I spent a great deal of my childhood in Borders, the book shop chain. I was thirteen when the chain went out of business, but it feels like a lot longer ago. Pretty much all that I remember is holding a big stack of fantasy novels and attempting to perch on the edge of the lowest shelf to read the first chapter of one of them.
Perching, however, is an alien concept to my new book home, Waterstones. There are so many comfy armchairs and couches, backed up by an army of plastic cafeteria chairs, that the only time I’ve failed to get a seat was when picking up my mum’s Christmas present this Christmas Eve. I’m not saying sofas are the underlying reason why Waterstones made it back into profit in 2015, but the underlying principle, making the experience of buying a book enjoyable, is an enormous part of it, and why it holds a different place in my memory than Borders.
The managing director of Waterstones, James Daunt, contrasts the experiences of reading e-books and physical books:
“It is a very different experience [reading an ebook]. You don’t remember it as well. I know it’s not just me. You don’t have the physical relationship. You don’t know where you are in a book. It may say 62% but it doesn’t mean the same thing. You can’t remember what it’s called because you haven’t had the cover.” (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/20/waterstones-profit-books-amazon)
The information you can gain from an e-book and a physical book is exactly the same, and usually cheaper for an e-book. However, the physical experience – I would also add that highlighting is much more convenient on a physical book, and that curling up with an LED screen is a lot less cosy, but everyone’s experience is personal – is worth to some people so much more than one or two pounds. You can even see this happen in books that would be free as e-books because they are out of copyright. Penguin Classics, in particular, are really taking advantage of the fact that you see the cover of a physical book way more often than you see the cover of an e-book:
What’s interesting about it being the experience that matters is that you can see this happening in other reviving industries. In November this year, vinyl sales overtook those of digital units (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/06/tables-turned-as-vinyl-records-outsell-digital-in-uk-for-first-time). In 2014, 1.3 million vinyl records were sold, the highest total in twenty years (http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/uk-s-first-official-vinyl-charts-launch-as-vinyl-sales-soar-in-2015__8906/). It’s a similar situation to digital versus physical books. The experience of having the records in their sleeves, the care required in order to keep them good, the warmth felt when you can actually see your music playing. All of these are examples of people being willing to pay more for what they see as a superior experience.
I think you can even see this in attempts to keep the high street alive in general. Human contact is something that is valued in some areas more than others. For example, buying a new phone. I recently went into a shop, bought a phone, went to a café to activate the phone, failed in doing so, then went straight back to the shop to ask what was wrong. It turned out I just didn’t understand the phone, but the people there were able to explain this quickly and without being complicated or condescending. If you buy your phone online, and you don’t really know what you’re doing – which I’m fairly confident isn’t just me – it can be quite intimidating to try and work it out yourself. This isn’t quite the same as the other two because there’s little change in price, but investing the time of going into the shop is often a cost in itself, so the principle stands.
What this makes me wonder is what could be next to sell an experience. My guess is cinemas. Home televisions and sound systems are becoming more and more sophisticated to the point that you’re not really gaining that much quality by going to the cinema, not to mention the wide availability of films on streaming services. So what could cinemas provide? Comfier seats than at home, maybe couches? There could be in-built cafés with people sitting at tables and eating pizza while watching their films.
Whatever it is, the selling of the experience seems to be an intriguing step in the digital vs physical retail conflict.
– Joanne Ferguson