that have arisen has completely wiped out all competition. A few local general stores still exist, as do Woolworth and Sears and others of the once evil chains that have ironically suffered a similar fate to the stores they put out-of-business. Many local independent stores have re-invented themselves repeatedly, finding ways to stay relevant to consumers.
You see this in industry sales data. Sales of books through the Internet have had a tremendous effect on brick-and-mortar stores — Internet-based sales now account for more than 20% of all book sales — but the assumption that this 20% will completely take over the 20% of sales that occur in the large chains seems to me hard to swallow, especially given that these large chains didn’t manage to completely wipe out the independents (now 7% of sales).
In the Mormon end of the market, most sales are still somewhat insulated from the national market in the U.S. Independent stores have largely survived despite these changes. While DB and Seagull have done a little damage to some local LDS bookstores, it hasn’t been as much as the overall market in the US has seen from the rise of the large chains. And the Internet, while it is also having an effect (especially on the independent LDS stores), hasn’t quite led to DB/Seagull closing stores. (These facts may imply that there is room for a new chains in the LDS market, or an Internet retailer that pays proper attention to and actively markets to the LDS market, or at least new innovation in LDS stores.)
It is on the Internet where we are most likely to see a real competitor to Deseret Book (especially given how poor the DB and Seagull websites are in comparison to Amazon and Barnes and Noble). But the relatively insulated nature of the Mormon market makes even that a bit more difficult than in the rest of the market. Too often in the LDS market you have to actually know the publishers and what they are publishing to source the books you need to stock shelves, instead of simply ordering them from Ingram, like the vast majority of bookstores in the U.S. do.
While it is good to have a sense of the history of the market as I’ve given above, and even better to understand the factors that drove the creation of the current situation, it is even more important to be able to identify the factors that might drive the future. Certainly wider selection and price have driven many of the innovations that have shaped the market for books in the U.S., wider selection, at least, may not remain a factor. Since Amazon.com (and probably some other retailers also) essentially carries 100% of all books available in the U.S., its hard to see how selection could get any wider (although in the LDS market, wider selection could still be a factor). Instead, other factors will begin to drive the market along with price.
I don’t know what all those factors are. Convenience is probably one, and I suspect that categorization and “tagging” of products could be another. It will be interesting to see which factors become more important as wider selection becomes ubiquitous.