Anybody who likes to hang out in bookstores has discovered a new favorite writer by browsing and impulsively purchasing a book that looked intriguing. But when we shop online because our local bookstore has closed or we lack time for leisurely trawls through the aisles, do we buy fewer books on impulse?
A new study by Bowker and Publishers Weekly indicates that we do. According to the 2010-2011 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review, 44% of respondents said they went online to buy a specific book, while only 11% said they made an online book purchase on impulse. By contrast, 26% of people who browsed through physical books in a store said they made an impulse buy.
Results were consistent across all trade segments and all categories of customers: browsing in a store leads to far more impulse purchases than buying online. As Publishers Weekly points out, understanding the way people buy online has become a major concern in the industry because in 2010 online retailers surpassed the chain bookstores in sales for the first time, taking in 30% of the money spent on books. Online retailing is now the single largest outlet for books. When all types of brick-and-mortar bookstores are combined, they still outsell online merchants, but PW expects that to change this year as Borders fades and Amazon continues to grow.
The big worry is that as readers shift their book-buying online and go in search of specific titles, sales will become even more lopsided in favor of well-known authors. The challenge for online retailers is to find a way to create the browsing experience on an electronic screen and allow readers to discover new-to-them authors.
Meanwhile, bookstores in Canada are hoping to get a cut of e-book revenue by making it easy for customers to browse through and purchase electronic books in a store setting. A Calgary company called Enthrill is on the verge of offering cards that display book covers and contain electronic access codes. The cards are thin and take up little shelf room, but they’re touted as a way to give the customer the “tangible element” that is missing from e-books. They’re also an easy way to purchase e-books as gifts. Small specialty stores that can’t afford to stock a variety of printed books can expand their offerings with the e-cards. Enthrill will make the cards available in up to 150 stores this summer in a test run with a limited number of titles in a broad spectrum of genres. A similar approach with the Zondervan/HarperCollins Symptio card was a flop – and ended just before the e-book boom took hold. Enthrill believes its book cards are coming on the market at the perfect time.
So the online merchants have to be more like brick-and-mortar stores to capture the profitable impulse buyers, while the stores want to find a way to profit from the e-book revolution.
Anybody brave enough to guess what bookselling – and buying – will look like 10 years from now?