Google-ability key to the High Street experience

Keep calm and carry on

The arguments about ebooks versus printed books, the disappearance of the High Street book shop because of the practices of supermarkets, Amazon and other online retailers, more people self-publishing, and the rise of showrooming (and webrooming) are unlikely to stop any time soon.

And let’s face it, sales of digital books and how people purchase them continue a path of disruptive change that clearly is a trend, reconstructing the books ecosystem right before our eyes.

Let’s add second-hand bookshops to the conversation, which are very much a part of that ecosystem. Their very future is also under threat “because of the internet,” according to Matthew Haley, the head of books, maps and manuscripts at Bonhams, the auctioneers.

Speaking at the 2013 Hay Festival that takes place this week (last day today), Haley said that a generation brought up on ebooks happily browses the internet but has little interest in browsing the dusty pages of the past, The Huffington Post reports.

[…] “Secondhand bookshops are closing at a frightening speed,” [he] told an audience, which had earlier groaned when he admitted owning a Kindle.

“I fear that we are going to see an end to the serendipity of browsing along a shelf and finding a book that we want, but did not know that we wanted, until we found it.”

However, Haley believes that the overall digital picture has not been all bad.

[…] Google books had transformed the amount of information available to anyone about any given book at the click of a mouse.

Better knowledge of the availability of rare books has given everyone a better idea of what a work is worth, he added.

Googling inscriptions often inside the covers of rare books can reveal a mountain of detail about a book’s previous owner, he said.

“You can find a huge amount of information about a book’s previous owner and we can learn so much that we would never have known before.”

He added: “A book is about the most Google-able thing you can have.

I think he’s right about that serendipity (and Google-abilty) he speaks of, certainly in the traditional sense of physically being in a bookshop.

Perhaps the most perceptive comment Haley makes is this:

“As long as you can make it an experience then people will come,” Mr Haley said, with regard to the secondhand book business in Hay.

Actually, you can take that statement and apply it to book-selling overall, and just about any retailing activity.

It seems to me that this is but one facet of the hugely disruptive (and, in many cases, destructive) changes that we’re seeing in High Streets up and down the UK.

Indeed, a rather dramatic-sounding report earlier this week says that one in five High Street stores could close by 2018.

[…] The Retail Futures 2018 report says customers are increasingly shopping online, and many shops are simply failing to adapt to the changing business environment.

It says that the number of shops could fall to just 220,000 if current trends continue, putting more than 300,000 jobs at risk. Local shops could be the worst hit, falling by 26 per cent over the next five years as shoppers head for retail parks and larger town centres.

[The Centre for Retail Research] Director Professor Joshua Bamfield said it was up to retailers to respond to the changing pattern of shopping, including store locations and numbers. “They also need to fully integrate these stores with their websites, smartphone offerings and social media community coherently.”

That seems to me to be a realistic assessment of a) the genuine crisis confronting any small-business owner in the High Street, and b) what any shop owner can do to address his or her particular situation.

If you look at the larger picture of society and the technological and behavioural trends we’re seeing, the reality is that people increasingly are doing what Bonham’s Matthews Haley highlighted at the Hay Festival this week: using the internet more and more to find the things they’re interested in.

It’s what we do about it is the thing. And I mean practical activity rather than just bewailing the changes all around us, charging people money if they browse and don’t buy, waiting for the government to ‘do something,’ and talking about 300,000 people losing their jobs in five years’ time.

Haley spoke of making it an experience, and I believe that’s the key to the practical activity anyone can do, whether you’re selling books, groceries, cars or clothes.

The experience can be a digital one, too – look at the sound advice to retailers that the Centre for Retail Research’s Bamfield offers:

“[Retailers] also need to fully integrate these stores with their websites, smartphone offerings and social media community coherently.”

Give your customers and would-be ones a good reason to consider buying from you. Be discoverable online – give your business “Google-ability.” Then you might have an experience to offer people, one they might find attractive and be willing to sample.

  • On June 19, I’ll be moderating iConsumerism, a panel discussion in London from DigiTalks@ThinkSpace that considers the changing face of the consumer, the role of wifi in High Street connectivity and how digital innovations change consumer behaviour. Find out more and sign up.

[Photo above from The Times’ report “Carnage on the high street as one shop gives up every hour.”]

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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