Posted on August 9, 2013 in Archive

Why memberships aren’t the showrooming solution


Bloomberg View columnist, Virginia Postrel, recently posted this article about the future of brick and mortar bookstores. Could memberships be the showrooming solution the industry needs right now?

She discusses the growing trend of showrooming – readers relying on physical bookstores to discover new titles, then purchasing them cheaply online.

The online discovery methods currently in place, including social discovery sites like Goodreads and Readmill, are still nowhere near as effective or reliable as flicking through printed books.

According to Bowker Market Research, readers are more than twice as likely to impulse buy from a bookstore than online, simply because it’s easier to stumble upon good reads by physically picking them up and perusing them.

Additionally, a lot of online publishers make it harder than bookstore owners to preview books before buying them because they’re worried about piracy.

In a recent post I wrote about showrooming, I considered how the enduring relevance of brick and mortar bookstores could be incentive for bookstores and publishers alike to stop fighting showrooming and embrace it instead.

The phenomenon is causing brick and mortar stores to close down, and a lot of people in the industry have been speculating on how bookstores could benefit from people browsing but not buying.

Postrel suggests that bookstores should do this by separating the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from their function as warehouses.

They should move into smaller spaces and limit their inventory to one examination copy per title.

This is a good idea because it means that bookstore owners can save money on rent and ordering costs, whilst still providing loyal customers with a space to find new titles.

Postrel also briefly touches on the idea of providing customers with an easy way to order books online, either from an online bookstore or directly through the publishers.

I made a similar suggestion: an affiliate system between bookstores and Amazon, where the bookstore would get a cut of any book sale it helped Amazon obtain. Although, the same idea could work with bookstores and the big publishers, there would just be more players to negotiate with.

It seems to me that a well-designed affiliate system, coupled with downsizing store space and inventory should make bookshops a viable business model again. But Postrel doesn’t stop there. She goes on to propose that bookstores should charge customers a daily, monthly, or annual membership fee just to browse the bookshelves.

While a paid membership might be of value to the storeowners, a lot of readers would have a hard time believing that they should have to pay to access bookstores.

Suddenly, readers would be faced with an additional cost. Not only would they have to pay for books, they would have to pay a fee for the privilege of browsing.

The Internet is rife with examples of businesses that have tried to combat showrooming by charging a “just looking” fee… and failed miserably.

In one such case, a specialty food store in Brisbane put up a sign announcing its plan to start charging each shopper a $5 just looking fee, and received a lot of negative backlash from angry customers.

Retailers need to accept showrooming as a reality to be welcomed, not fought.

Postrel says for a lot of readers, the closure of bookstores is not only cultural, but also psychological: “it’s enjoyable to be surrounded by lots of books and by other readers”.

And it’s true…for a lot of people, buying books is an ingrained way of life, which is why they would be outraged that the comforting, community-based environment that is characteristic of most bookstores could be obliterated.

example showrooming includes a bookshelf filled with books and a bed

Exclusive book clubs won’t be as cosy and welcoming as local bookstores

Introducing memberships makes buying print books an exclusive venture and generates a culture akin to book buying clubs, rather than friendly, local bookstores.

And because of the exclusive, private nature of these clubs, they could almost be run at someone’s house. Bookstore owners wouldn’t even need to rent visible, easily accessible and welcoming spaces.

Why would anyone agree to pay a membership fee for the simple pleasure of entering a bookstore on top of actually having to pay for the book, when they have the option of entering a library – for free – and then borrowing a book at a significantly lower cost?

Finally, it would be a logistical nightmare.

How would bookstores enforce and police a membership policy?

Maybe they could mimic nightclubs and employ a security guard to stand at the door checking ID’s; or hire full time staff to prowl the store with the purpose of weeding out non-members.

Memberships are not the solution to showrooming!

And the task of finding the answer doesn’t have to be left in the hands of bookstores.

Publishers can also reap rewards from showrooming and as such should work with bookstore owners in a mutually beneficial fashion.

Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of the Codex Group, which tracks frequent readers’ book buying habits acknowledges that the physical retail world works, if publishers protect it, and at the moment they’re not doing enough to help bookstores.

All of the players in the book game – publishers, retailers, and authors – need to put their heads together and come up with foolproof ways to make showrooming a profitable trend for all involved.