NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Joan Ripley didn't have a lot of enthusiasm for the online book business.|
The owner for 28 years of the Second Story Book Shop in Chappaqua, N.Y., Ripley views Amazon.com (AMZN: Research, Estimates) as "the Wal-Mart of the Internet" and fears the publishing industry's relentless emphasis on blockbuster bestsellers "is destroying our literary heritage."
But she also is a past president of the American Booksellers Association, "and I always try to support their programs." So when the industry group launched a service to put independent book retailers on the Internet, positioned to compete against the e-commerce giant, Ripley signed up, even though "I really didn't expect to get much from it at all."
Her store's site went live on the Web last week, and now Ripley's view is changing -- a little. "We've gotten two orders in three days, so that is pretty exciting," she said. "Any orders we get from it at all is good."
From the point of view of the association, the online service helps "raise consumer awareness about the unique value of shopping in independent bookstores," said Len Vlahos, director of the ABA's "Booksense" program.
120 merchants and growing
The association's national e-commerce hub site, BookSense.com, went into "soft launch" earlier in August. Now, about 120 merchant sites are live, hosted by the hub site and taking orders over the Internet. By the end of the year, Vlahos said, as many as 350 of the association's 3,000 members may be participating.
ABA spent $3 million of its own money to develop the hub site, Vlahos said, building a hosting service and e-commerce back end to support more than 2 million book titles.
The industry certainly needs the help. Many small independents are feeling the pressure of "new economy" competition, not only from online mega-merchants but also from "big box" retail chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and just from the competition of other interests that keep people from reading.
So severe is this pressure that when the U.S. Small Business Administration assessed the challenges of chain competition in a report last year, it used the independent bookseller as a poster child to represent small businesses in general.
Experience of an Internet old-timer
How much will a unified Internet presence help? It may not save a business on the verge of failure, but it could provide a little boost to help keep a store competitive, if the experience of Chuck Robinson is any guide. Robinson and his wife Dee just celebrated the 20th anniversary of their stop, Village Books, in Bellingham, Wash., earlier this year.
The store also is an Internet old-timer, too, with more than five years on the Web. For most of that time, the site existed as a brochure for the retail store, in a historic area of the Washington town, Robinson said. The store got into e-commerce last fall, linking up with an outside service to provide a database of more than a million titles.
Today, with a year's experience in online sales, Internet orders represent less than 5 percent of the firm's sales. "We don't sell very much over the Web. We haven't spent very much promoting this," he said.
The store typically receives two or three orders a day from its Web site, "most of whom are ordering books online and picking them up at the store," he said. In addition, the Robinsons send out an e-mail newsletter and use the site to promote store events.
There have been some surprises, he acknowledged. "We have a regular customer from Japan," he said, "who is from this area, who comes to the store when she is back visiting."
Until now, Robinson has used a local service to host his site, but he plans to move to Booksense as part of a site redesign. He said the hub's preformatted templates will make it easier to maintain and update the site, rather than coding up HTML from scratch.
And he likes some of the other programs offered by the booksellers, including a gift certificate program that is honored by participating dealers nationwide.
And while he doesn't believe online shopping will ever replace the experience of walking the book-lined aisles and chatting with a knowledgeable clerk, he does think it is important to have a presence on the Net.
"All of us as independent sellers have realized we can't ignore this," he said. "It's mail order -- with a new kind of order taking system."