Thursday, October 12, 2006

Independent Bookstores Finding Their Niche

When online superstores like first appeared, we heard widespread predictions that the end was nigh for independent bookstores. How could a little shop ever compete with a behemoth that let people shop from their home or office, get a great price and speedy delivery, and whose stock included almost everything you could ever want to buy?

It hasn't turned out that way. Yes, a number of independent bookstores have vanished. But others are still here. This article from Wired News talks about the strategies that independents have used to stay in business... and notes that the number of new independents opening up has been increasing.

The independents who have survived have done something very simple: they looked at their market and asked, "What value can we provide that a competitor like Amazon can't?"

That's a fundamental marketing question for any organization; if you can't answer it well, I recommend that you think about it before a big scary new competitor (like Amazon) comes into your market.  

An interesting point about independent bookstores: many of them seem to have realized that they are part of a local community in a way that Amazon never can be... and that this has economic value. The article cites an example from here in Houston:

Some bookstores have benefited from their ties to the community. Just this year, 14 investors got out their checkbooks and bought Brazos Bookstore in Houston, an institution for more than 30 years, after the owner announced he would close it or sell it to take another job.

"There was an uprising of people in the community saying, 'We are not going to let this happen,'" said Jane Moser, the store's manager, who said that when news of the original 14 spread, 11 more joined them.

And so the Brazos Bookstore is still around - with a new web site featuring information on upcoming author appearances, and online ordering.

Here's the reality: your market will change. Maybe a big online competitor will show up and undercut your prices, or offer convenience that you can't. Maybe the technology underpinning your fantastic $100,000 software package will become cheaper and more accessible. Maybe people will just stop needing it.

Think today about what tomorrow brings, and look for sustainable advantages that you can use when that unpleasant day of change comes. Otherwise... sooner or later, you'll go the way of the independent bookstores who didn't see any ways to compete beyond price, selection, and convenience.

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