A Clever Product Manager Saves A Bookstore In The Era Of Amazon

: It is possible to both survive and thrive even when you are facing Amazon
: It is possible to both survive and thrive even when you are facing Amazon
Image Credit: darwin.wins

If there is one job that most of us would agree that we would not like to have these days, it’s any job in which we would be going up against Amazon. They have spread into so many different areas that it is becoming harder and harder to avoid competing with them. However, there is one product manager who works at an independent bookstore that has found a way to not only survive, but also to thrive even as they sell to the same customers that Amazon does.

An Independent Bookstore’s Story

It has not always been easy to be a product manager for an independent bookstore. In fact, for the last 10 years the business has been on the edge of collapse. The reason was because the store was under intense pressure from Amazon and big-box chains. Clearly something had to be done. What the product manager did was to add a whole other side to the operation, author events, which proved lucrative and bolstered the storefront operation. And events were focused on the bookstore selections to reflect personal interests—a personal touch that resonates with a lot of customers these days.

What the product manager was tapping into was a sense that the facelessness of e-commerce has stirred in enough people a sense of nostalgia for real stores and buying real products from real people while having conversations. The way that this product manager was able to turn his business around says much about the surprising revival of the independent-bookstore industry, which was pretty much left for dead just a short time ago. In part, these types of stores have been helped by the fall of large chains – who had been their prime nemesis before the advent of Amazon and other online sellers. But independent bookstore product managers have also had to leverage that opportunity to the fullest, and more often than not, that has meant rethinking the whole way they make money.

So how did this product manager do it? The boom in sales at the independent bookstore can be credited to cheaper back-office technology; the use of social media for book promotions; and more favorable distribution terms from publishers. At the same time, customers themselves have also changed. These days more people want to shop local, and they want shops with personality. It turns out that book curation is a critical part of the story for indie booksellers that are not just surviving, but are growing. Customers seem to be willing to pay a higher price for books that have been carefully selected from the mass of options.

The Keys To A Bookstore’s Success

One of the things that the product manager realized was that most successful longtime bookstores have their own distinctive flavor. The product manager has used this understanding to make the selling point of his bookstore speakers and a book selection that generally represent liberal political views, distinctive musical interests, such as protest and folk music, and a fresh take on Southern history. It’s a combination that has delivered rising sales and earnings for most of the past seven years.

For the store the biggest expenses are the cost of goods sold – that is, the books – which eat up half of the sales. Additionally there are salaries for the store’s five full-time employees which take up 25%. Rent, licenses and other expenses account for the rest. The product manager realizes that even though book selling is better than it was a decade ago, it remains a highly unpredictable business

The product manager believes that he is now in a position to charge full cover price, without the old practice of discounting. And that’s a sign of health for the industry. Like many indie bookstores, they have been lucky to see a genuine rebound of interest among people. So now they can sell books for full retail even without having the author signing and visiting, because once again, people are reminding themselves that they really do like real bookstores, and they will pay what it costs to keep the store in business.

What All Of This Means For You

If there is one industry that most of us would like to avoid being a product manager in, I think that we could all agree that it would be the business of selling books. The collective thinking is that Amazon showed up and took that business over years ago. However, it turns out that might not be the case. A product manager at an independent bookstore has found a way to not only make his business survive, but also to thrive.

In order to help his independent bookstore survive, the product manager had to create a new side to the business. It turns out that customers were missing the human contact associated with buying books – something that online sellers can’t provide. Many things came together to make the store a success: technology became cheaper, social media showed up to get the word out, and discounts were provided by the book manufacturers. A key to the store’s success was finding a distinctive flavor for the store. The store’s biggest expenses these days is the cost of books. The product manager can now charge full price for his books because customers want to help to keep the store open.

In order to find a way to help his bookstore stay open, the product manager had to “think outside of the box” and come up with different ways to attract customers. No, Amazon was not going to be going away anytime soon and so it was important that the bookstore find a way to offer their customers something that Amazon could not. The good news is that the product manager was able to come up with the right mix of products that is attracting customers to the bookstore. Now he just has to keep doing it in order to keep the doors open.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What services could a bookstore provide that Amazon cannot?

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