040: Undaunted

Uncommon Sense: the This is True Podcast show

Summary: In This Episode: Can anything be done to stem the decline in bookstores from Amazon’s relentless domination? Yes: Uncommon Sense is already reversing the trend, and in a surprising way.<br> <br> <a class="twitter-share-button" href="https://twitter.com/share?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">Tweet</a><br> <a href="#transcript">Jump to Transcript</a><br> <a href="https://thisistrue.com/category/podcasts/">How to Subscribe and List of All Episodes</a><br> Show Notes<br> <br> * See the chart recording <a href="https://www.statista.com/statistics/249027/number-of-bookstores-in-the-us/">the decline of U.S. bookstores</a> since 2004.<br> * There’s a photo of James Daunt in the transcript.<br> <br> <a name="transcript"></a><br> Transcript<br> The number of bookstores in the United States has fallen dramatically in recent years. In 2004, there were 38,539 brick and mortar stores, both independent and chain stores. Every year since then there have been fewer; in 2018 the number was down to 22,586, more than a 40 percent drop. Frankly, I was surprised the decrease wasn’t more. But Uncommon Sense may reverse the trend, and in a surprising way.<br> Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.<br> When such statistics about the U.S. book market are quoted, most point fingers at Amazon, and not without reason. Amazon originally started as an online bookstore, going online in July 1994 — just a few weeks after This is True. By early 2014, they sold 41 percent of all new books. In 2014, there were 26,238 bookstores in the U.S., but one of them made more than 40 percent of the sales. It’s still growing: today it’s 50 percent. That’s staggering. Unlike most bookstores, Amazon has systems in place that allow them to take an order for a book, print it instantly, and ship it overnight, just like they had it in stock. That’s an incredible advantage.<br> In the face of that, Barnes and Noble, the biggest bookstore chain in the U.S., has been struggling, its sales declining year over year, and their stock price following suit, losing $5 billion in value over the past five years. In 1997 they had over a thousand stores; only 627 Barnes and Noble stores are still open. A report I saw last year noted that their sales had dropped in 20 of the previous 23 quarters, and they were losing more than $5 million per month. Their share had dropped to just 8 percent of U.S. book sales.<br> The situation was much the same in England. Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain, was seeing a massive slump in sales.<br> But wait: this podcast is called Uncommon Sense! Where is it in this case?<br> In 2011, Waterstones hired a guy named James Daunt to turn things around. Within just four years, he took them from facing bankruptcy (if things kept sliding) back to profitability, even as Amazon was ramping up book sales in the U.K.: Amazon now sells 40 percent of the books sold in Britain. But Waterstones? Not 8 percent like Barnes and Noble in the U.S., but 25 percent of all books sold in Britain.<br> How did Daunt fight back against the Amazon juggernaut? He paid attention to the details in the pursuit of one overriding goal: serving the customers — the people who buy books!<br> For a tiny example, the chain had hired a showroom designer to help Waterstones’ 289 stores show their merchandise better. The designer specified that for ideal visibility, the bookshelves that show the front of the books should be tilted back by four degrees. But Daunt had also studied the issue, and disagreed: he said they should tilt back by three degrees.<br>