As suburban sprawl threatens to overcome more and more communities, independent booksellers are facing battles on many fronts, from fighting proposed chain store developments in their communities to competing with online giants. It is a market landscape that is very familiar to Tom Campbell of Durham, North Carolina's The Regulator Bookshop. However, Campbell has been proactive to ensure that these economic forces do not undermine his business: He recently helped to dissuade Duke University from opening a huge bookstore right down the street from his store, and in May, he launched an online promotion that has dramatically increased his store's Internet sales.
The Big Bookstore on Campus
Last week, Duke University decided to halt plans to build a new, large bookstore on its campus as part of a $240 million campus redevelopment project, Regulator's Campbell reported to Bookselling This Week. The proposed store would have been located in an area easily accessible to both students and residents, only a quarter of a mile from The Regulator Bookshop, and Duke officials had been considering bringing in a chain bookstore to run the new store.
However, university officials told Campbell that they have decided to leave the bookstore where it is. "They said it's not in Duke's interest or the community interests to move and expand the bookstore," he said. "This is a big bullet I don't have worry about dodging."
The proposed bookstore was to be part of Duke's "decades-long plan to recast the central campus area" to include 800,000 square feet of residential space, along with commercial and academic buildings, as reported by Durham's Herald-Sun in March 2006. Under the plan, the current textbook and trade book stores would have been rolled into a much larger bookstore located at the corner of the main intersection of the new development in a three-story building. At a pubic meeting in March, Duke Provost Peter Lange would not rule out that a chain such as Barnes & Noble or Borders would run the bookstore. "The present bookstores are not easily accessible to people not on the campus. This store would clearly have a wider market," Campbell told BTW in March.
While Duke officials did not provide him with a reason for the change in plans regarding the bookstore, Campbell speculated that university officials may have been worried that the new store would have faced community opposition. Certainly, a number of residents voiced their concerns over the proposed bookstore at the March meeting, according to the Durham's Herald-Sun.
Campbell had also met with Duke officials in the hopes of convincing them to nix the bookstore idea. "I know their public relations person very well, and I [told] him that we were completely capable of running a PR campaign [in opposition to the bookstore]," he explained. "We have a customer list with between 6,000 and 7,000 names on it, and I'd rather work with [Duke] before making it into a public issue."
Said Campbell, "In my opinion, I think that they realized it wouldn't be good for the community [to open a new bookstore]. It would have created a difficult situation for them regarding the community."
Under the new plans, Duke will move its merchandise store to the new development "and will use the rest of the building for other things," said Campbell, adding that this might include a bookstore of approximately 500 square feet. "I said that's fine."
Fishing Customers Out of the Amazon
While Campbell no longer has to worry about competition from a new bookstore down the road, the online prowess of retail giant Amazon, the virtual "neighbor" of almost every bookstore, and has made it especially difficult for online booksellers to compete.
At least, that's how Campbell felt before he launched his "Dry Up the Amazon" e-mail campaign back in May. "It was my wife's idea," Campbell said. "I was complaining that sales were off, and that we were clearly losing lots of business to Amazon.com, and that they were tough to compete with.... And so she said, why not make a campaign out of [the benefits of] people using your website?"
From this suggestion grew The Regulator's "Dry Up the Amazon" campaign, which cleverly shows customers the benefits of shopping at RegulatorBookshop.com versus Amazon.com. The promotion offers customers incentives such as 30 percent off Book Sense Picks and New York Times bestsellers and 10 percent off on all other trade titles. And, in May, customers who placed web orders of $25 or more received a $5 Book Sense gift card.
The e-mail, which was sent to the bookstore's customer e-mail list, begins:
"You want a book. You go to the website (you know the one we mean), place your order, get your discount. Pay a bunch for shipping if you need the book anytime soon. Or opt for the free shipping and wait a couple of weeks for the book to arrive. However you do it, you just sent your money -- every dollar you spent -- out of the town you live in, and none of it is coming back.
"We've got a better way. If you want to order from the web, go to regulatorbookshop.com."
The promotion continues, "If you need the book soon, and don't want to pay for shipping, choose to pick up your order in the store. For most all of the books that say, 'Usually ships in one to five days,' we can get your book in two to three business days. No shipping charges and your books in just a few days -- this is something that Amazon can't do. Or if you want the book shipped (to you or to someone else), you can do that through our website as well. And pay lower shipping charges than on Amazon."
Thus far, the campaign has been a dramatic success, Campbell reported. "Before the campaign, we'd average about three orders a day [via the website]. The day after that e-mail, we received 35 orders." Though he's no longer averaging 35 orders per day, "we are getting 10 to 12 a day, even without the gift card incentive and almost everyone is choosing to pick up in the store, which is adding traffic."
Campbell noted that he's learned some important facts from the campaign. "Number one, [many] people didn't realize we have a website to order from; and number two, they really didn't realize that you could pick up an order at the store and not have to use your credit card information online."
Overall, Campbell noted, "People liked the spirit of the [campaign] and responded to support independents," and he said that he's glad that the "Book Sense website is robust enough that we can do this." --David Grogan