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Is It Time for Bookstores to Pivot?

In the parlance of start-up culture, a pivot is that moment when a business changes or dies. All businesses begin with very little idea of what their customers will want, what they will truly value, or at least value enough to offset the costs of doing business. They begin with abstract ideas, guesses, anecdotal information, you name it. As the business matures, it doesn’t have to guess, it has data. If a pivot is necessary, it’s based on a shrew understanding of this data.

Recent announcements from Amazon and the American Bookseller Association, as well some conversations I’ve had with some bookstore owners have me wondering if it isn’t time for bookstores to pivot–not another band-aid or readjustment, a real change in direction. One of the few fundamental strategic advantages that booksellers have is that if you’re looking for a book and they have it in stock you can get what you want right away. Instant gratification. Amazon’s long-anticipated announcement (reported by Slate) that the’re going to open regional distribution centers and offer same-day delivery service in major metropolitan areas diminishes this advantage to near zero. This, along with Amazon’s testing of drop-boxes at 7-Elevens in Seatle, makes it clear that Amazon is focusing closely on what their customers want while at the same time attacking whatever strategic advantage its competitors still have.

The other announcement that struck me as relevant was American Bookseller Association CEO Oren Teicher’s promise that the ABA would be offering members an eBook fulfillment solution by the end of the year. There’s some rumor of a new eBook reader device or a partnership with Kobo, but in any case it seems certain that any solution will require eBook customers to open an new account on a new platform. Considering just how much of the market is already captured by Kindle and Nook, this seems to be an inherently modest proposal.

All this got me thinking seriously about whether bookstores are viable, not as individual bookstores, per se, but as a business model. With a mature business like bookselling, an MBA-minded person would suggest a SWOT analysis, that is an impartial analysis of the business model’s strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats–that’s something I might try my hand at in a future post.

I have the great good fortune to be able to attend the Kepler 2020 Project later on in the month–an attempt to really dive deep into the question “What is the future of the community bookstore?” I don’t know if anything truly substantive or constructive will come from this inquiry. What I do know is that this is exactly the right question  We’ll see. All I can say at this point is the clock is ticking.


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