Fast Company: A Not-So-Modest Plan To Save Bookstores

A Not-So-Modest Plan To Save Bookstores From The Grim Reaper That Is Amazon

Physical bookstores have no chance if they try to compete against Amazon’s selection and price. There must be another way.

I have a love affair with bookstores: the search, the smell, the tactile sensation of turning pages. I know I’m not alone: There are lots of customers who still love bookstores.

And yet, bookstores keep shutting their doors. Is the bookstore doomed? Yes, I‘m afraid it is—if it continues to compete with Amazon on price and volume. That’s a losing battle. But if bookstores compete on qualities that Amazon will never be able to duplicate, I believe there’s hope! (Provided Amazon doesn’t open too many physical stores.)

But first, a quick trip to Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Because it was there that I noticed how passengers were directed through the airport by a system of different colored lines. Transit: red. Exit: green. Shopping: yellow. As soon as I figured out the system, I never looked up anymore; I merely followed the red stripe on the floor.

What does this have to do with bookstores?

Amazon introduced the concept of mass-reader reviews. Bookstores have the ability to take this even further. Reading the right book gives us a sense of power, influence, and newness. It makes us interesting, gives us a reason to talk, and puts us in the center of things. That’s the role a bookstore should assume.

Every bookstore has authors popping by to sign books. This should be the heart of any smart bookstore as it brings customers close to the source.

Every author is a repository of knowledge about great books, creative thoughts, and reflections. A bookstore might ask each prominent author that visits to create a line through the store. If a store is lucky enough to host E. L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, they could ask her to pinpoint 10 books she adores. Assign the color grey to her (of course!). Draw a grey line through the store, leading the customer on a tour of James’s beloved books. Interview James about these books. Which book made her cry, which changed her life, which inspired her? Record the interview, place iPads around the store, and let visitors play the video as they follow the grey line from book to book.

But recommendations can’t be the only answer. Bookstores need to tap into every customers’ sensory experience. Think of all the book genres that lend themselves to sensory exploration: all the cookbooks, gardening books, the do-it-yourself books.

The entrance of every bookstore could become a sensory exploration zone: a movable kitchen, a mini-garden, a tool shed—something which not only catches the customer’s eye, but generates interest by stimulating all the senses.

I would allocate two or three days a week for new cookbook authors to visit the store, bring their own ingredients, and use the kitchen free-of-charge. The bookstore would fill with the aroma of cookbooks! I would invite garden authors to bring pots, seeds, and plants, and demonstrate some of their garden tricks. Do-it-yourself authors could come and demonstrate their skills, everything from building a model plane to restoring a door. Then stores could promote their books—physically and online.

There’s no way bookstores can compete on price and selection with Amazon. Period.
But there’s no way Amazon can compete on the smell from the most amazing roasted chicken, the revelation you’ve just learned as you’ve witnessed first-hand how to renovate your beloved chair, or the aha! moment as Ms. James introduces you to her source of inspiration while you walk through your favorite bookstore. In short, book sellers in the physical world must borrow from the digital world: dig into user experience and engagement.

Show me the bookstore that does this, and I’ll go in a heartbeat.

Wouldn’t you?


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