We’d suspected it all along, but the New York Times confirmed it: retail stores are not just fighting back, they’re coming back.
“A Manhattan retail real estate broker reports an increase in inquiries from online-only retailers about opening shops, particularly in smaller spaces.” The piece went on to say that “Customers want to feel the merchandise.” “They see shopping as a social event,” said a retailer. “Think of the store as a showroom,” said another. Yet another said “They’ll show them a few products, lure them in and hopefully have them hooked. They feel that, yes, people are online, people have apps, but there’s nothing like the spontaneous face-to-face.”
One online retailer, inspired by his customers’ desire to feel the merchandise, opened a physical store and was thrilled to report that “‘the average in-store transaction was $360, double what it is online, and first-time store visitors buy again in 58 days, versus waiting 85 days between Web site purchases. And, he said, he has cut Web marketing expenses in half as in-store purchases have increased.’”
The product these people were talking about was apparel. But it could just as well have been books. Not just print books but books in all formats and domains. For some time we have been predicting that after an intoxicating decade of growth, readers would revisit print books and the brick and mortar stores that sell them.
Bookstore sales over the recent holidays suggest the trend in hard copies may be paralleling the trend in other hard goods like clothing. And for the same reasons: people like to browse, feel the merchandize, sample the goods, discover surprises, speak to an informed and friendly human salesperson. “The owner of The Book Cellar in Chicago, which saw 2011 sales rise 38% in the wake of Borders’s closing, was pleased to have last year’s increase stick,” Publishers Weekly reports. “‘Holiday sales for 2012 were “terrific,”’ the owner said, “’up a whisker.’” And Michael Boggs, co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore, with two stores in Louisville, Ky., was satisfied with being down 6% at one store and 4% at the other. “Both were up 38% from the year before. The new level is 30% more than pre-Borders. It’s an enormously big figure for a store that’s 35 years old to have.’”
Buried in the Times‘s report was this even more intriguing item: “An eBay pop-up store in London that opened this holiday season has no actual merchandise, just scannable screens displaying gift suggestions.” The idea of a physical kiosk selling virtual books is an idea whose time may at last be realized in the year to come, and if there is any breakthrough event we can predict for 2013, it’s that one. We’ll have more to say about kiosks before long.— Richard Curtis, leading New York literary agent
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