Canadian retail blogger, PaulThinkingOutLoud was upset recently by one publisher’s website and its aggressive discounting policy. Writing in his blog – which is well worth following – he saw this as
‘Another example of a publisher or distributor bypassing the brick and mortar stores. Although some of this might be legitimate overstock inventory, it raises the expectation of consumers for this level of discounting to be normative, which adds to the discouragement of already battered retailers’.
In another post, Paul writes movingly of competing emotions during the closure of one of his stores. He ends with an appeal to press on towards the goal of in-store ministry.
Do you feel battered by falling sales or emboldened by spiritual opportunity? Yes, Christian bookshops continue to close, footfall is in decline, competition from online is savage and at best support from churches is patchy. Yet we are not always that well informed of current trends in the wider publishing scene. In the same way as what happens in the USA often affects the UK, the same is true of events in the general market impacting the Christian trade.
Generally speaking, our grasp of the financials on both ‘sides’ is often lacking. Retailers operate on lower margins with high fixed costs (upward only rents, rising business rates – up 2.6% again in April) whereas publishing in the main has higher margins and a far more flexible cost base. Clearly there are worries on all sides and as publishers face lower physical sales, print-runs continue to fall making the viability of mid-list titles ever more tenuous. Many publishers struggle with storing high levels of physical stock, much of which will eventually be written-down. Ironically for publishers, digitalisation represents yet more cost and a growing overhead; this, coupled with falling average cover prices (ebooks sell at half the average price of a paperback: £3.21 v. £6.31).
Our industry is a torrid place. The physical consumer book market declined by 4.6% in value in 2012, with fiction down 4.5% and non-fiction down 6.3% – only Children’s books held steady. The value of print sales slumped by £74m last year. (It could be worse – in Australia their market fell 6.3%). The marketplace churns violently in a volatile landscape; over 200 libraries were closed between 2011/12 and in another sign of turbulence, Cambridge University Press ceased print production on their Cambridge site after 400 years.
Yet 2012 saw the continued growth in digital publishing, social media marketing and self-publishing. Hive became established. Amazon’s Kindle grew faster than ever and a number of other e-readers, notably Nook, Kobo, and Nexus gathered momentum. Controversially Waterstones began to sell Amazon’s Kindle, recognising that they had neither the time nor money to develop their own platform. The Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon came out of nowhere ending the year with sales of £47.3m.
The market for ebooks was revised upwards to £300m late last year and continues to grow, albeit more slowly. Major publishers report e-sales of between 8% and 17% of overall revenue. In November, the ebook agency price probe in the USA and the EC brought a chill to the major houses as they battled against what felt like unfair external pressures. Now ebooks sell for an unsustainable 20p (a marketing idiocy pioneered by Sony) and most slots in the Kindle top 20 are populated by cheap ebooks. Nielsen data suggest that there are 7m UK ebook adopters, with heaviest use amongst ages 35-44, lowest in the under 20’s. However, the BBC reports that just as many UK adults, 7.4m or 15% of the population have yet to access the Internet.
Bookshop closures continue apace with The Booksellers Association figures documenting ongoing decline: down to 1,028 shops (2012) from 1,535 in 2005 – conversely Children’s bookshops are thriving with more opening this year. In the USA, the one surviving major bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble announced after Christmas that they expect to slim down store numbers by a third. B&N have 689 stores currently with 190-240 of these slated to close over the next decade. It’s a widely held view that the holy grail of ‘Discoverability’ is best achieved in a physical bookshop; browsing activity is their USP.
The debate over the future of our libraries is equally as fierce. The UK Government’s Sieghart ebook library lending review is yet to report but author, Terry Deary said recently: ‘Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in the electronic age’. How to win friends! It’s worth noting that the PLR on printed books from library lending is more than £6m paid out to 23,000 authors. The debate remains live as people continue to ask if digital will trounce the physical book or whether in due course it will all settle down benignly?
There’s a lot of anger amongst booksellers towards the perceived lack of a level playing field. Writing in The Bookseller, Charles Tongue of the Stroud Bookshop said, ‘I believe Publishers are blindly colluding with Amazon and the result will be the destruction of High street retailing’. He was widely applauded.
I like Foyle’s of London advertising slogan; This Bookshop Will Change Your Life – no ambiguity there! Earlier this year, Sam Husain, CEO of Foyle’s sent an open letter to publishers arguing the need for better terms (an average of 60%) and increased support (promotional stock on consignment). He stated that the current bookshop model is broken, needing a complete rethink. This at a time as Foyle’s announced eight redundancies. Bravely, Foyle’s and The Bookseller have since conducted a two-day ‘Re-imagining the Future Bookshop’ workshop, held in London, allowing the trade to collaborate on what the bookshop of the future might look like.
WH Smith continue to do a sterling job in showcasing books but even their sales fall year on year; down 7% to the end of August 2012 and down a further 6% in the 20 weeks to mid-January 2013. Another indication of the parlous state of the High Street trade is wholesaler Gardners sales results which dropped 3% to the end of February last year. Blackwell’s did improve their results last year but remain loss making.
Waterstones is far from being out of the woods with the release of poor results (admittedly pre-James Daunt) showing a £37.3m loss. I wish Waterstones well because if their 290 branches were to disappear from the High Street then it would be a very serious matter, and I might add, particularly for publishers. However, I’m encouraged for two reasons: anecdotally, people seem very warm towards the ‘W’ brand and some are switching their buying away from the mighty ‘A’. The question is, will it be enough? Waterstones iconic branding campaign last autumn was well received and this year it has plans for the refurbishment of another 60 shops.
My other reason is that when I visit Waterstones, they generally prove to be busy places and people are markedly buying books. It’s just a shame that Waterstones do not ‘do’ Christianity better and with more visibility. On a positive note, I welcome the announcement by Waterstones of the launch of its staff-training academy and Certificate in Bookselling (accredited by the University of Derby); surely a vote of confidence in its own future by a visionary book chain?
Maybe I’m pipe dreaming? After all, Amazon had overall sales in the UK in 2011 of £2.91 billion (on which they famously paid £416m UK tax). They reported Q4 worldwide revenue growth of 22% to £13bn last Christmas! Latest innovations include customer collection lockers in railway stations and newsagents. This is an immensely powerful online juggernaut and our small trade faces a very significant challenge indeed!
Yet I dare to believe that localism can prevail, customer attitudes can change and that people continue to care about their local shops – you must just hope that I am right! The demise of retailers, Jessops and Blockbuster earlier this year followed by HMV going into administration shows just how tough conditions are. Incredibly, HMV was selling 27% of all CD’s and 38% of DVD’s at the time of its demise.
I would echo Philip Downer’s (ex-Borders) comment from last year;
‘The old days of Borders and Ottakars will not return … Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook offer are now essentials for Indies who want to stay in business and thrive for the future’.
We have to give customers a reason to come to our shops. Why should they shop with you? I was recently handed a forward-dated 15% off voucher for a national (non-book) retailer. It worked. I visited the shop on the stated date, I used my voucher … and I bought far more than I had intended. In the Christian trade we must start thinking more creatively and connecting with customers in a very different way to the past.
Church engagement is a hugely important topic that needs far greater attention and one to which we shall return in the next issue. Many shops find difficulty in communicating with ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to the Churches’ own financial constraints. Managers struggle to venture outside their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers have to get back in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.
The days of waiting for a church to contact you are long gone. It’s often a salutary task to record daily footfall and till data – but it may just serve as the severe jolt you need in order to take action?
This article was written in early March 2013 for Together Magazine (April – May 2013)
Last week the UK came out of recession and into growth, albeit at just 1%. The naysayers feel that we may well slip back again but hey, for the moment even the media is upbeat about the economy.
For me, this underlined how important the mood music is to how we feel about our lives. For as long as I can remember, the Christian book trade has always ‘been getting worse’! We seem to believe that things are ‘not as good as last year’ or ‘sales are not what they used to be’. Now it’s possible that this could all be true but it could also be that we are creating (and believing) our own negative PR and adding to our own gloom. No-one likes to be around gloomy people – or patronise gloomy retailers. Or for that matter read gloomy blogs!
It really is time to change the mood music in this trade. Someone else said last week, ‘This is the new normal, get used to it’. Change is here to stay; trade structures and loyalties are shifting before our very eyes and the way people shop has already altered – just look at the recent Argos announcement.
I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a new Facebook group dedicated to the sharing of useful retail tips – and maybe I will do just that. Somehow we must ramp up our effectiveness for the sake of the business and the ministry. There are some things out there that we simply cannot change but we do not have to cower as victims. The Gospel demands that we live our lives with joy, optimism and hope; how much more so when we are in this particular trade.
So how to move on? Well, we have to accept that, for starters, it’s not all bad. This has definitely become the day of the Indy bookshop, no question. Chains no longer work for all the reasons we know so well. There are many new, vibrant entrants to the trade. This is bringing in new – and hopefully younger – blood, and better ideas with different ways of doing things.
Actually, despite appearances sometimes to the contrary, publishers and suppliers still need the whole retail piece to make their own numbers work. I would hazard a guess that for most product originators, retail still represents c. 55% (maybe more) of their turnover. The balance of power within the industry has substantially altered in recent years; retailers’ are better off, suppliers less so (I know to some of you it doesn’t always feel that way). There is still way too much product out there so retailers can and should use their buying power to favour some suppliers over others – and therefore certain product lines over others. You just cannot buy or stock everything you are offered!
What action can retailers take – practically – to avoid falling sales? Let me sketch out some of the more obvious ways here. Feel free to offer your own as a comment and let’s start a conversation.
Here are my top two observations and recommendations which I believe can quickly impact your sales for the better. You may have to readjust your timetable and your shop to carry these out:
- Re-engage with your local churches and church leaders – but make friends with them first. Even the best of shops can do better in this area. What prevents you from getting out there?
- Increase the amount of space given to Children’s books – ramp up your range – stats prove that this is the ONE area in publishing that continues to thrive despite the ongoing shift to digital.
Try these other top tips:
- Become known locally for doing great deals – be flexible – match online prices if you have to. Join the fight-back against the online competition. Badger suppliers into helping with margin. Take a lower margin if you really have to as ‘less margin is better than no margin’.
- Stats prove that it’s wise to trade upmarket with card and gift – avoid tat, embrace quality.
- Make more use of staff and personal recommendations when speaking with customers.
- Keep stock looking fresh. Return stock wherever possible; mark-down stock, dump old stock. Take extreme care with stock levels. Buy wisely. Buy tight. Make sure stock works for YOU.
- Engage in positive PR – let your customers know what’s new and what’s happening. Use social media – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn - and make yourself heard in your own locality. Build community. Build links. Do visits. Share ideas. Above all, realise that you are not alone in this trade. Use the Facebook CABP group and get help and advice from others online.
- Keep up with digital developments – sign up to KOBO, HIVE and others as yet unknown!
- Stay positive and avoid the ‘numbers’ game (bigger, better, more). Be proud of your own calling and work.
- Pray constantly – on your own, with your trustees, with your staff and with your customers.
Maybe together – and ever so slowly – we can change the mood music? Together we should strive to build a vibrant trade sector where we feel proud to be known as Christian retailers. Eschew any perceived downward spiral and stay positive. Don’t despair. Don’t lose heart.
If you really have had enough of the trade, then perhaps you should call it a day because life is too short to be gloomy!
It has felt like a tsunami of bad news of late with so many Bookshop closures. The UK has lost 26% of its Bookshops since 2006 (over 400 outlets according to the Booksellers Association) and many of these are Christian Bookshops. This decline seems to be quickening with various shop closures announced almost weekly. Even the once-invincible Christian chains have succumbed, weighed down by high central costs and slow decision making: Scripture Union, The Church of Scotland, SPCK, Living Oasis and now Wesley Owen. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the future belongs to a well-run and nimble independent sector. Have we simply gone full-circle?
The whole sorry saga of these closures came home to me as a bitter blow when I heard of the closure of Wesley Owen on Park Street in Bristol. This was originally the venerable ECL shop where I had cut my bookselling teeth in 1980 under the watchful eye of dear Alan Maynard, God bless him. The ECL Bookshop was originally opened in 1852 by Bristol’s famous George Muller and the building is still owned by the George Muller Charitable Trust.
I wrote on Twitter this week:
‘Sad times – iconic and memorable homes of Christian Bookshops have disappeared: Wigmore St London, George St Edinburgh & now Park St Bristol’.
Let’s remind ourselves of why we do what we do. My esteemed ex-colleague, Steve Bunn replied on Facebook:
‘What powerful ministries these stores and their dedicated workers had; there will be many when we get there (heaven) who will have come through their doors’.
Our trade urgently needs the rationale for a new approach. The bulk of Christian bookshops, developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were a response to what God was doing in the wider church. They embodied a strong pastoral thrust through staff with a vocational calling. Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic. They are seen as disconnected from the Church and overtaken by changes and events in wider society.
It’s fashionable even amongst some Christians to decry and downplay the significance of Christian Bookshops but, make no mistake about it, where these shops have closed, they will be missed.
I believe that if Christian shops are lost from the High Street, it will be impossible to replace them.
Yes, I accept that we do need to pose some important questions – what is God saying and doing today? What does the Church want? Where is the new market for resources? How does digital affect sales and delivery? Can we sustain the passion to remain as Christian ministries on the High Street? And if so, how?
Is there still a place for a Christian Resource Centre on the High Street? In my view, emphatically YES. Would a local community be worse off without a Christian presence on its streets? Again, emphatically YES. However, I accept that some ministries may need to be repositioned to serve God’s purposes today and we may need to build a new expression of Christian retailing through which to develop new local relationships.
We need a fight back. We need to show why selling Christian material on the High Street has never been more important. Closures are insidious. They weaken all of us across the entire trade. It’s bad for Churches, it’s actually worse for our culture – Christian values should be at the heart of society, plain for all to see. It lessens the availability of prayer and pastoral advice in the community, it damages the visibility of Christianity on the High Street and it severely diminishes the reach of suppliers.
I know of what I speak. For Publishers’ to survive they need markets. They must maintain their print runs and they need a sales network. Already print runs are falling and sales (and margins) are simply not being replaced by the Internet or via digital networks. Gradually, publishers are recognising the magnitude of the problem that shop closures are creating. Just where is the required volume of replacement sales going to come from?
That elusive balance of mission and business is constantly shifting. The line continually needs to be recalibrated. My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material. We may have strayed too far into the territory of mammon and lucre.
It’s not too late. Publishers can still support the Indy’s and what’s left of the Chains. I remain a retailer at heart. I’ve worked for a distributor and a publisher but always with a retailer’s instinct. Other publishers too are doing their best. Consistently, Lion Hudson and IVP have won accolades for their support of the trade – and deservedly so. To my mind, the mantle of the original OM STL has transferred to IVP. They have built on that all important sense of deep concern and support for the ministry of Christian literature. CLC continues to plough a steady and significant furrow in UK retail.
It’s not too late for all suppliers to give retailers a better deal. Sometimes it’s more about their tone, not discount. Some give lip-service to supporting shops but go headlong and unfairly into chasing other markets. Retailers aren’t stupid, they know when they are being strung along and unjustly treated.
As I was contemplating this post, I listened to this moving song by Don Moen. I feel it’s apt for our present situation:
‘You are brighter than my darkest night, stronger than my toughest fight
Just one touch from you my King, my Friend and I’ll never be the same again’.
Soli Deo Gloria
TMD’s announcement this week of its imminent withdrawal from wholesaling for UK publishers came as no surprise. The surprise to me is that it’s been able to carry on as long as it has.
Even at the height of STL Distribution’s involvement with wholesaling, it was incredibly cash, stock and shelf-space intensive. The breakthrough for STL in those early days came when it moved into trade distribution (starting with Kingsway) and began to develop its own extensive retail infrastructure. Without those two elements, in my view STL may not have survived beyond the 1990′s.
In the late 19980′s, STL tried to emulate the likes of Gardners and Hammicks. Now the competition is even fiercer with Amazon taking on a quasi-wholesale supply role within the book trade. It seems crazy that it makes sense for shops to buy from Amazon and receive better terms than from publishers!
The retail sector has to take its own share of responsibility for the difficulties experienced by suppliers in recent years. Too often shops use their distributors as bankers – by not sticking to agreed payment terms and by often paying late. This has had a rolling, detrimental and destabilising effect across the whole trade putting a lot of pressure on companies’ cash flow.
For TMD to concentrate on its American lists makes a lot of financial sense. These are usually high margin transactions, with stock often placed on consignment and a much healthier impact on cash management. USA Publishers can afford to throw greater margin and to slightly increase their already high print runs for sale to the UK market. One negative effect may be to further accentuate the already disproportionate USA / UK title balance on display within UK bookshops.
The ‘Elephant in the Room’ behind the TMD decision is the hugely shrinking pool of retail outlets for suppliers to sell into. The UK market has lost a very large number of shops in a relatively short period of time. There is simply much less shelf space to go around. There is just not as much business to be had. Everyone involved is ‘competing’ for less space on shelves and seemingly for fewer customers. TMD do not own their own outlets as STL did and so the vertical integration model does not work for them.
I’ve said elsewhere that I wish CLC Wholesale well. However, I remain unconvinced that they can pick up the slack due to two reasons; (1) their remuneration policy which mitigates against being able to attract enough competent and professional staff (no slight whatsoever intended to existing CLC’ers, all of whom do an amazing job in often difficult circumstances) and (2) the need to significantly widen their stock holding policy at the wholesale warehouse level. If these points are courageously and urgently addressed, then the chance still exists for CLC to fill the current vacuum and grow their own market share considerably.
This is now such a seriously changed landscape; one in which specialist Christian trade wholesaling may possibly have had its day. Like so often in life, we’ve gone full circle from a viable wholesale model – brilliantly pioneered for this market by the likes of Raymond Stanbury, Daan van Belzen and Keith Danby– to again buying direct from Publishers with all of the built-in inefficiencies and additional costs. C’est la vie!
I completely understand the current strength of feeling across the Christian retail trade regarding the perceived inequity of Kingsway offering allegedly differing terms to its varying distribution channels.
I admit to feeling uneasy earlier this week with their seeming triumphalism, displayed in the social media, as the new Worship Central album began to sell strongly through the newer channels, then the announcement of its availability through branches of HMV and the unspoken sense that a better job was now being done than by just having to rely on their traditional Christian retail outlets.
The concerns centre around HMV, Amazon and iTunes apparently receiving better margins in order to reach a ‘broader’ market. I have to say that whilst Kingsway are high profile in this and have an aptitude for drawing ‘flack’ fairly regularly, they are not alone in so doing. Doing business with the big secular players is costly, frustrating and was often seen by suppliers simply as an add-on to the traditional market – nice to have if you can get it but not the end of the world if you can’t.
However, that view is rapidly changing as the realities of market share begin to bite. For Christian suppliers, the old retail chain model is ‘holed below the water line’, Indy’s are flat-lining and any growth is elsewhere, not in retail. The truth is, that for most suppliers, our niche retail trade no longer provides the geographic coverage required to get a new product to market. Shops are dwindling and with them, a suppliers ability to reach its market and, more importantly, to sell enough of its initial print-run (in the case of publishers). No wonder suppliers are casting around looking for new, more viable alternatives. I say this, not to excuse such behaviour but to try to help to explain it. Sadly, these are now the rules of the marketplace. It may seem unfair to a small well-run Christian outlet but this is how it is in the real world. It’s not just our trade that affected – it’s happening right across UK retail.
One of our issues is that the retail book world still lives with the ghost of the Net Book Agreement. Yes, it’s long gone but some of us still operate (and think) as though it remains in force. I believe strongly that pricing should be left to retailers and that prices will always remain fluid. In order to compete on the basis of price, then retailers do need to have adequate margin in their armoury. Some suppliers are better than others in this respect. I’m led to believe that IVP and Lion Publishing remain the retailers’ favourites and sadly, it seems, Kingsway continues to draw their indignation!
My experience of dealing with Amazon as a supplier is that they have their own very strict pricing policies which it’s impossible for suppliers to influence – plus they take a far lower margin on a sale in order to attract the customer. It’s very much ‘take it or leave it’ but it would be a brave supplier who opted not to deal with them due to the volumes they are capable of generating. None of us may like this but that’s the truth of it. The same goes for music digital downloads over physical product sales – and who knows where eBooks are heading?
If suppliers are guilty of anything, it’s that they can sometimes seem to take their small retail customers for granted and to put all of their energies into building relationships with new outlets – often secular, mostly larger. They assume the Christian shops will always be there or worse, they assume that most of these shops are on the way out anyway! Recent history has not helped this particular impression! Either attitude is damaging in these difficult economic times.
This issue is a major point of deep contention for both suppliers and retailers. Our brave new digital world is not helping. Everyone in the supply chain is feeling squeezed; small retailers feel unappreciated and powerless in the face of such huge change, suppliers are fighting for volume as they see their product runs ever diminishing and all of us are seeing the rampant switch to digital from print. Is it any wonder we can seem worried and anxious; emotions which are then expressed in a form of protectionism.
Of course, you could argue that we should neither be worried or anxious; indeed we are so commanded in the New Testament. However, reality is often a little different and invades our thinking in more negative ways particularly when it comes down to matters of money and business. Would that it did not – but it does and we need to recognise this fact more than perhaps we do. When suppliers have large payrolls and report to even larger owners, it takes a special kind of courage to manage these often huge and contradictory tensions in trying to make ends meet in the present climate.
I do understand what’s going on because I’ve been on both sides of the argument. Still am. Neither side is fully right, neither side seems comfortable with the other and both feel misunderstood by the other. Not a great place to start when certain emotive ‘triggers’ occur and begin to inflame the understandable indignation. Somehow we have to deal with this or we will be torn apart by it. Our trade, made up as it is of several parties with a common goal of mission – but with very different economic drivers – could so easily degenerate into hostile and divided camps. Some would say these camps are already antagonistic to each other – I pray not.
If we truly believe we are about the Father’s business we should all do better – for the sake of the Kingdom.
Mark 8: ‘What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul’?
Listening to Liz Pilgrim, a riot-hit small retailer from Ealing on BBC R4 tonight was an inspiration, providing a strident rallying call for support to the High Street.
Events of this past week have demonstrated that the UK High Street is hurting badly – in more ways than one. Shops in riot affected areas will have an uphill struggle to get their businesses back on track. Retailers everywhere are finding it hard work to make headway against strong and adverse economic headwinds.
If these local businesses are forced to leave their High Streets, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to open them again. Does that matter? Yes, I think it does. Those communities losing local traders are negatively impacted in a considerable way. We could all do much more to help – by stopping to think whether we can buy locally, by switching our purchasing from the internet to local shops (where possible) and from chain stores and supermarkets to the local trader. Yes, there’s often a price differential and I know that we all have time constraints but there is a positive social impact.
Some of you might say that it’s already too late. It’s not. You can make a real difference locally.
So much of retail in the UK is comprised of fairly small units and these outlets provide considerable levels of local employment in so many of our towns and cities. It cannot be all about Tesco’s and Debenhams.
Use local markets wherever possible as these too continue to help commercial life to thrive in our neighbourhoods and communities. Yes, it’s hard to do this but it’s also worthwhile. At the moment, any help for smaller retailers, and sole traders in particular, is very welcome.
If you agree with this please ‘like’ it and post it elsewhere and let’s help bring more footfall to our High Streets. Do we really want to live in a homogenous world? Do we want all of retail life to move online? We all have to buy ‘stuff’. The only question is; where will we actually do our purchasing?
So go on – Support your own High Street. Support your local retailer. Support your small shops. Support your local Market. You might even enjoy yourself!
Update and postscript:
The key figures for UK retail. (Source: Dept for BIS)
• UK retail sales are around £300bn, the 3rd largest in the world, after the USA and Japan.
• The retail sector generates 8% of the GDP of the UK, and 5.2% of GVA.
• The retail industry employs around 3m people. One in ten of those in employment currently work in the retail sector – the highest proportion of UK private sector employment.
• Retail is the largest private sector employer in the UK with one in ten of the workforce working in retail.
• There are 450,000 shops in the UK owned by 300,000 enterprises, including 9% (190,000) of all VAT-registered businesses.
• Shops account for more than a third of consumer spending.
• Despite being the third biggest casualty of the recession with over 6,000 insolvencies, the sector continues to grow.
• The value of overseas shoppers in London is around £2bn p.a.
• Despite strong growth in recent years, internet sales currently account for only around 7.5% of total sales.
ALBATROSS, DODO OR JEWEL
‘Is there still a place for Christian bookshops to sparkle on the High Street’?
Last year I was asked to give a lecture on Christian Retailing to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship and Steve Briars invited me to deliver similar material at this year’s CRT. I am delighted to do so – although the two audiences are quite different! Since that lecture in April 2010, things have moved on a pace and we are learning to live with constant challenges and change. However, there is no lack of evidence that we are involved in changing people’s lives on a daily basis.
I aim to address four incontrovertible facts facing all Christian retailers;
- The UK is increasingly secularised and less open to Christian forms of spirituality
- Formats, methods and channels – but not the content – are changing almost on a daily basis
- Consumers, and particularly younger people, are not buying as many physical books as before
- The Christian industry – Booksellers and Publishers – is undergoing a serious and prolonged period of retrenchment and rationalisation
I have invited three practising retailers -
- Andrew Lacey, Manager of GLO Bookshop, Motherwell, Scotland
- Melanie Carroll, Owner of Unicorn Tree Books and Crafts, Lincoln
- Steve Mitchell, Retail Director of Wesley Owen
each representing different facets of our trade – to address this question;
- ‘How can our trade best communicate the Good News in an increasingly post ‘bricks and mortar’ era and to a progressively digital generation?
Which of these three images describe and/or sum up today’s Christian book trade;
- Albatross; large seabird, majestic in flight or as in Coleridge, a ‘burden or encumbrance’
- Dodo; flightless bird known only in history; extinct, long gone, utterly dead and finished
- Jewel; beautiful to look at, highly valued. precious to its owner, ‘the jewel in the crown’
A brief trade overview
- The very first UK Christian Bookshop opened in Derby in 1810 – Just over 200 years ago!
- The Derby and Derbyshire Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society opened this shop in the Cock Pit area of Derby. It then moved to The Strand around 1900 (where it was renamed The Bible and Book Shop) and on to Irongate before finishing up in its present location in Queens Street. Subsequent owners have included; Scripture Union, STL/Wesley Owen and now it is owned and operated by Koorong of Australia.
- Just to add ecumenical balance, the next Christian bookshop was opened in Bristol in 1813 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. SPCK as a society had been established much earlier in 1698 by Dr Thomas Bray, a clergyman. SPCK went on to open their second shop in London in 1836.
- Many commentators would argue that to be a truly national retail chain, you need around 300 to 600 outlets to be represented in the main towns and cities. No Christian operator has ever come close although at one point in the 1990’s there were probably over 600 Christian Bookshops of some shape or size across the UK, but most operated independently.
- Those numbers have dwindled and are dwindling still. There is some evidence of new players entering the market year-on-year but, in my view, numbers of Christian bookshops are consistently down. I would estimate there are around 220 bookshops in the Christian niche capable of carrying out a viable trade.
- Due to its unique history, Northern Ireland remains the strongest market for Christian product when compared to its population size; this region continues to sell more Christian books per head than anywhere else in the UK. Scottish shops are mostly sited in the major central belt conurbations and there are virtually no Christian bookshops in Wales outside of the Cardiff area.
The ‘Missional’ nature of Christian bookselling
- For the past 30 years I’ve had the privilege of being engaged in the vocation of Christian literature distribution in its various forms. I have been involved as a bookseller, an author, a distributor and a publisher. I retain a fundamental belief in the importance of maintaining a Christian witness on the High Streets of our country. I therefore cannot but help feel that the loss of any Christian shops on the High Street is detrimental and I, for one, mourn the demise of those that have closed.
- Controversially, I have long pondered whether the historical separation of Christian bookshops into a specific subset of the wider book trade will turn out in the longer term to have been a mistake? Would it have been better for our specialist outlets simply to have remained part of the wider general bookselling community as it is elsewhere in the world? To outsiders, our bookshop names must inevitably seem a little twee and out-of-touch. Does such a separation help or hinder our aspirations for engaging in Christian witness?
A quick look at the wider social environment
- The UK is a largely secularised, post-Christian society with a significant multi-cultural population. There is clear anti-Christian bias throughout the media and in politics and militant atheism is on the increase. Christian TV & Radio has very low penetration, making product mass marketing difficult.
- Regular church attendance is in decline in most of the traditional denominations. However, there are bright spots; the Black majority and Hillsong churches are growing. Cathedral attendance is increasing and the Emerging Church movement gaining ground.
- There is a general decline in book readership in society; not just amongst Christians. Competing media and digital attractions vie for our time and the lack of time affects all of us however much we enjoy buying and reading books.
Some thoughts about channels and digitalisation
- The way books are being bought is changing rapidly. An experienced international bookseller said to me only last week that, in over 30 years, he had not known a time of such momentous change as there has been in the past two years. Someone else has described the current upheaval as ‘a perfect storm’.
- There are enormous structural and societal changes taking place. These have been described as being as immense as the transition from parchment to the printing press. Most are outside of our control and are being imposed on us from outside of the trade. It therefore should go without saying that it is foolish to fall out amongst ourselves over changes which are so outside of our control and which are affecting the whole of retail.
- Woolworths, the 45 Borders UK stores and the Irish Bookseller, Hughes & Hughes have all left the UK High Street in the past couple of years. Since Christmas this year, WH Smith bought 22 British Bookshops and Stationers stores, Borders USA entered Chapter 11 – and is effectively bankrupt – and the REDgroup in Australia went bust leaving big UK publisher debts. HMV put their Waterstones chain up for sale selling it for a knock-down £53m in the last few weeks to a Russian tycoon.
- Supermarkets now sell one in every five books purchased and UK Libraries are under massive pressure due to imminent Government spending cuts.
- The issue here is primarily about the explosion of differing routes to market. Print no longer dominates in terms of the delivery of ideas. Content will continue to remain key.
- There are parallels with the development of digital television. More channels = fewer viewers. In our field, more ‘books’ (however those are defined; print or digital) equals a dispersed customer base which is no longer dependent on the traditional bookseller.
- Due to digital delivery channels, it is easier to self-publish now than at any other time. Blogs and social networks proliferate but some would argue that this only leads to the problem of quantity at the expense of quality.
- Territorial Rights are clearly a problem in the context of a global marketplace. Old-style publishing rights are not always recognised in the internet environment as single copy orders are taken and shipped – often across national boundaries – on a daily basis.
- Paradoxically, more printed books are being published year-on-year in the UK. Book production figures in the USA rose 5% last year despite a huge increase in eBook sales.
Impact of the Internet esp. Amazon, downloads and ePublishing
- Online sales make up 17% of all UK retail spending – and growing.
- Digital downloading is beginning to affect the sale of print items, especially newspapers.
- Book purchasing via the internet is no longer an exception, it is the norm. Amazon recorded their first £10bn sales quarter in early 2011.
- Several eBook Readers are competing for attention and rapidly gaining traction in the market; Sony’s eReader (Waterstones), the iPad (Apple Stores) and Kindle (Amazon).
- There has been an inexorable rise in the sale of eBooks with PA figures showing that eBooks grew to 6% (£180m) of £3.1bn UK book market. This may grow to 10% in 2011.
- Amazon are selling more eBooks than paperbacks; 105 on Kindle to every 100 in print. Four authors have already sold over 1 million eBooks each. Amazon lists 945,000 Kindle generated eBooks. Analysts expect 2011 sales to be $5.4bn in Kindle generated eBooks.
- However, despite these figures, over 90% of sales continue to take place via print. Black and white text books are struggling but print Bibles and Children’s books remain strong sales lines.
Where might all this change be heading? What is the future for our trade?
- Retailing is hard graft for many categories. Shopping habits are changing fast and there is much less time available for those trips to the High Street. When time is found, then competition for time and money is increasingly fierce. Supermarkets dominate.
- BBPA figures earlier this year show that the quintessential English Public House is closing down at the rate of 30 per week.
- One in seven retail outlets in the UK were surveyed as being empty in September 2010. UK shop leases are the Achilles heel for all retailers. Most are expensive, with ‘upward only’ increases and, if not carefully drawn up, extremely inflexible. Many businesses struggle with high establishment costs and Business Rates for non-charity shops are high.
- Christian bookshops are obviously not immune – and many are having a torrid time. There have been some major shake-ups in the past couple of years, with a lot of shops going and, thankfully, a few coming. The SPCK meltdown in 2008 and the IBS-STL debacle at the end of 2009 has badly destabilised Christian retail in this country.
- Demographics also conspire against these specialist shops. Church attendance in the traditional denominations is largely declining and newer Churches with their younger audiences, such as Hillsong, are self-contained in terms of their resource requirements.
- The challenge we face today is to ask, what should the Christian bookshop of the 21st century look like? Will it, as an entity, soon cease to exist, lost as an irrelevance in our increasingly secular world or can it be reinvented in an increasingly post ‘bricks and mortar’ era and for a progressively digital society?
- Although I sincerely wish CLC, Faith Mission and Koorong well in their endeavours, I am no longer convinced of the chain model when it comes to running Christian bookshops. For a variety of reasons, so many major book chains have simply failed over the years. It would appear that, in many cases, their high central costs have acted as the drag on the business and this, in a crisis, hinders rather than helps. Once I would have argued strongly for the efficiencies of scale and the need for central buying that the chain model provides. Now I am no longer so sure.
- In my view, there is still a lot to be said for a very good independent shop operating solely at the local level. Perhaps we’ve just gone full circle?
- In my view, internet retailers can win every time on the basis of price, range and convenience. If ‘Bricks and Mortar’ booksellers are to succeed in the future, they have to provide that illusive and intangible ‘sense of experience’ to their customers.
- Nick Page has written elsewhere that ‘average’ is no longer good enough. For a future, these bookshops have to be ‘really good’ and run by people who love books and love selling books. They have to be ‘exciting, memorable, fascinating’, places where events are held and reading encouraged. In short, such a bookshop must have ‘personality’!
A final meditation from 2 Corinthians (NIV);
2:17 ‘Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God’.
4:1 ‘Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God’.
It’s not only pubs that are going out of business in the UK – recent figures show that the quintessential English Public House is closing down at the rate of 30 per week (source: BBPA/MT). Retailing is now hard graft for many professions. Shopping habits are changing fast and there is much less time available for those trips to the High Street. When time is found, then competition for both time and money is increasingly fierce.
Christian bookshops are not immune – and many are having a difficult time. There have been some major shake-ups in the past couple of years, with a lot of shops going and, thankfully, a few coming. Accurate figures are hard to come by but there have been many closures in recent months. I doubt that there are more than 250 shops across the whole of the UK now capable of a viable future?
The IBS-STL debacle at the end of 2009 and the SPCK meltdown in 2008 badly destabilised Christian retail in this country. Any recovery – if it even proves possible – remains uncertain. There are shops that some would say deserve to go under (those that are poorly run, badly stocked and outdated) but there are many fine shops that would be a massive loss to their communities if they were to disappear. Good examples are GLO Motherwell; ‘Scotland’s Leading Independent Christian Resource Centre’ and Faith Mission Portadown, which jointly won the Industry award this year for ‘Large Christian Retailer 2010’.
This Christmas is the time, for those of us who care about the future, mission and ministry of Christian retailers, to ensure that we go out of our way to support these shops. The final quarter of the year is THE time when retailers look to achieve a financial surplus to help them make it through the following year.
It seems to me that we have a choice – to help keep these shops on the High Street or by our often passive inaction push more of them out of business year-by-year. For me it’s more than just a trade; it’s about maintaining a Christian presence on our High Streets. Time is running out – fewer and fewer specialist Christian shops remain as each year goes by.
Demographics also conspire against these specialist shops. Church attendance in the traditional denominations is largely declining and newer Churches with their younger audiences, such as Hillsong and 3C, tend to be pretty self-contained in terms of their resource requirements.
As I listen to people, I am increasingly of the opinion that many simply do not understand that if these shops go, then they will almost certainly not re-appear. The economics of Christian bookselling do not stack up without a high degree of subsidy or self-sacrifice. These shops are in danger of becoming a cultural and religious anachronism. Their future lies in the hands of us, the customer; but we are increasingly voting with our feet and our keyboards.
I fully recognise that not everyone has a Christian retailer close by. In these cases, the immediate temptation is to shop for Christian resources on Amazon, the all-conquering online retailer. I am uneasy with its growing power and supremacy in so many areas of retailing life. Personally, for Christian material, I would suggest using www.eden.co.uk/, the excellent Chester-based online specialist ‘etailer’ with its high standards of customer service and a wide ranging stock selection.
I contend that anyone interested in the survival of the Christian literature ministry should, this Christmas, and whenever possible, buy something at their local Christian bookshop. Where this proves impractical, then by all means use Eden, where some money from each order goes to support children in Malawi via the auspices of the Christian charity, World Vision.
Don’t know what to buy this Christmas? You could do worse than start with Operation World and give someone a really challenging and inspiring present. Read my review here.
One last thought. Maybe, during 2011, this trade should work together on a wide-ranging PR and marketing initiative; ‘Christian bookshops; use them, don’t not lose them’.
You can locate your local Christian retailer here.