While traditional bookshops like Foyles are falling foul of the boom in online shopping, there may still be hope for the high-street brand yet, argues Comment Editor Amelia Hiller
Foyles bookstore has been a firm favourite for British literary enthusiasts for over a hundred years, but recently succumbed to mounting pressures on high street stores to compete with online giants such as Amazon. Its rival store, Waterstones, bought the company earlier this month in order to ‘champion real bookshops.’ Realistically though, is this a battle that high-street bookshops ever have a chance of winning?
The presence of online retailers in the lives of everyday British consumers is growing. Just look at the boom in mobile supermarket shopping, the number of companies which rely primarily on online sales, and most of all, Amazon. The second trillion-dollar company in the world has gone from strength to strength in recent years, quickly killing-off the investments which flop in order to make way for successful services such as Prime.
Foyles was ‘a beacon for independents’, and some see its takeover as a negative action rather than a statement against Amazon’s ‘siren-call.’ Therefore, there is some wariness as to whether the British people will be willing to invest themselves in this plight, especially as it could be a futile objective considering the power of the online market. Whilst Waterstones’ chief executive, James Daunt, recently stated that good bookshops are ‘rediscovering their purpose’ and are ready to battle against e-reading, the issue doesn’t just stop there. It’s also the fact that purchasing books is far more convenient online – stock is far more readily available, often cheaper, and can be at your house the next day. It’s never been easier to access a wide-range of titles from the comfort of your own home, and this is something which has not gone unnoticed by the British population.
However, the fact that online retailers have far less expenditure to worry about must be considered, as this usually means that they can concentrate on prioritising customer convenience above paying rents and rates. It’s not the case that high-street bookshops struggle because they don’t provide high standards of service, and not even because they don’t attract enough customers. I believe the reason they are struggling is simply because they are overburdened with costs which wipe out their profits. Conversely, online retailers are not faced with obstinate and unforgiving landlords or held back by a lack of government input in high-street industry, so naturally they possess far more chance of success.
Disturbingly, Foyles paid almost as much in rates alone as Amazon does in corporation tax, despite being only 1% of the size. To me, this simply isn’t fair. We may wonder why a company as immoral as Amazon is still championing the literary industry, but the fact is that you cannot expect people to purchase items from a real shop when it is more expensive and less convenient. Whilst Amazon has been ‘shamed’ on several occasions for its level of tax avoidance in the UK, it is not being sanctioned enough to warrant any change as whilst its actions are immoral, they remain legal. Therefore, it seems that the only way this can be championed is by high street stores coming together to create a body against online giants, or as TED speaker Margaret Heffernan recently put it, to form ‘connective tissue’ by working together.
With it becoming far cheaper and more convenient to buy books and other products online, physical stores are struggling more and more to make profits whilst the omnipotence of online retailers is only set to increase. However, there does seem to be some cautious optimism amongst independent book retailers regarding the future of their high street stores, especially as the media are now becoming more aware of the threat posed by giants such as Amazon. With Waterstones’ recent purchase of Foyles, and the encouragement of helpful actions over competitiveness across stores, it seems that the high street book trade is nowhere near extinct yet.