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7 ways ebook apps can help brick-and-mortar bookstores

Book retailers are missing an opportunity to unite the physical and digital worlds.

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“Helping Bookstores Remain Relevant“). It’s republished with permission.

My iPhone is always with me when I’m in the bookstore. Many times I’ve found a book that interests me, I pick it up and browse through it, then pull out my iPhone, open the Kindle app and grab the ebook sample (assuming one exists). I’ve even bought Kindle ebooks on the spot in a bookstore with my iPhone. I feel bad, sort of, but it makes me realize the enormous opportunity brick-and-mortar bookstores are missing out on.

Ereader apps

I should also mention that I have several other bookstore apps on my iPhone including ones from Barnes & Noble and Borders. I’ve never pulled either one of those out while I’m in those stores. Never. Why would I? All my ebooks are in my Kindle library and none of these other e-tailers have given me a compelling reason to switch.

There’s something the physical bookstores could do to stop me from constantly defaulting to the Kindle app: Build functionality into their own mobile apps that makes me want to go to their brick-and-mortar store.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

  1. Use location-based services built into pretty much every smartphone to know when I’m in one of your stores.
  2. When I open your app and you’ve detected I’m in-store, offer me special deals which are only good for the next hour. Make sure all the deals are fully redeemable using only my smartphone app. Don’t email me coupons. Push them into the app so I can just flash my iPhone at the checkout counter and be on my way without fumbling through my email inbox.
  3. If you sell your own reader device, don’t make me bring it to your store for all this. My iPhone is always by my side but I refuse to bring a larger device just to get a deal. All the promotions and redemptions need to happen with nothing more than my smartphone. Plus, I probably don’t even own your device. I’m happy reading my ebooks on an iPad today, I might switch to an Android tablet soon and I don’t want to be locked into your hardware platform tomorrow.
  4. Most importantly, since I’ll soon be using your reader app, not Amazon’s, you’ll know my reading habits…so focus the deals on the things I tend to buy.
  5. Offer specials on ebooks, print books as well as combinations. And don’t forget about all the other things you sell in your store (remember the cafe!). If I’m standing in your store and I just bought the ebook version of the latest Mickey Mantle bestseller, make me an offer on the Major League Baseball preseason guide you sell in the magazine section.
  6. Take a page out of Groupon’s play book. Use your nifty new app to track how many customers with common interests are currently standing in your stores. Push a message like this to all of them: "You’re a history buff but you’ve never bought this great ebook about FDR. If at least 100 of you commit to buying it in the next 10 minutes we’ll give you all a special discount of x%. Stop by the Biography section to browse the book and see why we think it’s perfect for you."
  7. Surprise me! Use this app’s services to make me want to visit your brick-and-mortar store more frequently!

Everything described above should be free to anyone. All they have to do is download your free smartphone app and create an account with you. But don’t stop there. Offer a more exclusive membership program for an annual fee where I’ll get even more deals than non-members receive. How about giving paying members access to lengthier ebook samples? I’d love that!

Finally, ask all customers to opt in to an anonymous data collection program so that you can analyze the results of all these terrific campaigns and use that data to create even better ones tomorrow. And don’t forget you could also sell that information to publishers.

If you do all this I promise I’ll start using your apps and I guarantee you’ll see more purchases from me.


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Comments: 11

  1. Strangely enough, my friends and I had this same discussion a little while back. We had two ideas that I think should be added to the list.

    The first goes right along with what you were saying, but it should add cover and/or ISBN barcode scanning to purchase (or get samples). I love browsing shelves in the bookstore, flipping through books, and reading cover blurbs, but I probably buy 3/4 of my fiction and tech books now in eBook format. If I find a fiction paperback in the brick-and-mortar store, I should be able to snap a picture of it (or its barcode) and purchase it in-store and the book store should be able to give me an in-store discount and they should get a cut of the price.

    The second is that independent brick-and-mortar bookstores (the dwindling few) should be able to make deals with Amazon to do exactly the same thing and get an Amazon marketplace cut for the purchase. Note that this would work for ebook purchases as well as hard copies shipped to your home.

    I think many brick-and-mortar stores, not just bookstores, are becoming just a place where you can see, browse, and handle physical merchandise before you buy it (cheaper) online. Independent booksellers might be able to afford to stock more titles if they only had to worry about keeping one (or a few for popular titles) on the shelves as “testers” or “sample copies”. Without onerous price fixing, I don’t see how independent bookstores can ever again compete, price-wise, with mega-chain bookstores, much less with Amazon and the like.

  2. Chris, you make an excellent point about the option to take a picture of a book in a physical bookstore and quickly purchase the e-version. I’m a sampler-first guy, so I rarely buy an ebook before I read the free sample. That’s why I wrote this post awhile back on the need for 1-click ebook sampling. It’s yet another great feature the brick-and-mortar stores should implement in their mobile apps.

  3. Actually, Barnes & Nobles does exactly this – but for their Nook device. I get regular specials from their Cafe by taking my Nook into the store, and I can read any ebook or magazine for free while in-store. There are also exclusive offers and deals via my Nook while I’m in a store with it.

    What they need to do is extend similar functionality to their apps for mobile devices – but the idea is already there.

  4. Eric, I see your point but also note item #3 in my list. I don’t want to have to take my e-reader into the store to access all this. My phone is different since it’s always with me. I don’t own a Nook but since it wouldn’t fit in my pocket I’d hate to have to carry it with me to the store.

    I agree with you that they’re on the right path though. They just need to take the next steps and implement all this on their various smartphone apps.

  5. Our local bookstore has a deal with Google Books. You can purchase Google books through their website and they get some of the profit. In another nod to the future, they have a machine in the bookstore that prints books on demand.

    The owners of this bookstore see the writing on the wall. They know people are reading more books online than before, but they also know that people in our town are passionate about their bookstores. I applaud them for trying to work with the concept of eBooks rather than just trying to pretend they don’t exist. My wife and I still buy real books (used and new) but we also buy eBooks. It depends on what it is. From now on we will support our local bookstore by going through them to buy eBooks.

  6. you could just talk to a human. it’s still the best form of communication and makes your apps look silly. most of the books in my store are cheaper than ebooks. sure, taking a book off the shelf and walking to the register is a lot of work and not as cool as downloading a book. I don’t offer apps. who needs an app when you could just read a book. the technology is 500 years old, but it still works. the printed book will survive a fall, how about a kindle or iphone? a printed book can be sold when you are finished with it, ever sell an ebook? I’ll sell ebooks if that’s what customers want, but what is the value in all these apps. a bunch of gee wiz neato moments.

  7. And how about getting a discount on the print version if you’ve already bought the ebook? It would be great for those times I want to give a book I’ve loved as a gift.

  8. Some neat ideas, but brick and mortar stores will NEVER be able to compete on price with online bookstores selling either traditional books or ebooks. Chain stores like those already mentioned have higher costs, particularly their multi-million dollar leases.
    The short term success of brick and mortar stores lies in offering an exceptional customer experience to convert potential customers and to get customers coming back. I accept that many of the people commenting here would probably either prefer to be left alone entirely, or are well enough informed that a bookseller on $11 an hour probably knows less than they do in specialist areas, but that is not true of most bookstore customers.
    In the long-term, it is harder to say. There are probably parallels with the music industry. Bookstores will struggle in the face of digital downloads and writers (like artists) may become more responsible for the publishing and distribution of their work.

  9. I compete on price with amazon and the chains by selling used books. all of retail is more than just price in my mind. this race to the bottom mentality will get us nowhere.

  10. As a bookshop owner (tiny cool bookshop in Denver), our sales have dropped off precipitously since Christmas and the tipping point of ebooks (and this is also true for other indie bookshop owners that I know).

    So how can the little independent shops compete with Amazon and people’s buying habits? Thanks to the American Bookseller’s Association (they support indie bookshops), our tiny shop now offers over 2.6 million paper books and however many Google ebooks from our website (Google claims over 3,000,000). You can order right from the website and checkout and do all those nifty things.

    The problem (er, opportunity for improvement) is getting people to stop and think about their buying habits (and, of course, getting them to change their habits). Joe, you said yourself that you’ll go to the bookstore and then buy from Amazon, and it sounds like you do that primarily for the convenience/ease of it. That’s one of the struggles. We (and probably an indie bookshop right near you) offer just as many new paper books as Amazon (and maybe even more ebooks, thanks to Google), but being small, we don’t yet offer the slick search and browse features of any of the big boys and girls. Will people be willing to have to “work” a little harder to support a local indie bookshop by spending a few more minutes on their website? If we use you, Joe, as an example, then it doesn’t seem like it as we also can’t provide a slick phone app.

    You (and a lot of other people) are willing to send ALL of your money out of your community. ZERO money remains to help your friends and neighbors survive during these times when you buy from Amazon. Zero. By spending at a local indie shop, up to 68% of your money stays in your community. But do the majority of people care about that? It doesn’t seem like it, or perhaps they just never thought about it.

    We might have to close in a couple of months (we can make it through July with a little luck). We’re trying to get the word out about buying online from us (shop local, shop indie … online! We’re still working on the tagline). So we’re hoping that offering ebooks will save us. But you tell me, can we get people to notice if their local indie bookstore offers books from their website? Can we get people to at least check to see? Hey, you, reading this right now, look up your local indie bookshop and find out. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

    And can we get people to spend just a couple of extra minutes getting a book from us instead of Amazon? What do you think?

    The Bookery Nook in Denver

  11. Gary, I totally get your point. I visited your website and noticed you sell ebooks as well. How much are you promoting that to customers in your physical store? I’d recommend placing a sign at the front of the store with your url and a QR code (to encourage customers to visit your website on their smartphones while they’re walking through your store). You should use that sign to remind customers that you’re more than a print book retailer.

    I don’t see any brick-and-mortar store doing this. If they did, and they offered some compelling deals, I guarantee you it would affect my browsing and buying habits.