Books Actually: It takes more than just a newspaper ad to get sales!

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We spoke to Kenny Leck, the owner of independent bookstore Books Actually, about how he continues to succeed in a niche market in a small country in an industry supposedly going downhill. The key message he has to share: If you want someone to buy from you, give him or her a reason to do so.

(More practical insight on retail will be shared at the Seamless 2017 conference, happening 19-20 April in Singapore. For information, click here.)

So is retail (specifically physical book retail) actually on its way down?
The answer is yes and no. A lot of people would say book retail – specifically print publishing – is a sunset industry. By the end of this year we’ll have been running for 11 years; we’ve been in the black since our 3rdyear – around 2008.

When the book industry tells you nobody is buying books, it’s not because there aren’t any readers; it’s because they’ve forgotten how to sell the product. They focus on what sells at the moment. Take the release of the recent Harry Potter script – a book not even fully written by JK Rowling: Every bookseller in this country was relying on the sale of this book for rosy results. It’s delusional to focus only on this, on only selling what you think people want when there’s so much else to sell.

You’re supposed to create a product that customers will want badly enough to make them want to buy. My solution is our publishing arm. We started this in our 5th year, and it focuses on local writers. We’ve devoted resources to this, and if my store goes into decline, I can rely on this to sustain us.

The big retailers seem to struggle to create that intangible something that will make people want to buy from them. What does a mass-market apparel retailer like Isetan, for example, do to succeed?

If you want someone to visit you at your place of operation, you need to give him or her a reason to come to you. Let’s take Isetan at Wisma Atria: Why would I want to go there when there’s so much else available on Orchard? There are a few scenarios to consider. In the first scenario, once someone turns up, maybe they never come back again. The second scenario is that someone will go to Isetan and think ‘oh, they actually have a good selection of clothes. It’s not just a dusty old shop’.

A better example is probably Uniqlo: They have so many opportunities for collaborations with artists and celebrities that will attract the younger crowd. The reason an Isetan wouldn’t do it is because it’s risky. Businesses here just don’t have the appetite for taking a risk; you can’t even use the term ‘calculated risk’. Which is silly.

I feel that if you don’t try, you’ll still lose money. I do have to make myself okay with the fact that whatever we launch could be a dud. I resign myself to the learning curve. We recently launched a book vending machine – not a new concept, but it paid off. And now, we’ve climbed most of the learning curve. People did tell me that the concept wouldn’t pay off, but that didn’t matter so much to me: I got lots of marketing mileage from it – Channel News Asia picked it up. From that perspective, so long as I broke even, anything else I earned was just a bonus.

My view is: Why not try something new, if the cost is not going to cripple you? Don’t believe in the fallacy that you can just run an ad in the Straits Times and that it will still help you get sales.

The pressure that seems to get to marketers is how to continue producing growth even when there isn’t the opportunity to do so. The economy isn’t going anywhere – so what do marketers do?

We all have to spend money; it’s just a question of what we spend it on. Every individual is a potential customer – no matter what you’re selling. Now, we’re seen as a niche business, operating in the fictional literature market. The word ‘niche’ implies you only cater to a select group of customers. This works in large markets like India, Thailand etc. Singapore, however, is a country smaller than the city of London. How can you be a niche business in a place like Singapore?

I look at things the other way. Singapore has high literacy levels, and people start reading really young. This means that so long as I’m a good enough salesperson, I can sell 1984 or Of Mice and Men to a 10 year old or an 80 year old. Take our edition of 1984: It’s got a beautifully produced cover, and I’m selling it at just $19.84. Even if you own it already or have read it before, you’ll end up buying it. The point is to make the book interesting for the consumer. From this perspective, so long as you can read English, you’re a potential customer.

Seamless Asia is set to be one of the largest gatherings of retail and eCommerce players in Southeast Asia. For more information about the event, download our brochure here, or go right ahead and register here. Our early-bird pricing, giving you 50% off, applies till the 23rd of December.

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