Pro/Con: Longevity of chain bookstores

Jan. 31, 2012, 2:01 p.m. | By Melissa Haniff, Sarah Harper | 12 years, 4 months ago

Are online retailers the better alternative to local bookstores?

Bookstores have always been a staple in the life of the avid reader. But with the enduring success and growth in online retail, it's clear that readers are moving towards digital texts. As e-books and websites such as Amazon become more popular and book stores like Barnes and Noble move towards the web alternatives, location bookstores have begun dying out. But is online retailing really a better option as opposed to in-store shopping?

Sarah says YES: Compared to location bookstores, online retailers are easier to access, better stocked and make more economic sense.

Even in its infancy, online retailing is changing the face of the publishing industry. This past year, Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest bookstore chain, announced plans to consolidate its 717 stores and pursue the digital market. And just this year, Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain, declared bankruptcy.

Barnes and Noble has shifted its focus to online retailing in the past year, closing many of its in-store locations, including some in D.C. Photo courtesy of

The rising demand for e-books has diminished the middleman role of local retailers. E-books, which are available for quick and convenient download onto Kindles, Nooks, iPads or similar devices, are a death knell for the paperback industry and, by extension, location bookstores. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) determined that e-book sales have increased by 164 percent in 2011, which translates to a $441 million profit. USA Today reported that Amazon holds about 23 percent of the book market, six points ahead of Barnes and Noble and fifteen points ahead of Borders, and that e-books account for almost twenty percent of those sales.

The product evolution toward a "better, faster and cheaper" experience is easy to spot in any industry, least of all the publishing industry. Like the P.C. to the Mac, the chain bookstore is the costly and outdated cousin to the online book market. It is a relic of a past generation. Hardcover copies and paperbacks are expensive for publishing houses to print and expensive for retailers to buy in bulk. To the frustration of customers, titles sell at unreasonably high prices and frequently go out of stock.

Online bookstores don't have this problem. Any book is available from any source at any time, and even with shipping, buying a book online is much more affordable than buying the same copy from a local retailer. Though the "coffeehouse atmosphere" inside a Barnes and Noble store is impossible to replicate, the social experience of reading and sharing a book isn't. Online customers can still interact, post feedback on products and suggest favorite items to others. Moreover, those who order e-books only have to wait a moment to receive the full text.

Thus, keeping the "better, faster, cheaper" mantra in mind, it's almost a certainty that local bookstores will disappear within a decade, replaced by their digital counterparts.

Melissa says NO: Compared to online retailers, location bookstores give customers a warm atmosphere, help them access customer service and cut down on expenses that incur from online shopping.

An employee at checks packages during the holiday rush. This past December, Amazon said it sold "well over 1 million" Kindle products each week. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Online retailing has picked up drastically in the past year, forcing many location bookstores to shut their doors forever. The closing of many bookstores comes a steep price. As companies such as Barnes and Noble shift their focus to digitizing the future of books, many consumers will lose the personal features that were originally a part of purchasing books in-store.

Location bookstores are famous for their cozy and inviting atmospheres. As time has gone on, many bookstores have added small coffee shops to their stores to provide eager readers with the opportunity to peruse the novels of their choice while sipping a warm beverage. From the smell of new books to the ability to interact with other customers who enjoy the same novels, bookstores have always been a part of our environment and are seen as neighborhood fixtures. The creation of a friendly atmosphere at bookstores is one of the reasons that location stores have been so successful over the years. Online retailing simply cannot compete with the social atmosphere that bookstores create. Although it is true that online websites such as Amazon allow readers to post feedback about certain books and interact with other shoppers, the intimacy of in-store shopping is sorely missing.

Atmosphere is not the only personal touch that location bookstores offer. Customer service is more accessible for those who shop in-store. While online retailing is mostly tailored to specific needs and only has reviews from customers who have previously purchased a product, customer service in location bookstores gives shoppers an idea of the range of available options and provides assistance in the selection process. Although it may seem that previous customers' online reviews are similar to in-store customer service, there is a stark difference. Employees at location bookstores are much more able to assist someone in choosing a novel because of the experience and training that they have; working with the books is what they do. Moreover, bookstores compensate for rising prices with discounts and used book exchanges. The e-book, though more convenient, is less cost-effective for the consumer in the long term.

To put it simply, the newest fad in technology is the e-book. Whether it is the Kindle, the Nook or even iBooks on Apple products such as the iPad, many readers have become captivated with their quick downloading abilities. However, the costs of such technology may outweigh the benefits in the long run. Starting at $79 and running up to $379, Amazon's Kindle is the most popular e-book device available. Books can be downloaded for a seemingly small fee of $3.99 and are immediately obtainable for the reader to indulge in. But there is an obvious problem with the popularity of the Kindle that is often overlooked. The price of the Kindle itself is quite expensive; although it is a one-time fee, many consumers looking for access to books may not be willing to spend $79 or more to purchase such a device. With the disappearance of bookstores, shoppers who depend on store discounts and purchasing used books in-store will also no longer have access to what they need.

The local bookstore offers consumers access to atmosphere, service and cheaper products - something that online retailing is lacking. As tempting as new technology may be to the avid reader, there is nothing in the world like the feeling of turning a page between your fingers or shutting a book after an amazing ending.

Tags: Amazon Apple Barnes and Noble bookstores Borders Ipad Kindle

Melissa Haniff. Melissa loves music, One Tree Hill, traveling and experiencing new cultures. She is also a diehard Patriots, Red Wings, Pistons and University of Michigan fan...Go Blue! More »

Sarah Harper. Sarah Harper loves blackberry pie, beach trips and Pushing Daisies. More »

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