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Now boarding: How airport bookstores are reacting to a changing industry

Published: Saturday, Dec. 28 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Airport bookstores are currently facing heavy competition from national chains and e-reader builders, forcing them them to restructure their business models and compete.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

Judith Briles enjoys reading when she’s on a plane. Sometimes her books are recently purchased from an airport bookstore.

“I do it for a pleasure,” said Briles, an author and publishing consultant. She notices many others are reading books on planes. Some sift through their paperbacks, while others scroll their eBook readers and tablets with a flick of a finger, she said.

In fact, many travelers are reading books using eBook readers and tablets. The Pew Research Center published a report last year that said 23 percent of Americans from 16 years old and up are using eBook readers, compared to 16 percent in 2011. And that may increase with the Federal Aviation Administration lifting its ban on allowing passengers to read eBooks during the takeoffs and landings of flights. (The Federal Communications Commission is also considering whether to allow phone calls on flights.)

Airport bookstores may be on the front lines of the transition to eBooks. Cheaper prices and new methods of reading are causing concerns among booksellers, experts say.

But the future isn’t all bleak, said Sara Hinckley, spokesperson for the Hudson Group, which owns several airport bookstores throughout the country.

“Bookstores across the country, including Hudson, are doing everything they can to give customers a reason to look beyond price as the only deciding purchase factor: a hand-picked selection, personal service, a pleasant shopping environment, convenience, community support and the most aggressive pricing we can afford,” she said.

Dwindling appreciation

John Kremer, founder and creator of BookMarket.com, which analyzes different book markets across the country, said Amazon and online retailers are hurting airport bookstores because book prices are usually cheaper online and are more convenient to pick up. Even though there are still readers on airplanes, many are grabbing their books from places other than airports, Kremer said.

Airport bookstores account for 10 percent of all physical bookstores in the country, or about 2 percent of the entire industry book sales, including online sales, he said.

Hinckley said the Hudson Group has seen an increase in sales recently – up mostly because of popular books like "50 Shades of Grey" and The Hunger Games series.

Briles said when she was at the Philadelphia Independent Airport recently, she saw plenty of shoppers flipping through the clearance sections at airport bookstores. She said many of the people on her flight carried physical books. Some carried both a physical book and an eBook reader, Briles said.

A 2012 study by digEcor, a digital entertainment solutions company, said reading is the number one activity for flyers on flights from one to eight hours. Briles said trendy books on very topical issues sell the best because most travelers want to stay up on current events.

And airport bookstores are unique because they market some books toward those coming into their country, Briles said. Many books will have state landmarks and monuments to attract readers who want a better understanding of the location, she said.

Hinckley said Hudson selects inventory for each individual place, listening to bookseller recommendations for the markets the stores will be moving into.

Current competition

More than just eBook readers and tablets, airport bookstores are facing pressures from larger companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, both of which sell their books online and offer their own eBook readers.

Kremer said Amazon especially is putting pressure on small airport bookstores because it discounts almost every book. Many people don’t want to pay high prices for books and they avoid that by shopping with Amazon or other online retailers. Kremer also said Amazon stays competitive by allowing free self-publishing, which puts books out into the market for low rates.

Hinckley said airport bookstores sell books that are pre-priced by the publishers, which means Hudson can’t control book prices. “At Hudson, we simply cannot afford to discount with the high cost of doing business in the airports and the high margins of other categories that we are competing with for space in the stores,” Hinckley said.

Larger bookstore chains — like Barnes and Noble and the now-closed Borders — struggled in changing times, too. Instead of being a store solely for books, they’d add cafes and dining areas, which hurt them more than helped, Briles said. Cafes and coffee shops would bring in a younger crowd, who wouldn't buy books and would socialize, she said.

Future outlook

So what can airport bookstores do to stay up with competition?

Kremer said airport bookstores are coming online, allowing people to see the content before they get to the store and find the right book they want. Airport bookstores are also creating an inviting environment for potential readers, something that can help them grow, he said. And they provide an outline for an impulse purchase about a regional work.

“I’m still very optimistic. I believe the good books will sell,” he said. “I think airport bookstores will be around for a while.”

“I think the bookstores that are going to survive have a personality to it, invite people to come in,” Briles said. “Those are going to survive because they have a captive audience.”

Briles also sees other options for airport bookstores. She said they should adapt to the changing market and start including more eBook readers and battery charging stations. Not only will that help the stores sell any eBook readers they have in-store – like Kobo, which is an independent eBook reader and is popular among independent booksellers, Kremer said, but it will also give them a chance to see the different books in store.

The Hudson Group doesn’t plan on selling eBook readers, Hinckley said, but the group will promote eBook reading applications, like Kobo’s app and Quick Response codes that bring people to online books.

She said airport bookstores are lucky to have an audience that likes to read.

“We are blessed in the airports with a massive audience of people who want to read,” she said. “If they support bookstores in airports, it enables us to offer more and to continue to evolve within our changing industry.

“I strongly believe that we will continue to have that opportunity,” she said, “so long as we continue to move aggressively to preserve and protect it.”

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @hscribner

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