Should local book stores be taking on Amazon?

Photo: RetailWIre
Oct 19, 2020

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) launched a campaign, #BoxedOut, directly calling out Amazon’s threat to the future of the local bookstore.

The campaign, which launched on Amazon Prime Day, saw cardboard coverings overtake the storefront of six indie bookstores. The boxes piled up out front by the retailers resemble Amazon’s brown boxes. Playful slogans splayed across the boarded-up windows and boxes include:

  • “Don’t accept Amazon’s Brave New World.” 
  • “Bookstores vs. billionaires – I’m on the side of the ones that let you use their bathroom.”
  • “Books curated by real people, not a creepy algorithm.” 
  • “If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there.” 
  • “Amazon, please leave the dystopia to Orwell.”

Fake cardboard books displayed titles such as “To Kill A Locally Owned Bookstore” and “Journey To The Center Of The Retail Warehouse.”

Numerous other independents joined in the national social media campaign.

Independent bookstores had shown some recovery over the last decade with the exit of Borders, Barnes & Noble’s reset and the stabilization of in-store book purchases. The pandemic has led to steep sales declines, however, with the online-buying shift said to be largely benefiting Amazon.

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The brown Amazon boxes have become ubiquitous, but they’re boxing out local bookstores. We have the power to shape our communities through where we spend our money. Shopping indie means more local choice, tax dollars and jobs, and a truly unique diverse community. That’s why we support @americanbooksellers’ Don’t Box Out Bookstores Event, along with some of our fellow NYC indies @mcnallyjackson, @communitybookstore, and @cafeconlibros_bk. Swipe for some progress pics of the campaign going up at our Fulton St. store! • “If shoppers could shift more of their purchasing away from Amazon to local businesses like ours … it could make all the difference in allowing us to survive and thrive for years to come. We hope Boxed Out will have that effect.” – Greenlight co-owner Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo. • #ShopIndie #BoxedOut

A post shared by Greenlight Bookstore (@greenlightbklyn) on

Foot traffic has improved with store reopenings, but remains down. Bookstores have been unable to stage in-store events, such as author signings, that used to boost sales. Higher expenses to cover postage, shipping materials, cleansing supplies and PPE are squeezing already thin margins.

An ABA survey over this summer found that some 20 percent of members could go out of business. Allison Hill, ABA’s CEO, said in a statement, “People may not realize the cost and consequences of ‘convenience’ shopping until it’s too late.”

The timing of the campaign is designed to encourage early shopping for the important holiday selling period. The campaign also speaks to the benefits to local jobs, local sales taxes and a community’s fabric that comes from local stores.

A number of participating stores had never publicly spoken out against Amazon. Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson in New York City, told Business Insider. “I’ve never felt that guilting people would ever work, but suddenly things are so dire right now.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more pros than cons in local bookstores calling out Amazon’s impact on their business? What do you think of the messaging and overall approach of the #BoxedOut campaign?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Nobody is going to stop buying from an indie bookstore because it is protesting Amazon, and a few may be drawn into a store they otherwise might have bypassed."
"I am feeling a little like Amazon is taking over our lives, so being more aware of how independent retailers feel is not a bad thing."
"Local bookstores must remind consumers that they are not sacrificing convenience and speed to buy local."

Join the Discussion!

31 Comments on "Should local book stores be taking on Amazon?"

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Neil Saunders

There’s nothing wrong with this campaign but, in my personal view, I do not find the negative and attacking tone particularly appealing. There is more than enough of that around right now with the election! I’d rather hear about all the many positive things local bookstores are doing and have to offer – and there are a lot of great things to focus on! To be fair, some of these things are referenced but they get rather drowned out in the “us versus Amazon” narrative. All that said, I applaud bookstores for standing up and fighting their corner, I just wish the tone was slightly different.

Bob Amster

Independent booksellers are small in number and those that will be born and thrive will be few but will cater to a demographic to which Amazon may not even be marketing; those seeking differentiation, rare, older editions, special subjects, etc. The #BoxedOut movement will help more than hinder in that it may awaken the awareness of those who forgot about the independent/neighborhood bookstore because they thought that Amazon had it all.

Georganne Bender

Independent book store owners are sharp and strong retailers, they are prepared to fight for their businesses and have always been vocal about it. I like that they have banded together to launch a “going out FOR business” campaign, and I love that it is spearheaded by the American Booksellers Association, which incidentally has other pro-indie campaigns going on as well. Too many associations leave retailers to fend for themselves.

Do campaigns that guilt consumers work? Not all the time and they can be perceived as whiny. In this instance, however, the ABA is trying to point out what will be lost – jobs, community, tax dollars – when a local retailer closes up shop.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and these retailers are fighting for their lives. When a corporate store closes people lose jobs, but when an indie store closes the owner stands to lose everything. The #BoxedOut campaign is a wake up call to consumers to support the communities that support them. I believe it is worth the risk.

David Leibowitz

“Local book store” sounds an awful lot like “Blockbuster Video.”

With the move to digital media, rather than print or paper, I’m not sure that Amazon is their greatest threat. The model has been disrupted, customer expectations have changed. The way we consume printed information has changed. It’s time to adapt.

Ananda Chakravarty

David – book sales have been successfully growing since 2019 and make up over $20 billion in the U.S. and over $110 billion globally. This industry is still an important part of our retail ecosystem and the digital age has served more to advance it than degrade it.

Ananda Chakravarty

Also check this article.

Bob Phibbs

We love a devil and an angel story. I built my brand literally by calling out Starbucks as ordinary coffee when I started 26 years ago and it was incredibly successful. People want to know you’re fighting for market share – and winning. Not fighting for pity – and losing. The key is you have to provide an exceptional experience to back it up. We all remember the ad campaign for Kmart Shipmypants that got clicks but did nothing to build the brand. Balancing exposure without being whiny can be a fine line but for this literate audience, I think ABA is spot-on.

Dick Seesel

Independent book stores have complained about Amazon since it began its original business — selling books online, usually at a discount, and shipping them to customers’ doors. Many small booksellers fell victim to the Amazon business model, especially with the development of e-readers, but others managed to adapt, survive and even thrive.

While it’s easy to blame Amazon for the impact of COVID-19 on their business, I’m not sure whether the #BoxedOut campaign will work. Those booksellers who had already adapted with their own websites — or the ones who scrambled to offer curbside pickup, home delivery or other innovative services — are likely to survive. And have booksellers, publishers and authors embraced the idea of virtual book tours with “personal appearances” via Zoom?

Gene Detroyer
If they did a SWOT analysis on their competitive position, I think this is the last place they should be putting their efforts. It strikes me as total surrender. They are ignoring their own strengths and opportunities and taking on a battle they cannot win, simply because people buy online for totally different reasons than they would choose to go to the bookstore. Amazon has a reason for being. The local book store has a reason for being, what is it? Discovery? Touch and feel? Taste and sample? Meeting like-minded people? Consider that e-books represent about 20 percent of total book sales, but for Amazon for every 100 print editions they sell, they sell 114 ebooks. 70 percent of all books are sold online. They are sold by Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Target and yes even Costco. There are online retailers that specialize in books, then there is Barnes & Noble, Books-a Million, Strand and a dozen others. I fear emotion has gotten in the way of smart marketing.
Brian Cluster

A recent published report shows that Amazon has 39 percent of the total retail e-commerce business in the U.S. with Walmart in second at 5.8 percent. The power of Amazon at this moment can not be denied. This an incredibly tough time for retailers and I applaud them for working together to create this campaign. Hindsight is 20/20 but this should have been done years ago. The messaging is good but I think the message of the value of customer choice should have been messaged more or a statistic of the number of book stores that have closed over the past few years could also be very effective. I would like to see a follow-up on this article about how well the campaign went.

Gary Sankary

I think this campaign will resonate with the customers who like to patronize their local neighborhood bookstore. We’ve seen a significant uptick in real estate in the last decade in urban, older neighborhoods where small businesses tend to thrive. Walkability is a metric that realtors use to describe neighborhood appeal. This campaign speaks to a lot of those customers who like their neighborhood and the small businesses that make them great.

Ryan Mathews
Full disclosure, independent bookstores are my favorite kinds of retailers, ranking just slightly in my heart above indie music stores, art stores, and hardware stores – all of which I love. It’s also true that I buy a ton of books online both directly from Amazon and on, a platform for indie booksellers owned by — wait for it — Amazon. I know my own favorite bookstore, for example, both protests Amazon and sells on AbeBooks. So biases firmly in place let me say that I think there are more pros than cons to the protest. Nobody is going to stop buying from an indie bookstore because it is protesting Amazon, and a few may be drawn into a store they otherwise might have bypassed. The issue isn’t convenience or price. There’s no question that, in most cases at least pre-COVID-19, Amazon is a cheaper and faster way to pick up a book. But indie bookstores offer so much more: lots of atmosphere, the thrill of the hunt if they have used titles, sage… Read more »
Zel Bianco

I am feeling a little like Amazon is taking over our lives, so being more aware of how independent retailers feel is not a bad thing. We do want there to be competition and if we all shrug our shoulders and say Amazon is too big to compete with, then we are done.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
For indie booksellers, the pandemic turned a bad situation into a dire one. With their backs to the wall, they must resort to the guilting of consumers. Will it work? Maybe over the short term, but changing people’s purchase behavior is difficult, and the impact rarely satisfies our desired timeline, if at all. There will be a bump up in local book sales once a vaccine is widely distributed, but for some indie booksellers, it will be too late. There is a community and social need for indie booksellers, but today’s economics make survival a harrowing and uncertain journey. The answer lies in the reinvention of the experience and the changing of the consumer’s perceived value vis-a-vis Amazon. That requires applying advanced technology (even algorithms) to create consumer relevancy and integrated creative online and in-store programs. The ABA can pursue more favorable terms with book publishers and create or support indie booksellers’ efforts for an improved frictionless online platform. Finally, spend more effort marketing the strengths of a community-based store that address local consumer needs… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Book stores need to give their customers a reason to shop there, not simply providing reasons not to shop at Amazon. Barnes & Noble changed the book store paradigm from dusty, dreary shelves full of books with signage like “if you want to read a book, you must buy it first” to fun places to visit that include coffee bars.

We know people still like to shop, although less so, in physical stores. Local book stores need to give potential customers reasons to shop in their stores. Obviously the pandemic provides more challenges to doing this safely. However, how about a socially distanced book club meeting or a discussion over coffee of the top ten bestseller list? Bashing Amazon should not be an excuse for not thinking creatively.

Raj B. Shroff

I really don’t see more pros than cons in this. David mentioned Blockbuster below; along those lines, this story makes me think of the music industry and independent record shops, there aren’t many left but the ones that exist have a loyal audience.

I tend to agree with a few fellow panelists below that this feels like a negative approach and just won’t jive with most consumers. This is a tough one as many of us value the independent shops but when voting with our time and wallets, the independents don’t always have a place in our schedules. I would hope ABA is doing some research, looking for unmet needs that their members could fill.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 8 months ago

As long as bookstores are able to stay on the side of the fence that is tongue-in-cheek rather than genuinely mean spirited, there is nothing wrong about this campaign approach. Book stores have traded on the ability of being able to make people feel good when they are in their stores, not feel guilty. Long-term their success will depend on being able to hone that sense of community and belonging. The #BoxedOut campaign can achieve this, and will have a longer shelf-life in they utilize tactics to do so.

Ananda Chakravarty

For indie booksellers, it’s advertising and just plain marketing. Playing on people’s guilt is certainly not new and taking advantage of the sheer size of Amazon will attract customers who already have a dislike for large business. I see little in the way of adversity to push their stores with such a campaign. However the question of whether it is the best way to draw in customers is the real question – the campaign only articulates a few benefits, e.g. personalized curation vs creepy algorithms. This doesn’t change the scenario – indie bookstores have been struggling to survive so they’ve been taking on Amazon for some time. To quote Gregory Peck, “You’re in it now, up to your neck.”

Mark Price
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
1 year 8 months ago

Given that consumers are facing data overload in much of their lives, reinforcing the importance of buying local is a good idea. Local bookstores must remind consumers that they are not sacrificing convenience and speed to buy local.

Don’t see it as guilt, rather as an important reminder of key benefits.

Cynthia Holcomb

The #BoxedOut campaign messaging depicts the real-life satire book stores across the country experience trying to survive under the Amazon retail economy. Whether or not the messaging is viewed as negative or positive, quite clearly any reasonable person understands the content and context of the messaging and that it is relevant to the future of book stores. An emotional reminder, a renewed awareness to the book-loving public of what is close to being lost.

Ed Rosenbaum

This is an interesting way for the local book stores to reach out and say, “hey everyone. We are here and part of the community. So help us survive and buy local.” So many bookstores are located in walking or shopping areas. That makes it easier for people to stop in and browse before buying. I always enjoy going into our local store during an evening walk just to browse. I usually walk out having bought something. Let’s hope this is effective.

Rich Kizer

Trashing a competitor is a dangerous thing. It brings your competitor to the customer’s minds. On the other hand, repositioning the competitor through events and strategies to romance the customer can propel the store to a higher and much more competitive position in the customer mind. Just think Tattered Cover … For me when I visited them, it was the ultimate chocolate chip cookie cookie experience, the kind that customers fall in love with. Those are emotional connections customers fall in love with and are hard for a competitor to duplicate.

Doug Garnett

Yes, they should be taking on Amazon. Amazon is a poor place to shop for books although it’s a simple place to buy.

But I agree with Neil Saunders. Negative campaigning isn’t a great idea. They need to be promoting all the reasons to keep buying at the independent bookseller — and there are a lot of customer values where Amazon is really quite miserable.

This is not unusual, in my experience, from a trade organization without significant experience with ad campaigns. Even when the 4A advertisers decide to promote using ad agencies they generally do quite poor campaigns.

Jeff Hall

I agree with the 70% of today’s panelists who feel the campaign is effective. There are few retail experiences more enjoyable than lingering in an independent bookstore and discovering new writings and authors. I respect how these store owners are vigorously protecting their livelihood, but also the fabric of their community. Allison Hill is correct in that so few realize the permanent, devastating impact that convenience shopping is having on small businesses and in turn, beloved business districts.

Lee Peterson

We found out how to compete with behemoths in the ’90s by having our own record store, and the phrase that Sam Walton coined for an effort like this rings true: “It’s not that hard to compete with us, just do what we don’t do.” Which is exactly the case here: hold special events with artists, have unique merchandise and at the very least, an interesting, comfortable environment. But for starters, list what AMZN CAN’T do, and go from there (ahem, #1: humans?).