UK bookshops need to re-think their customer experience

As many as 25% of Britain's bookshops have closed in the last six years (Source: BBC). Coupled with a similar decline in new store openings, this represents an alarming decline. So what's to be done? According to the Booksellers Association chief executive Tim Godfray, the problem lies with.... well everyone really, for not appreciating them enough.

"This is not just an issue for our members. We know that maintaining bookshops on our High Street is vital to literacy, the future economic prospects of the UK and the cultural health of our nation" he decreed.

On top of British citizens apparently failing in their duty to support his members, he also blames local government for hindering growth by refusing to ease planning regulations for store extensions or support free town parking initiatives.

It seems Mr Godfray is more interested in being a special case in the High St than addressing a more fundamental truth - that bookshops are simply less appealing to modern British society than in the past. Busy consumers value the price, range and convenient home delivery of on-line bookshops, leaving the traditional on-shelf browsing in-store to a shrinking shopper segment. Add to this the rise of digital books that can be instantly downloaded to mobile devices and the bricks-and-mortar store concept begins to look more ‘antique’ than ever.

Yet all this need not be the death knell for the industry.

Just as pubs and cinemas have undergone major rationalisation, bookshops too need to learn from their example, by creating new propositions and experiences that are engaging for today's shoppers.

For all the despairing cries over the closure of local cinemas, revenues are at record highs. Innovation such as surround sound, 3D screens (27% of total box office takings), greater film choice and more flexible screening times have made the threat of movie home rental seem overstated. (Source: BSAC Film Conference: UK Movie Market Update 2011)

By comparison, bookshops seem only to have added in-store coffee shop concessions and yet more book signings to attract the crowds. No wonder their business is ailing. There's been far more innovation at my local library (despite struggling with shrinking funds), with kids workshops, free Internet access and ethnic diversity programmes to name but a few ideas.

There's still something vaguely timeless and romantic about a bookshop, for young and old alike. But no retail business is an island, and looking around for others to blame will get retail booksellers precisely nowhere. Instead, their salvation lies in going out and genuinely listening to shoppers, talking to them about what they value, learning from their needs and emotions, and then innovating and experimenting for growth.







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