English bookshops in the Netherlands have embraced a range of ideas to keep one step ahead of the competition, writes Ana McGinley.
For at least 130 years, lovers of English books have been able to feed their passion for reading by visiting the few specialist English bookshops which exist in the Netherlands.
However, the growth of online book warehouses is proving tough competition for traditional bookshops. Research shows sales by online-only retailers have outstripped traditional bookshops, with e-books tipping this figure in favour of online retailers.
This market trend is putting pressure on all bookshops in the Netherlands. Some of the country’s biggest chains, such as the recently relaunched Polare group, have found themselves in financial difficulty. But at the same time, some independent bookshop owners are fighting back and have found a variety of solutions to ensure their own longevity.
Booksellers Van Hoogstraten was founded in The Hague in 1881, making it one of the oldest, independent bookshops in the Netherlands. The shop specialises in English-language books and owner Annet Bakker says many of her regular customers have been coming to the store since they were children.
Bakker has found specialising in a niche book genre makes sure she has a loyal international following with minimal competition from online book warehouses.
‘For a general bookshop it’s difficult to survive; you need to be specialised…. our website is very successful because of the royal history books which are not easy to find anywhere else… We post these books all over the world from Australia to Peru’ she says.
The American Book Center – a part of Amsterdam’s book scene for 41 years – has embraced the latest in book technology. Lynn Kaplanian Buller has been involved with the ABC almost since its launch in 1972, adding a second store in The Hague in 1976.
‘People will be reading more and more English, whether it is via gaming, on-screen, on mobile devices, or books and magazines,’ she says. ‘As the world becomes more connected, all the small language areas will become more strongly bilingual.’
Embracing technology does not fit the stereotype of a traditional bookshop that many people have. Yet stocking e-books is for today’s customer an expectation that bookshops would be foolish to ignore.
Last year the sale of e-books in the Netherlands rose by 60% on the previous year. Although the sale of e-books may have risen, the revenue from these sales equates to only 3.2% of the revenue taken in book sales.
The convenience of e-books is their obvious selling point. Reading appartuses are lightweight and e-books rarely cost more than a few euros. They are also a handy way for expats and internationals to move their libraries around. Yet there are still issues that the book industry must deal with.
Annet Bakker says the industry needs to develop better policies to tackle book piracy: ‘Probably the book trade has not learnt from the music industry … that’s very worrying.’
‘Just as CD ROMs took over from 24 volume encyclopedia, digital mobile reading content will morph and will stay as a convenient way to read,’ says Kaplanian Buller. ‘But the codex and magazine formats are also here to stay. It’s good to have a choice. We intend to serve up stories and ideas any way our readers want to have them.”
There are other ways to bring in more physical customers as well. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district has been selling English books to Dutch natives and expats since 1978.
Owner Liesl Olivier needed to make some long-lasting decisions to head off financial problems at the end of 2013. She believes the future of bookshops depends on the store being ‘included in the greater picture, for instance as part of a cafe or something like it, and then they will be fine.’ To this end, Olivier has introduced a tearoom into her bookshop, hoping this will draw people into the store.
The Amsterdam branch of Waterstones, part of the British bookshop chain, has been in the Dutch capital since 1989. It’s Kalverstraat location ensures a busy stream of locals, internationals and tourists.
‘Nothing beats the actual feel of a book in your hand or the atmosphere provided by a good bookshop,’ says spokesman Philip Harte. While the store does sell e-books, he says customer loyalty is due to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable service the staff provide to customers, plus an ability to source customers’ requests within a short time-frame.
Customer service is key. Getting customers into the store is a crucial factor in the long-term survival of the shop. Bookshop websites are busy with activities aimed at establishing a community of readers or, more importantly, book buyers.
Oliver’s website, for example, does involve sales, but it is more a way of ‘finding the location of the bookshop, getting information about forthcoming events, the product range and things like that,’ she says.
Bookshops now offer membership to their online communities through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and keep in regular contact with customers via newsletters and email alerts. The ABC newsletter, for example, now has around 15,000 subscribers.
Bookshops are throwing out their nets (real and virtual) and enticing book readers to join bookclubs, blogs, book signings, coffee mornings, children’s hour and other events – all hosted inside the store.
‘Getting people into the shop remains the essential ingredient in selling books,’ says Annet Bakker. ‘The real book-lover will always want to hold a book, feel the paper, smell it,’ she says.