Will books survive in the digital age?

Will books survive in the digital age?
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After the liquidation of the well-known book brand, Borders, a new online book and media portal was developed, Bookworld.

B&T had a chat with CEO James Webber, and with his 20+ years in the retail industry has helped Bookworld compete with its local and offshore competitors.

What has been the biggest challenge Bookworld has had to overcome? How have you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges for the business was whether to continue with the Borders brand after the liquidation process had such a negative impact.  After taking Borders Online through its first Christmas since administration and after a lot of customer research it became clear that the Borders brand had been irreversibly damaged.  We were getting more new customers to the site than old so we made the tough (and expensive) decision to retire one of Australia’s most recognized brands and launched Bookworld into what was an already crowded and mature online market place.  

To be successful with this we focused on using digital media to promote our brand together with seasonal above the line spend. Early on we identified the social and content spheres as somewhere we could really make some noise in an industry dominated by players such as Amazon. Executions such as our Bookstop campaign, where we turned bus shelters around Australia into pop-up bookshelves have had a huge impact and are helping increase our brand awareness in a really cost-effective way. In just 18 months we now have the largest social community of any local book store competitor, some of whom have been around for over 10 years.

Can a pure bookstore survive in the age of the digital?

It will not get any easier for stand-alone bookstores as books will continue to migrate to ecommerce and digital (convenience and price plays a big part here) as both these channels are immature compared to the UK/US markets, and there is no real reason not to think the market here will do anything different.  I think bookstores need to do two things; they need to look at how they can retain some of their sales in the online space and they need to diversify into other categories such as stationery, gifting, childrens toys/games and educational product.  It will be a continual race to replace lost sales with new sales preferably at higher margins.  As ecommerce impacts on all B&M retailers there will be increasing pressure on landlords to reduce rents and bookstores have a particularly strong case for this if landlords wish to keep bookshops as part of the overall shopping mix.

Where do you see Bookworld in the future? Say 10 years?

10 years is a long time in ecommerce!  I see us as Australia’s number one choice for books in 2-3 years.  

What would you attribute the success of Bookworld to?

We set out a clear Customer Proposition to differentiate ourselves, particularly from the international retailers. Free delivery on every order was a large selling point for us and one that has had a huge impact for our customers. We promise to beat Amazon by 10% on any book, and have developed Australia’s fastest growing book loyalty program with over 200,000 Citizens in just two years. Our customer service is based here in Australia and we put an emphasis on ensuring that our response times are fast.

We leverage the assets we have, which includes Australia’s largest book warehouse, to deliver an outstanding consumer offer for Australians, based here in Australia, providing them with a local option to purchase their books.  

What’s keeping you up at night regarding the trends in the marketing business – anything worrying you? Anything exciting you?

Keeping up with the ever changing technology trends! Our mobile offer is poor and we are implementing a large technology project to re-platform the business which, once complete, will allow us to address this. Mobile is so important to any eCommerce business and you can see the success brands are having when they do it well.

The other area that is becoming increasingly exciting is the use of the huge amount of data we have on consumer purchasing behaviour.  Mining this is enabling us to segment our communications to our consumers making them more relevant and personal and enabling us to get much better returns to the business.  The more you delve into this sort of data the more you can get out of it and we’re excited to see what else we can achieve with this knowledge.

How has the Kindle affected your book sales and prices?

Borders launched eBooks into the Australian market in 2010 together with Kobo and were on the ground prior to both Kindle and Apple.  Kobo are a Canadian based company which provides Bookworld an eBook warehouse of over four million titles (very competitive in terms of range and price with Kindle). Bookworld and Kobo have a much stronger offering of Australian titles and also offer an open platform – meaning you can read your eBooks from any device or application, something you cannot do with Kindle or Apple.

Although it’s called Bookworld, you sell a number of other media on the site – how have demands from consumers affected the business of books?

We are an entertainment business with a clear focus on books.  Under previous ownership we were a retailer and could have extended our online offer into a wide variety of retail categories in much the same way that Amazon has done.  But now we are owned by a publisher we have a much more focused approach on the book category and being the best retailer for books. The demand for reading content remains as strong as ever, it is just the channel through which it is accessed and the format in which it is read that is changing, both of which we follow closely and are in place to benefit from.

James Webber is speaking at the ecommerce conference and expo in Melbourne which is held over three days, March 25 to March 27.

Check out the website here.

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