Lifestyle The death knell for bookstores? Singapore bookstores find novel ways of keeping...

The death knell for bookstores? Singapore bookstores find novel ways of keeping afloat

Rising rental rates and online competition remain the two biggest challenges for brick and mortar bookstores

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Good old bookstores are pillars of the community, known to provide solace to many a book lover seeking refuge in its shelves. They are nostalgic, comforting, and we don’t want to see them go. In Singapore, bookstores have been faced with a major challenge that have forced some of their number to clear their shelves and close up shop — exorbitant rental rates. But creativity saves the day for many of Singapore’s bookshops, who have been turning to novel ways to keep customers coming in through their doors.

Last week, beloved bookstore MPH announced that the end had come for two of its outlets — in Raffles City and Parkway Parade — due in particular to high rental rates and competition from online retailers.

But MPH isn’t finished with Singapore. General manager for business development Ivy Tan explained that the bookstore has been looking at potential opportunities for a new store location in the city-state and in the meantime has been re-structuring and streamlining resources “to make way for new business initiatives”.

And it’s not the only one that has had to pull its shutters down. Big bookstore chain Popular also had to say goodbye to its Thomson Plaza outlet just last month on June 23, after 31 years of business.

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Japanese bookshop Kinokuniya, known for their extensive Japanese book selection, closed its Liang Court branch on April 21 of this year after 36 years of operations, blaming very low sales for the outlet shutdown.

Senior store and merchandising director Kenny Chan said that while Kinokuniya still has three outlets left in Singapore and business has been “sustainable”, more support along with landlords who are more sympathetic is needed — high rental rates remain the biggest challenge.

Fellow bookstores BooksActually share’s MPH’s and Kinokuniya’s sentiments when it comes to difficult-to-meet rent, as first reported by CNA.

How much rent are we actually talking about? Kenny Leck, the founder of BooksActually, shared that rent in his Tiong Bahru store sets him back S$9,500 a month.

But he says that high rent is not surprising in competitive locations, citing that if he wanted to pay less, he would have to go to a location that would charge less but maybe not bring in the same “environment and vibe”, not to mention the same amount of sales.

Besides unmanageably high rental rates, competition from online booksellers is another challenge that brick-and-mortar stores have to deal with.

Chong Lingying, manager of longtime publisher Asiapac Books, spoke of the fierce online competition, saying that if online retailers like Amazon or Book Depository continue to take over the market, “we’re going to see more and more in Singapore having to scale down their book selection, or maybe even exit the book business entirely”.

But there is hope for physical bookstores. BooksActually reported that online sales made up only five to seven percent of their gross sales, noting that people still prefer to walk in and buy their books off the shelves.

Despite difficult obstacles, bookstores are continuing to prove their relevance.

Kinokuniya said that the book business is “cautiously optimistic”, a statement backed by the fact that they are opening new stores in Abu Dhabi, Texas and Oregon in 2020.

BooksActually added that its business has been growing over two to three percent over the past five years.

The 2018 National Reading Habits Survey conducted by the National Library Board (NLB) showed that Singaporeans are still reading. The data showed that 25 percent of Singaporean adults turned to literature more than once per week, a six percent increase since 2016.

“The readers are there,” said Leck of BooksActually, contesting the narrative that there is a lack of readership, “but how do you convince them to want to buy from you?”

That is the million-dollar question, especially in light of all the options that people have when it comes to having different mediums of reading to choose from.

The NLB survey showed that while 41 percent of readers in 2016 preferred e-books, that number has risen to 55 percent.

The survey results also reported that 89 percent of readers in the last year shunned devices and read the good old fashioned way. While that number is high, it’s already fallen from 95 percent in 2016.

And those who physically went to a bookstore to procure their tomes went from 53 percent of readers to 48 percent over the same period.

Despite those figures, bookstores are still in the game and are having to get creative to stay competitive.

For BooksActually, Leck noted that having a wide range of up-to-date reading choices is key to attracting customers and that stocks must be replenished regularly and never low.

“As a book lover, I’ll stop going to a bookstore if it isn’t selling me anything new,” remarked Leck. “If I’ve been to your bookstore in 1990, and in 2019 I still see that same book, I think it’s horrendous. You can still have (bestsellers), but it shouldn’t be your main focus.”

Kinokuniya relies on store ambience, offering a varied range of products, impeccable customer service, and perhaps first and foremost, the people who work in store.

“Success has to do with the brand’s ability to understand and connect to the needs of book lovers, and people who need books for a multitude of reasons,” said Chan.

Bookstores are turning to novel ways and offering different experiences in their stores other than just book-browsing.

BooksActually and Kinokuniya have planned and scheduled events with the Singapore literary community and have used their stores to host readings, performances and events with food and drink.

The Moon, a whimsical bookstore also known for its multi-space concept, hosts a myriad of events such as yoga classes, soap-making seminars and the like.

BooksActually has also gone as far as having vending machines for “mystery” or “surprise” books outside its store and other art venues. The books come out of the vending machine wrapped up, so it becomes an exciting thing — you never know what you’re going to get.

“For me, running the bookstore is always about reaching out, and to consistently reach out,” Leck said.

It’s all about finding what works for each bookstore, and more importantly, about what is going to get customers to walk through their doors. If bookstores are staying afloat because people are coming for the events or for stationery supplies, then bookstores need to deliver and keep on their creative toes. Once people are in the store, the books will speak for themselves (though up-to-date stocks, attractive arrangements and knowledgable, friendly staff will help with sales considerably).

What draws you to a bookstore besides the books themselves? While you’ve got books on the mind, check out our list of Singapore’s coolest bookstores. -/TISG

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