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What Small Businesses Can Learn from the Success of Independent Bookstores

Bill Brunelle
Bill Brunelle

In order to stand out from the crowd, you need to find a way to highlight what makes your business unique.

In the pre-pandemic world, independent bookstores were among the most successful categories of small businesses. Their charming storefronts and maze-like shelves give customers a cozy place to get lost for an afternoon. Their book clubs and children's storytime events keep customers engaged even when they aren't shopping. Like most small businesses — and particularly retailers — independent bookstores have been tested by the COVID-19 outbreak that is now stretching into the ever-important summer months. As small businesses across the country look to reopen this season, they can rebuild their success with a few lessons from independent bookstores.

Don't try to be your competition — stand out instead

Remember when Amazon just sold books? Independent bookstores have faced competition from Amazon far longer than other retailers. But despite this competition, the indies have yet to disappear and, in fact, have even experienced a resurgence in recent years.

Small business owners today credit much of their hardship with an inability to compete with Amazon on prices, inventory, shipping, etc. And it's true — Amazon notoriously has sophisticated strategies for dominating the retail market. But independent bookstores have managed to hold their own, and they have done so by doing what Amazon does not.

Rather than competing with Amazon on price, shipping or volume, indie bookstores create an environment where customers want to shop. They allow people to browse endless shelves, flip through pages, and even enjoy a cup of coffee along the way. They bring readers together for table talks and book clubs. They pride themselves on showcasing local stories or up-and-coming writers.

In other words, independent bookstores are not trying to be, or to beat, Amazon. They have developed a distinct brand that emphasizes how they are different from Amazon. With any competitor, small businesses should aim to differentiate themselves, rather than compete head-on. Think about what the competition is not doing — and get really good at that.

Go online… but do it together

Sometimes, the online market is too big to avoid. To be sure, this year's pandemic has shown the importance of a virtual retail component to even the most unconventional of businesses. This spring, e-commerce spending in the United States spiked more than 30% in the first few weeks of the outbreak. Even grocery stores have gotten in on the online retail frenzy.

Independent bookstores, too, have found ways to enter the e-commerce space, but they have made sure that their local brand carries over. In January, Bookshop.org launched its online retail platform for independent bookstores. The website even earned the approval of the American Booksellers Association, which hopes that the website will provide "a visible and convenient alternative to Amazon."

Bookshop customers can shop online for books from a particular indie bookstore, or they can shop across the entire site, just as they would on Amazon. Either way, local bookstores earn a percentage of the sale. As a B corporation, Bookshop.org promises to share its profits for the public good. The website shares its earnings among independent bookstores across the United States, even those that don't directly use the site for their e-commerce business. In roughly six months, Bookshop.org has raised more than $1.6 million for local bookstores.

Importantly, Bookshop.org puts its buy-local messaging front and center. Customers know they are buying from an independent bookstore, even if they don’t know exactly which one. At the same time, customers can seek out their favorite indie bookstores on the site and buy directly from those businesses. The site makes local bookstores visible as individuals and as a group. This elevates the indie bookstore brand for all small businesses in that category.

In the fight for online market share, small businesses should work together, rather than individually. Bookshop.org shows that small businesses can retain their individual identities and serve their local communities while uniting under a larger, more identifiable brand online. Whether it's a local effort that targets one geographic community or an industry play that supports the whole category, working together can increase the reach and reduce the risk of building an e-commerce game plan for small businesses.

Have the confidence to celebrate your business

Every year, independent bookstores across the country celebrate Independent Bookstore Day. The occasion normally takes place on the last Saturday in April. (This year, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the celebration has been postponed until Saturday, Aug. 29.)

Independent Bookstore Day is a "national party" thrown simultaneously by indie bookstores across the country. True to the "indie" culture, there's no formula for this event. Each store arranges its own party, giving every community something unique to experience. Parties often involve live music, readings, barbecues, cupcakes, scavenger hunts, and more. If it doesn't sound like a typical day at the bookstore, well, that's kind of the point.

Independent Bookstore Day prompts otherwise quiet, cozy businesses to shout themselves out to the community and make a splash. It is truly a celebration. It gets owners and employees excited about their work, and it gives customers something engaging to experience. In short, it’s an out-of-the-box way for booksellers to connect with their customers.

There is one thing, however, that unites all the unique celebrations: the indie bookstore brand. Much like the larger Small Business Saturday, Independent Bookstore Day creates a recognizable, memorable brand for all independent bookstores to leverage in their own way. Perhaps more importantly, it gives customers an identifiable occasion they can celebrate no matter where they are on the last Saturday in April or in this case, August.

Why don't more small businesses celebrate themselves? This year has been a particularly challenging year. Don't wait until Small Business Saturday to drum up enthusiasm for your business.

Build a brand

Ultimately, the success of independent bookstores seems to boil down to a successful national brand. There's no one brand of independent bookstores. Rather, the brand is that they are all unique, quirky, and one-of-a-kind, which makes them all fun to explore. When you hear the phrase "independent bookstore," you might not even have a particular store in mind, but you know what it feels like to be there. The "indie" brand highlights what makes independents unique from Amazon, and it underlies the success of both Bookshop.org and Independent Bookstore Day. 

To build a similar brand in your community or in your industry takes at least two foundational steps: first, you have to find your unique value proposition — what makes your community or your business distinct? Then, you have to work together with other businesses to get the message out.

Independent bookstores have been particularly successful at using this brand-building technique, but it is not a novel idea. Main Street organizations and buy local groups do this in communities across the country already. On a local level, the brand usually relates to geography — what makes the community a vibrant place to live. In these groups, small businesses of all natures, from restaurants and food trucks to gyms and bicycle shops, all work together to carry out local campaigns and events.

Independent bookstores take an industry approach to the brand. They work together with their industry counterparts across the country to carry out programs like Independent Bookstore Day and to develop tools like Bookshop.org.

As small businesses across the country reopen and adjust to new standards this summer, building a brand like independent bookstores is particularly important. Reopening is a new opportunity to show customers and the community what your business is all about. Take the time before reopening to consider your unique qualities and to identify partners who can help your business grow its brand.

Image Credit: Baloncici/Getty Images
Bill Brunelle
Bill Brunelle
business.com Member
I am the co-founder of Independent We Stand, a nationwide movement of independent small business owners whose mission is to inspire other small business owners to better understand and celebrate their locally owned status while educating consumers about the importance and strong economic benefits of supporting them.