Milk, Bananas, Scotch Tape and the New Harry Potter Novel: Retailing Children’s Books
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November 2003 | Vol. II - No. 11

November 2003 | Vol. II - No. 11 TDmonthly SEARCH

Milk, Bananas, Scotch Tape and Harry Potter: Retailing Children’s Books

Once the exclusive domain of booksellers, consumers can now find children's literature almost everywhere, from grocery stores to mass-market retailers. While opinions differ on when and why this trend began, there is even more disagreement on what it means to the children's book industry.

"Books being sold outside traditional bookstores has had a huge impact on the market," said Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder and president of The Book Report Network, a series of book-related websites, including one on juvenile fiction aimed at kids.

"In the price clubs, books are not displayed. They are piled onto tables," Fitzgerald explained. "And they are being sold without the visual display afforded in traditional book buying locations. These stores and Target and Wal-Mart have made book buying easier for busy parents. Think about how these stores stand as a one-stop destination for many products. And how easy it is to add a book to the cart as you are shopping, instead of stopping in yet another store to pick up a book.

Tessa Strickland and Nancy Traversy

Some in the publishing industry view this accessibility with cautious approval.

"As books are made available to a broader audience, it's a good thing," observed Nancy Traversy, president and founder of the children's publisher Barefoot Books.

But others watch the encroachment of mass-market retailers with more concern.

"It's definitely a trend that has several retailers worried, particularly the large book retailers," agreed Jeff Abraham, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group.

The issues raised by critics include the ability of mass marketers to cut book prices to levels independent stores could never achieve. And while the element of convenience is certainly a strong motivator for parents, Fitzgerald believes buyers need to recognize that it comes at the price of selection.

The encroachment of mass-market retailers is a trend that has children’s books retailers worried

"One drawback is that these stores often lack the depth and breadth of the chain bookstore or the local independent," she said. "The browsing experience is not as extensive as the choices are more edited. It allows a smaller group of books to nail the kinds of success that authors and publishers dream of."

Independent booksellers view this added competition as just a fact of retail life.

"It's been another way of chipping away at the market for us," said Anne Irish, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. "I think they usually only carry the best sellers so we're pretty used to dealing with that, because the Barnes and Nobles and Borders do that. I think they're competing more with Barnes and Noble than with the independents."

For their part, mass-market retailers insist buying children's books in larger chain stores is nothing new.

"We've been carrying children's book selections since before 1985," pointed out Karen Burk, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. "We certainly understand the popularity of books with parents."

Thanks to a wider selection of available products than in traditional bookstores, large retailers have more options for display and product groupings to help drive sales.

"Many of these stores will have separate book and magazine sections, while other smaller stores will have a book and magazine aisle," explained Burk. "You will see some cross-merchandising. You may see the Harry Potter book in an area with Harry Potter merchandise, and you might find a Spiderman coloring book where the Spiderman toys are."

By contrast, Irish says independent stores have been fighting fire with fire for years, noting that her store has been stocking non-book items since 1976, and many store owners are adopting bestseller discounts for brand titles and authors to compete.

"They'll have a small group of best sellers that are discounted," she said, noting the different approach for book publishers makes large price variations difficult. "Books are different than toys, in that there is a fee scale that everybody fits into. You can elect to buy them non-returnable for a large discount, and that's what the larger retailers do."

"In times like these, every publisher is looking harder at their lists before they make acquisitions."

In spite of her concerns about selection in the larger stores, Fitzgerald believes tha,t so far, it hasn't translated into a lack of selection for consumers, with publishers choosing titles based on their mass-market appeal.

"In times like these, every publisher is looking harder at their lists before they make acquisitions," she said. "Sure a market like this may mean that gems never make it to the shelves, but looking at the catalogs that we are seeing, and the collection of titles on our book table at the office, we do not think there is a lack of selection."

At the end of the day, Irish isn't convinced the major retailers will be a long-term player in the book selling game.

"I don't think they're making a whole lot of money on them, so the jury is still out on that," she said. "They are trying to appeal to a higher income range. That's why they put books in, because they appeal to a higher-educated market and therefore a higher income market. It gives them a classy air."


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