Why are Indie Bookstores on the Decline in the UK?: A Response

Here’s my response to Nate Hoffelder’s question (from Ink, Bits and Pixels, aka The Digital Reader) on why indie stores are on the decline in the UK.

Price. Books are more expensive in the UK than in the States, and the average price has been rising recently, over 7% in 2014.

We’re a nation of bargain hunters. Unless we’re talking about clothes and those bookshops at airports and train stations (usually WH Smith), impulse buying is rarer these days. Today it’s all about showrooming. We price compare. There are dozens of sites available to help you find the best deal. Book Brain, for example.

There’s also the assumption that independents are more expensive than chain stores, although this isn’t always true. Chrome extension Bookindy has shown me that my local indie can be cheaper than even Amazon.

Opening Times. While browsing Hive’s indie store locator I immediately noticed a widespread problem. Many are only open Monday-to-Friday from 9am to 5pm – when the majority of us are at school or work. Visiting one during your lunch hour isn’t feasible because . . .

Location. Independents aren’t on your doorstep. They’re in small towns and villages not easily accessible by public transport, in places not served by chains. To many an urban citizen, indies are rare mythical beasts only existing in legend and in the memories of town elders. My local is 13 miles away in a tiny town of 11,000 inhabitants, compared to 4 miles to my nearest chain stores in a large shopping centre.

Central locations in big towns and cities mean higher wages, rent and business rates, which translates into higher priced books. Only London’s 9-million strong population with higher than average incomes and a never-ending supply of tourists are able to, and do, support independents as well as chains in an urban area.

Online. We Brits are the world’s biggest online shoppers. Delivery is fast and relatively cheap or free. Next-day delivery is offered to your home and workplace by most retailers and click-and-collect (buying online and collecting in store or some other location) is ubiquitous. Same-day options are starting to popup, too. Some stores even have customer kiosks where we can order things from their website.

Quite a few of us do our online shopping during our lunch hour at work or while eating Christmas dinner, as sales are often starting on December 25th now. Not all indies have their stock available online for potential customers to easily browse and search for what they want. Delivery options may be limited and could be expensive.

As one, Brits have invested in Kindles. All other e-ink ereaders are an endangered species. Amazon holds more Kindle ebook sales than they do in the States. They’re seasonal and take place every year at the same times. This feeds into our hunger for a good bargain.

Customer service. We have some of the worst customer service in the world. Seriously. When I visited the States a few years ago, I thought the sales assistant was being sarcastic when she smiled and wished me a nice day. It took a while for me to realise that Americans are actually nicer to their customers than us grumpy gits. That’s why the ‘people come for the service’ line peddled by bricks and mortar shops generally don’t work here. We have every expectation that sales assistants will be unhelpful, be at least mildly offensive and provide service with begrudging frowns and sighs rather than a smile.

Competition. High street chain stores have been hammered hard, and although the largest Waterstones is finally looking like it’ll at least breakeven again soon, that progress has been hard won. (Full disclosure: I’m a former employee.)

The Works is a chain which sells a selection of new, low-priced paperbacks starting from £1.99. That’s hard to beat, as my credit card can attest.

Third-party sellers through the UK operations of Amazon, Abebooks and Alibris are doing extremely well. And we must not forget eBay. The majority of the high volume sellers are online-only, some of whom are based in the States. Examples include Wordery, Better World Books and World of Books.

Secondhand trade. Charity shops, also known as thrift stores by Americans, are everywhere. Pretty much all of them sell secondhand books in ‘like new’ condition, for at least 60% cheaper than what you’d pay for brand new in a bricks and mortar store. Charities are even opening books-only shops. Oxfam Books, for example.

So to summarize, short opening hours, inconvenient locations, a lack of online presence, stiff competition from online-only outfits and secondhand traders, and an expectation of high prices and bad customer service is what’s contributing to the decline of the British indie.

Image credit: Gulfiya Mukhamatdinova/Getty

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