In his latest blog post, Mike Shatzkin approaches an interesting insight, but doesn’t quite get into the reasons behind it. He discusses the way that Barnes & Noble took over the B. Dalton chain and started closing out its 20,000 to 30,000 title stores in favor of B&N’s larger 100,000+ title stores, in the context of statistical analyses his company was doing for bookstores back then. Though Shatzkin doesn’t come right out and say it clearly, apparently the smaller stores had a tendency to cycle through titles faster because they concentrated on books that were more likely to sell.
When Shatzkin brought his statistical analysis to books from university presses, which were among B&N’s slower-moving titles, he found the reason they were having so many problems in bookstores was that they were so much harder to find in a bookstore in general that they usually had to be special-ordered. And people who got in the habit of special-ordering them found it was more convenient just to skip even trying the bookstore altogether and special-ordering them directly from Amazon. Amazon was only five years old at the time, but they’d already hit on the formula that was going to turn them into one of the biggest e-tailers in the world.
When Shatzkin suggested to B&N that it should try to find a way to leverage smaller, faster-moving bookstores, B&N wasn’t interested. Ironically, they were hewing to the lesson Shatzkin’s father Leonard had taught, that bigger selections were more compelling to consumers.
Unfortunately, Amazon had already changed that reality in a few short years after their inception. The huge selection was not as powerful a magnet as the online marketplace when the customer knew exactly what they wanted, particularly if it wasn’t a bestseller.
In the present-day, Shatzkin notes running across Pocket Shop, a chain of small 2,000-title bookstores located in high-traffic areas in Sweden and Finland, now expanding into Germany. He thinks this kind of strategy would be effective in New York City, where both its main railroad stations are losing their bookstores. Instead of going bigger, bookstores might do better by going smaller.
Shatzkin doesn’t discuss why such stores are doing well, but it seems to me that they’re leveraging one of Amazon’s main weaknesses and turning it into a strength for them. Amazon might have a huge selection, but it doesn’t have that selection on hand where you are.
It’s the “convenience store” approach to bookselling. By stocking a small number of popular titles, Pocket Shop can have them right there for you. Sure, they don’t have whatever random esoteric title you might have wanted, but even a regular bookstore might not have had that and you’d have ordered it from Amazon anyway—and a small, popular-titles-only bookstore doesn’t have as much deadwood that doesn’t move. If a title doesn’t move, dump it in favor of some other title that does.
If we’re going to keep having physical bookstores, it seems likely that something like this is going to be the way to go for most of them. It might not be as flexible as a larger store, but Amazon has the flexibility of even the largest store beat by miles. So don’t even try—instead of large and flexible, go lean and mean. You sell more efficiently, and don’t waste so much space on stuff that doesn’t. It’s better to have some kind of bookstore than none at all, right?