The pandemic has pushed bookshops to go digital, and as customers read more at home, the stores are slowly reviving
Bookstores are selling ‘book hugs’ online—buy a book for a friend, which is sent via courier or post, with a handwritten message
Since April, Mirza Zubair Baig has been upskilling himself and his staff at the Midland Book Shop. The nationwide lockdown resulting from the covid-19 pandemic, starting March, had severely affected his 47-year-old family business in Delhi, pushing him to think of innovative ways to keep his independent bookstore running. So they learnt how to fully digitize the bookstore and how to market it on social media.
The pivot that’s still in the works is already showing results. From having a minimal digital presence six months ago, the bookstore is now clocking nearly 70% of its sales from Instagram and WhatsApp. To ensure end-to-end service, Baig has tied up with FedEx and Delhivery. “Our website will go live within two months. We had to catalogue 500,000 titles, which took time. We are also about to start a book club," says Baig, 27.
Among retail businesses, bookstores, especially smaller independent ones that were already struggling with declining footfalls and competition from e-commerce sites, have been facing a harder time as they navigate the reopening of the economy and recover from the impact of the virus. Many indie bookstores, which once used to serve as cultural outposts and places for chit-chat, are now seen by customers as a health hazard because the aisles are usually narrow. The owners realize this and are looking at different ways to reach loyal and new customers.
Like Midland, most are working on upgrading their existing websites. Bengaluru’s Bookworm is in the process of giving a digital makeover to its catalogue and expects to launch its website by November. “Browsing books at a bookstore is a wonderful experience, and we are trying to create a similar experience online," says owner Krishna Gowda. Being active on WhatsApp and Twitter has not only brought him new but also younger customers from Bengaluru and beyond. He has partnered with Dunzo to deliver the books within an hour or two in the city. “We are doing our best to meet our customers’ requirements," says Gowda, whose has been able to break even in revenue since last month.
Besides taking to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp to create a buzz around books, some bookstore owners are driving sales through subscriptions, e-books and interesting pricing strategies.
Champaca, a bookstore, library and café that re-opened its physical space to visitors in Bengaluru a month ago, saw a slight improvement in sales from June after it launched its website and increased its presence on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Since the bookstore prides itself on curating books according to the customer’s reading preferences, it has started a subscription programme, ranging from three months to a year, where people can receive a package of fiction, poetry or short-story books. “We also started gift vouchers in April. It offered 10% discount that could be redeemed in the coming months. Our customers have been very supportive over these months and that has helped us pay salaries to our staff," says owner Radhika Timbadia about her 10-month-old bookstore. She admits the present times have been “very stressful". “I don’t know what the future holds for us as there is no support for independent bookstores."
Since the pandemic, Champaca has noticed a more diverse customer base than before. Timbadia says their cookbook sales were quite high, along with fiction, which wasn’t the case before the pandemic.
Midland’s Baig has also noticed a change in people’s reading habits. “Even the reading habits of our regular customers has changed. People are exploring books from all kinds of genres, which is good. I personally like self-help books, and I am now actively reading fiction," says Baig.
Besides ordering books for themselves, customers have been sending them to friends and relatives. Around 35% of Mumbai’s bookstore-library Trilogy’s customers are placing orders for their close ones in Mumbai and other cities.
“We’ve received a lot of support from our regular patrons. Some are sending books to their friends whom they haven’t met in months, what’s called ‘book hugs’, which are basically, books selected for a person, sent off via courier or post, with a handwritten message," says Meethil Momaya, who founded the store with his partner Ahalya. Trilogy has seen a 20% rise in customers requesting delivery of books and even colouring books to their friends and relatives.
Along with staying in touch with customers during the lockdown, Momaya went a step further and connected with other indie booksellers to discuss how they could support each other. From this emerged Independent Bookshops Association of India in June, which has six other owners from across the country as members.
Perhaps the most experimental of the lot is Kerala’s DC Books. The independent publisher, which has a chain of bookstores, increased its online promotion team to 10 people from four. When the lockdown was announced, it started promoting its ebooks at cheap prices. They offered combo packs of popular literary heavyweights. The books that were not on offer were put on 50% sale. These strategies bore dividends. They saw 75,000 people downloading their app in March and April for ebooks.
“Pre-covid, our ebooks numbers were pretty low. Now, even our online print sales have increased by nearly 400%," says Ravi Deecee, managing partner at DC Books. To fulfil printed book orders, DC Books has tied up with Swiggy and Zomato, besides Amazon and Flipkart. “We had no clue what would work, so we were experimenting and doing all kinds of things. We haven’t revived to pre-covid days, revenues have only touched 50% of what it was. The reading habit, however, has surely revived and that’s a good thing," says Deecee.
The pandemic might have brought back the joy of reading a physical book but it’s the joy of interacting with customers that owners miss. Timbadia says, “The best part of this business was connecting with people. We would have so much conversation and learn from customers. I miss that and am struggling to make it happen online."
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