Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Indie Brand Paradox

The general indie bookstore publicity strategy in our competition with Amazon is pretty straight forward. When you shop at an indie bookstore you get the kind of service only a person can provide; conversation, camaraderie, and community. Handshakes. Dog treats. Safe place for the kiddos. Air conditioning in the summer. A free flip through The New Yorker and/or US Weekly. Like the olde timey general stores, not only do you get the opportunity to buy something you want/need, you also get the opportunity to be a person with other people. (Indie bookstores were also leaders in the Buy Local movement, but that's a different kind of argument.) And for the most part, I think this strategy is, when backed up by smart management, excellent buying, and a knowledgeable and personable staff, pretty successful. The stores that survived the Borders/B&N/Amazon purges add enough value to their books, that customers are willing to pay up to 50% (or more) more for them.

I assure you, that door is not a time machine.

But this strategy has a strange side effect. In many customers' minds the ideas of “community,” “personal service,” and “conversation” are associated with “old fashioned,” while online shopping is associated with “modern,” and, quite often, also “convenience.” The result is that, even though it is 2013 everywhere, customers assume we are unable to provide a lot of services we have been able to provide, roughly as long as there have been bookstores, or as long as bookstores have had computers. My two “favorite” expressions of this assumption are, “Are you able to see if you have a book?” and “Are you able to order books?” They're followed quickly by “Can I order books online from you?” and “Do you sell ebooks?”

A more public example is when Ron Charles, excellent critic and solid indie supporter, said this on his blog “By pre-selling these big-name novels, Amazon removes even the possibility that you might see and buy a copy in your local bookstore in October...Brick-and-mortar bookstores could offer the same advance sales, of course. But how many of them do?” The answer is: nearly all of them. What most of us don't do (and what PSB just started doing) is publicize this capacity. So, even though indie bookstores have pretty much always been able to take pre-orders in some capacity, and have been able to take online pre-orders as long as they have had ecommerce websites, because of the indie brand, customers either flat out assume we can't or don't even think about it as an option.

It was weird. I asked them & they got it for me.

What is strange about these questions and assumptions is that we have computers and people can see them. We have had computers as long as everybody else. Sure, ebooks are newish (2+ years at this point) but we have had the capacity to sell books through our website since we opened almost nine years ago. And bookstores have been able to order books for customers, roughly as long as there have been bookstores, long before there was even an internet, let alone an Amazon. To add a nice extra level of frustration to this whole issue, sometimes we can be even more convenient than Amazon. Sometimes, you can order a book from our website on you lunch break, and pick it up from the store on your way home. I can't guarantee that every book you think of on your lunch break will be ready for by the time the T drops you off by our store, but probably a lot more than you would think.

So what is the source of this dissonance? Why do customers assume that they must sacrifice the conveniences of technology for personal service and community values? My best guess is that, in general, our brains like big, simple concepts and it takes real effort to break those big concepts down into their complicated, nuanced constituent parts. Think about why first impressions are so important. When you meet someone for the first time, you create a big, simple concept about them, something easy to apply in future situations. Not accurate, but applicable. And it takes real work to break through a negative first impression. Often, no matter what else you learn, you just can't shake it.

They said the word I fear most: Yes.
Advertisers have been using this tendency to form and apply big simple concepts to their advantage as long as there have been advertisers. So, rather than, say, spending the time and money it takes to make good tasting beer at a fair price, Budweiser spends the time and money to hammer our brains with ads to create a big concept association in our minds between its horrible, horrible beer, and “fun” or “taste.” Once that big concept is formed, once someone understands Bud Lite as “what I drink when I'm out or at a party,” it is very difficult to break down that big concept. In a similar vein, all the early (and continuing) advertising for online retail options, hammered home the idea that online shopping is convenient (which it is), so people created a big concept “online shopping is convenient.” Simple. Direct. Easy to apply.

When indie bookstores and their allies began to mount a coordinated self-defense effort, they focused, obviously, on what distinguished them and so created the big concept “Indie bookstores provide community,” as their way to do it. And, for the most part, it worked. But because it didn't include convenience and because it was created in opposition to the big concept of convenience, people assumed that community did not include convenience. Furthermore, an idea lost between these two big concepts is “just a little less convenient.” For example, if you stop by the store, call in, or go online on Monday morning and we don't have the book for you, there's a pretty good chance we could get it to the store by roughly Tuesday afternoon. Just slightly less convenient than “definitely Tuesday morning,” but still, pretty goddamn convenient. Sure, sometimes that Monday morning ordered book won't get to the store until Thursday afternoon, but is that really so bad. And the store doesn't get deliveries on weekends, but is a Thursday to Tuesday wait really “inconvenient?” Less convenient, sure, but a truly negative experience? And when you add all the other positives about shopping at an indie bookstore, including the general economic good you do for your community and everything that we already celebrate about indie bookstores, how bad does that wait actually feel? Of course, this really isn't about how we think when we sit down to think, but about the shortcuts our brains and cultures have evolved to streamline decision making. For soulless, myopic corporations, these shortcuts are an advantage, because they can spend a billions of dollars exploiting them, but for small businesses with little money and nuanced arguments, often the best you can hope for is a brand paradox with a preponderance of positives. At least Indie bookstores have that. (And computers for god's sake!)


  1. The store I usually go to focuses so much on small presses, plus some midlist and backlist stuff that you'd never find 2/3 of a given week's NYT bestsellers. Sometimes I'm afraid that the hipster behind the counter might laugh if I ask them to order some genre fiction or something like that for me. I don't resort to Amazon, but I do end up just getting it from the library.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jimmie. One of the other strategies some indie bookstores used to compete against Amazon is to essentially become boutiques. They carry a relatively small selection of books, but each one of them is essentially specifically vouched for by the store. They also try to find out of the way stuff that Amazon doesn't have. That said, the hipster behind the counter is probably more amiable to ordering NYT bestsellers than you might assume. The store's focus might be one weird small & indie presses, but I'm sure they'd be happy to sell you anything you might want to buy. And if the hipster behind the counter is the kind of person to snicker about a customer's reading choices, fuck that guy, read what you want anyway. Thanks again. --Josh