Bricks and Mortar Bookstores Still Relevant in Digital Age

April 23, 2013

Students Browsing in Bookstore


The first twenty years of online retailing have succeeded in opening up a dizzying array of purchasing choices for consumers. In addition to convenience, the online revolution has also enabled shoppers to choose, pay for and receive goods through an increasingly wider choice of digital platforms. Like many established retailers, Barnes & Noble College has invested in leveraging those options as a way of providing customers with the ability to shop for the products they want, in the way that they most prefer. Although the way we shop may have changed, what we want from the retail experience hasn’t, and value, the broadest possible product selection and exceptional customer service, are all expectations that still power purchasing decisions. Despite the progress of digital retailing in the publishing sector, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate the place where those factors come together most effectively is still in the traditional bricks and mortar bookstore. 

Why Browsing Matters

An article recently published in The Bookseller highlights the crucial role physical stores play in the health of the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to the ability to browse at leisure. Cited in the article, Jo Henry, a Director at Bowker Market Research, UK, estimates that physical booksellers were responsible for the discovery of some 21 percent of all consumer book purchases in the UK last year, through window display merchandising or through browsing in the bookstore, representing an annual $686 million to the British publishing industry. In the same article, Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis stresses the importance of the bricks and mortar bookstore to the publishing industry. Although online retailers may gain some business with the closing of a physical bookstore, a majority of that store’s business would, “vanish from the publishing industry entirely.”


The Penn Bookstore, the University of Pennsylvania's official booksotre in Philadelphia, PA.

The Penn Bookstore, the official campus store of the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia, PA.


What is true for trends in the general publishing industry can be even more evident in the university campus setting, even though the bottom line isn’t always so obvious, “The store has several different functions on campus, in addition to generating revenue,” Barnes & Noble College’s Lew Claps points out. “It’s a place of community, a meeting place for faculty, a study hall for students, and a point of gathering for campus events from orientation to homecoming,” he adds. As Manager of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Bookstore, Claps oversees operations at the largest retailer on campus.

Interior of the Penn Bookstore showing emphasizing its school colors.

Interior of the Penn Bookstore adorned in school colors of red and blue.

Established at Penn fifteen years ago, the 55,000 sq. foot store was one of the company’s first superstores and carries upwards of 65,000 different titles. As a rendezvous or refreshment stop, the store also incorporates a 125-seat café that serves coffee, drinks and light snacks.

But Claps says it’s difficult to put a transactional value on the footprint the store enjoys at UPenn. “We’re a business of course, but our value is in our partnership with the university,” he explains. In a demonstration of that commitment, six years ago the store underwent a design transformation from corporate to Penn pride and now, bedecked with blue and red accented walls, even the store’s sign packages have changed to reflect the Penn school colors. “Yes, we’re still Barnes & Noble College,” Claps acknowledges, “but now when you walk in, you feel that you’re in the university’s bookstore.”

What Digital Can’t Provide

Another customer advantage of the store environment is the service experience. “We need to be knowledgeable about the product, but we also train our booksellers to know the needs of the campus community and to help with everything from orientation to ‘where can I get lunch,’” Claps says. That oneness with the university community also extends to the store continuing to be a gathering place for meeting and higher learning. “Part of what makes us interesting and relevant to the campus is a diverse schedule of store events,” Claps points out. With over 100 guest speakers per year, the store successfully introduces a diverse program to the campus ranging from a study in nuclear physics to the latest David Sedaris book signing.

All of these benefits provided by a physical presence bode well for the future of bookstores, as McCabe maintains. “Without bookshops, publishing would have to rethink its model at every level.” Claps agrees. “We might not look the same as the business changes, but we’re certainly going to be around for a long time,” he adds. As evidence, he points to one example of the way the store merchandises incremental business. “You might come into our store for books or logo apparel and on the way out smell our chocolate chip cookies – that’s not an experience you’re going to get online any time soon.”

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