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Aug 29, 2000
Interview

Powell's: Portrait of an Independent Bookstore Flourishing Online

SUMMARY: No summary available.
A couple of Sundays ago, we heard a story on National Public Radio about how Seattle’s famous independent bookstore, Shorey’s, was closing their doors to become an online-only company. Open since 1890, Shorey’s now does 60% of its sales via ecommerce … and it just wasn’t worth keeping the old store open to the public anymore.

Saddened, we contacted our own all-time fave independent bookstore where our Publisher says she once spent “the best day of my entire life” : Powell’s City of Books in Portland Oregon. Dave Weich, Powell’s Director of Content & Marketing was delighted to tell us how this legendary independent is not only surviving but flourishing in the dot-com era.

Q: You’ve been online forever. How are your ecommerce sales?

Weich: Powell’s has been online since 1994 and in the independent book world, there’s nobody close to our site’s sophistication. We’re in a pretty rare position. We’re clearly not Amazon, but at same time we’re growing by leaps and bounds.

Nowadays around 20% of our sales are online. That’s growing rapidly, pretty much doubling every year in terms of dollars (not in terms of percent of store sales.) Offline sales are growing too, just not as fast.

Q: Is the offline store gonna shut down someday like Shoney’s?

Weich: Absolutely not! In fact we’re growing --- two of our stores have just been significantly expanded. The City of Books [headquarters store] just added 25,000 square feet so now it’s a 68,000 square foot site. It was always big -- now it’s enormous! Also we’ve always been a tourist destination in Portland, especially since it rains nine months of the year here so you need something to do indoors and everybody says, “Go to Powells.”

In fact the Web site’s the best marketing tool we’ve ever had for the store. We’re seeing more foot traffic because of it. We’re the only bookstore in Portland you can browse from home. You can go to the store to see if we have the book you want in new or used. You can even get a print-out map showing you where the book is located in the store. You’ll see people walking around the store with print outs from the Net all the time.

Q: Why would someone want to shop online and then come in to get the book?

Weich: Maybe they don’t want to pay for shipping. Maybe they want to make sure the book they want is at the branch of Powell’s nearest to them. Maybe they still want that bookstore experience.

Q: How many of your online sales are to people outside Oregon?

Weich: Online the great majority of sales, about 85%, are to people outside Oregon and Washington. We have 160,000 email newsletter subscribers and more than 80% are people outside the Pacific Northwest. All these people find out about our incredible bookstore.

Q: How did you get 160,000 people to sign up for your newsletter?

Weich: Two ways: we just ask them when they are setting up an account online and we’re also always running contests on the site for free books or a trip to Portland. It’s free to enter but we ask that you try one issue of our newsletter with no obligation. Every four weeks we change the contest.

The newsletter’s interesting to read, it’s not just a bunch of links. Our unsubscribe rate is less than one percent per issue. It’s kind of our calling card. It’s not like other ecommerce stores who just say, ‘buy this. buy this, buy this.’ We knew we didn’t want to take that approach. We treat customers like readers, respect them like readers, instead of treating them like cattle or mass consumers, and they look forward to that.

We do offer newsletter subscribers special autographed first editions. We don’t even post these on the site, we tell the newsletter people first. Local author Molly Gloss had 70 autographed copies of her book sell out in about 20 hours just from the newsletter.

Q: How do you drive traffic to your site?

Weich: Our customers tend to be loyal customers and in many cases tell their friends about us. We also do limited print advertising in the New Yorker, Utne Reader, Harpers, Poet & Writers Magazine and Mother Jones. We have partnerships with content sources like Utne who share our views and have a demographic similar to ours. Our current affairs section is hosted by Mother Jones, you can read a new essay from them while you’re there and Mother Jones recommends their favorite books. We have deals like that with A&E Television Book Club, Black World Today and others.

Otherwise we’re just trying to get the word out on the Net as much as possible. Comparison shopping search engines are great for us. They’ll find prices and availability; and, with our selection of used books we’re pretty often the lowest price around.

This fall we’re publishing our online interviews in a print book. iUniverse is printing it on demand. It has 22 interviews with people like Annie Lebowitz. All royalties are going to Literacy Volunteers of America. So it gets word out first hand about what we do. I work on projects like that… figuring out how to let people know about us without the big bankroll that some companies have.

Q: How are you competing with the other online players who sell used books?

Weich: We sell books through a lot of other sites such as Alibris.com. Amazon sells our books -- they just mark them up! They get our database uploaded every night.

Q: It’s great that you’re making money from them, but how are you differentiating yourself from the Amazons of the world?

Weich: We’re booksellers. Everything we do, we do because we like books. We have 400 people working at our stores who read. You can go to other sites to find a book but you’re often really not getting genuine advice.

We don’t push books because publishers tell us to push them. We push the books we think are the best! The books at web site are books selected by employees, somebody makes a decision and says ‘that is a book worth promoting.’That’s how an independent bookseller translates to an online world.

You really need to offer something special because there’s a lot of people selling books online. The big ones out there like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are always gonna get the market share because they spend ridiculous sums of money on marketing and advertising. If you get rid of physical store presence, I think you loose some of the human connection. What an independent really has is that connection to the books, without that cyberspace is not a friendly place.
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