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  • even if Amazon pushed out a lot of ‘traditional’ bookstores
    some are thriving and standing tall – wow!
  • delighting your customers does the trick
    community building, local, personal service and expertise

How independent bookshops overcome the Amazon challenge

With the rise of e-books and Amazon, physical bookshops seemed to be on the path to extinction. How could anybody compete with the online store that sold “everything” including any book you could want, delivered in a wink at the lowest prices?

U.S. bookstore chain Borders took a fall in 2011, and by October 2018 the country’s largest book retailer Barnes & Noble was said to be next on the chopping block.

“A case study in how traditional industries
can survive the technological era”

Meanwhile, independent bookshops have become the David who stopped fighting Goliath and went his own way: case study in how traditional industries can survive the technological era. So how do these brick-and-mortar purveyors of the printed word manage not only to survive, but to thrive?

What lessons from their resurgence offer hope to smaller businesses everywhere that face change, unpredictability and, possibly, disruption?

Harnessing the love of local

Independent bookshops have collectively banded together to become champions of the buy local movement. Together with other homegrown enterprises they make a case for the social, economic and environmental value of supporting local business.

Shops that successfully fight the tide of technology build their local presence and harness community loyalty by actively taking part in community events and business associations.

One major way bookshops leverage their physical presence is by taking on what Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School calls a “convener role”, hosting events like book signings, children’s story time, even comedy hour.

Organizing events is one of many resourceful ways that bookshops have found make up for the infamously low profit margin on books – besides selling non-book and café items.

Experienced experts who know your name

Customers’ devotion to bookshops hasn’t been earned merely by idealistic notions about stores run by mom and pop. Indie bookshops set themselves apart by knowing their stuff.

A good bookshop is staffed with experienced book sellers with a passion for reading and an encyclopedic knowledge of their stock.

Getting advice or browsing a selection of books carefully curated by a local, knowledgeable book geek is worth its weight in gold.

“Personalized customer service
rooted in communities”

Bookshops that have made the cut focus on personalized customer service and hand-selling each book. Being rooted in their communities helps bookshops know what books appeal to local buyers.

And when bookshops combine their expertise with friendly service and a pleasant, authentic spot to browse, they offer an in-person shopping experience that Amazon just can’t replicate.

In the end customers value not being just a number, and they are willing to pay a premium for this.

Basic e-service your own way

Of course it’s almost impossible these days for any small business to escape getting into e-commerce all together. And there’s no way small bookshops could run an online platform with enough muscle to compete with Amazon’s delivery times or prices.

But small bookshops have held their own by doing basic e-commerce their own way: being flexible, keeping people informed, and connecting with their customers emotionally.

Receiving shipping alerts directly from the shop and having a real person whom the customer can call (or even stop in and see in real life!) to sort out any problems makes all the difference.

When independent shops take advantage of all the innovative payment and delivery tools available to small businesses these days, they are able to create an e-commerce experience that is both personal and convenient – a winning formula.

Amazon may have a clear edge in terms of price and convenience, but even the e-titan has recognized that it’s difficult to mimic the immediacy of brick-and-mortar: in 2015 they started opening physical stores in the US.

However, like Barnes & Noble the corporate chain won’t be able to duplicate the passion and familiarity that independent stores bring to the table. We live in an unpredictable world, but bookshops prove that sometimes the new big thing is the old big thing.

Of course we don’t know what new disruption is around the corner. Small businesses have to leverage their scale to stay agile and find creative ways to thrive – while at the same time never giving up the emotional value that makes them irreplaceable.


  1. Imagine an Amazon-like wave in your sector and your domain – what would make you stand out?
  2. What emotional value could you offer your customers?
  3. What would that emotional value be built upon?
  4. How could you make local, community, expertise and personal customer delight work?