It’s a new world — or so you might have heard from travel agents, used car lots or chocolatiers who’ve seen their business boom on the Internet. But how do you get in on the act?
Maybe you have a cult following or you’re a genre specialist. Maybe you’re hoping to cater to that very 21st century beast — the time poor professional who can no more visit a bookstore during trading hours than they can walk on water. Can you succeed selling books online?
Look at your business — everything from your customers and the kind you’d like to have to your place in the market — and when you next ask yourself ‘should I sell books online?’ the answer will be clear.
It’s a question Sydney’s Abbey’s Bookshop had to ask themselves after their customers asked it for them. ‘A lot of it was customer pressure,’ says Jack Winning, co-owner of Abbey’s. ‘We’d get a couple of people a day asking what our web address was. It’s like being asked if you take credit cards — if you don’t, customers are going to go somewhere else because you’re not providing a total service. We just thought it was something we had to do whether we made money out of it or not.’
Winning’s claim is supported by the figures; all respondents to this story said their online was only five or six percent of their total business. The bottom line is that it won’t make you rich, but do you want your customers going to your competition looking for services you don’t provide?
Of course, if customers find shopping with you a good experience they might stick to you like glue no matter what the competition. Some of Abbey’s online orders still bemuse Jack Winning, as he explains when I ask why his customers don’t just go to Amazon. ‘We get a lot of repeat business from all over the world,’ he says, ‘and they could buy cheaper in their own country — sometimes I wonder if they even know they’re coming to an Australian site.’
The Most Important Person
Of course, a customer who walks through your door will browse. You can entice them into buying something they might not have come in to get. The tactile experience of picking a book up to read the back cover or leaf through it can never be replicated online.
But online shopping is perfectly suited to people that ebooks.com director Stephen Cole describes as follows; ‘Every transaction we have happens because they need it now, they can’t get out of their house, it’s out of print, it’s going to take two weeks, they need it yesterday, etc.’
Shopping for books online is particularly useful for students or academics who don’t need to relax and lovingly caress pages, but who need raw information in their hands as quickly and with as little hassle as possible.
And whether you like the idea or not, online shopping in Australia is here to stay. In the last Australian Census almost five years ago, it was revealed that the number of people who’d shopped online was 1.3 million, up 66% from the year before. It’s undoubtedly far beyond that now.
The Tide of Change
Even if you don’t have an online bookstore, the Internet has already changed your business — more so if you’re in a niche. Paul Feain runs Cornstalk books in Sydney, and sells via his online store (which operates through the portal of an affiliate service), and occasionally using services such as eBay.
‘Second hand books are especially well suited to the Internet,’ he says, ‘but prices have dropped substantially since the advent of Internet marketing and many are so cheap the bookseller can’t make a profit. The people who sell books online as tax-free sidelines have driven prices down.
‘It will cause major shake outs in the industry — big operators will continue to thrive but the small and medium operators will be driven out by non-professional part timers.’
There are as many ways to sell books online as there are ways to buy books — from a highly technical and professionally designed custom solution to one of several affiliate programs (see sidebar Affiliates).
Obviously, you need a website. Many people are put off at this early point, thinking ‘I can barely turn a computer on, how can I run a website?’
Firstly, don’t assume you have to know all about the Internet. Think of an online order as a phone call or written letter; you don’t have to know anything about telephone exchanges or postcode scanning software. Most small online shopping systems pass orders on to their proprietors in simple email form, so the net result won’t be a technological mystery.
If you go the whole hog by contracting a web developer who will design and program your online shop from the ground up, make them explain it you in plain English, and be aware of every upfront and ongoing cost. If you approach reputable companies you shouldn’t have much trouble, and the more effort you put in at the outset to get it right, the smoother your online bookstore will run.
Alternately, there are plenty of web-based services who’ve already done the work for you — to varying degrees of complexity. You can join a buying group who build your store its own page under their ‘banner’ so as not to — as one bookstore owner termed it — ‘reinvent the wheel’. If you deal in secondhand or rare books — online auction sites like eBay might be for you.
Best Foot Forward
If you do decide to build an online bookstore that’s uniquely your own, look at your market and your competitors. What have they done that you like or don’t like? What sort of buyers do you attract, or hope to attract more of?
Start with a whole plan for how you want your website to affect your business, not just a drawing of a web page. Then, take your whole vision to some web design companies and ask for quotes. Be honest about how much you know — if they can explain how things will work and not scare you off with geeky terminology, that’s a good indication of how they’ll work.
Talk to more than one company too — you’ll be amazed in the differences you can pay for what seems to be the same thing (different companies use technologies that cost different amounts of money).
Cost wise, expect to invest at least a few thousand dollars initially for a full service online store, plus a monthly outlay for website hosting, maintenance or programming updates.
A Crucial Component?
While in the current Australian market you’re unlikely to pose serious competition to Amazon.com, many people nowadays expect retailers to offer their good for sale on the Internet, or at the very least have an online enquiry method. Don’t get left behind, but doing your homework first to make sure you go in the right direction.
There are literally thousands of web designers in Australia, so start your search by checking a directory like Web Designers Australia.
However, one word of advice is not to overlook the bigger, older or more established web companies. In a field where they rise up and fade away faster than the latest gossip mag celebrity, you can be reasonably assured that they have solid business practices that work.
A new trend among web designers to try and capture the market for smaller scale, easy to update website has been the launch of many services where part of your setup cost is the ability to use a simple web page interface to update your site, change images or text, even the whole site design.
Services such as Weblaunch are making inroads into the web design area and catering to small to medium enterprises (SMEs) like bookshops who don’t have tens of thousands to spend.
Consider where you’ll get your assets from — the material you’ll need to update your website with new titles etc.
You may only need to add two new books a week, but be aware of everything you’ll have to do for them; online bookshop customers expect to see a picture of the cover and read the blurb. Some of your competitors already offer the opening chapter as a download, and the latest search technology allows online shoppers to search the text inside every book in a merchant’s catalogue.
That means a lot of typing and a lot of room for error, not to mention scanning and resizing the cover image to the exact specifications of your site.
You might be confident doing it all, but if not, help is at hand. Services like UK based Bookfind Online aren’t cheap, but if you’re constantly updating your stock online, you couldn’t live without them.
In return for your membership fee, you need only to provide your ISBNs to BookFind Online and they send all the asset files (including the cover image, local RRP and all relevant text) straight to you for upload.
It’s possible to make arrangements with publishers to do the same thing — they hold all the electronic material you’ll need — but dealing with the 30 or more publishers that operate in Australia could get time consuming.
Buying groups aren’t a new idea in retailing, but the model is perfect for online bookstores who can’t or don’t want to invest time or money in their own web presence and online shopping technology.
In return for membership fees, a single web portal will promote you or your stock much like a retail franchise.
Some — such as Abe Books are run in the US but your customers can localise their search down to your area. There are several Australian run ones to choose from, such as the Leading Edge Group. Using the Seek bookstore engine, Leading Edge can build you a website that operates through the Seek Books portal, but on which you can still have your own branding identity and stock.
The jury is still out on one of the oldest arguments in the Internet world — how do you promote a website; online or offline (ie the print media).
The answer will be particular to your business. If your clientele are generally older and read the daily papers, don’t try to reach them through the Internet itself. If they’re professional and tech savvy, factor that into your plan from the beginning, and ask your web developer how to get excellent results in search engines.