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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Not 'the end' for S'pore bookstores

They are offering new product lines and big discounts to counter Net rivals, rising rents
The Straits Times - January 29, 2012
By: Feng Zengkun
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Not 'the end' for S'pore bookstores -- ST FILE PHOTO

Visitors to bookstore chain MPH will find an unusual product on its shelves next week - an electronic book reader.

The company plans to start stocking the iRiver eReader, and will offer an initial 280,000 electronic book titles, with more than 200 of them for free.

The move is the bookstore's latest bid to boost sales in tougher times.

Book retailers told The Sunday Times that online rivals and rising rents are slashing their profits, even as shoppers here spend more money on books, newspapers and stationery.

Between 2007 and 2009, spending on these three product lines increased from $656 million to $765million, according to latest figures from the Department of Statistics.

The receipts were tallied from brick-and-mortar stores, including news vendors, and their online portals.

Even so, some established booksellers here have been forced either to shut up shop or curtail their operations.

Last year, Borders closed down and Page One announced its closure here, citing losses and unsustainable rents.

MPH also bowed out of its Novena Square location last May when its lease expired. It said at the time that it could not match the rental offers made by prospective food and beverage tenants. The chain has three remaining outlets.

Surviving booksellers say they try to drum up sales by offering steep discounts and other promotions.

MPH, for instance, has discounts on items of up to 80per cent. The chain offers a 30per cent discount on fiction titles, children's books and travel guides every other week.

'Profit margins are academic if you don't make the sale,' said its spokesman.

Both MPH and bookstore chain Times, which has seven outlets here, also offer free movie memorabilia and tickets with some book titles.

In a deal that ended earlier this month, for example, Times members could get one-for-one Horrid Henry movie tickets if they purchased any of the children's books in the series.

Popular Holdings, another bookstore chain, diversified its outlets with Prologue, an upmarket offering at Ion Orchard shopping mall, and Harris Planerds, a store at 313@Somerset selling graphic novels and toys.

Most bookstores here have also expanded their product range beyond just books. Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya, which has three outlets here, also sells notebooks and tote bags.

Even so, local sales have been sluggish in recent years for some of the stores.

Sales at MPH declined by 3per cent between 2009 and 2010, although they increased by 8per cent between 2010 and last year, said its spokesman.

Kinokuniya, Times and Popular Holdings, which all operate overseas as well, declined to comment on their local sales figures.

But all four giants are beefing up their online presence: Times launched its NoQ Web store in August last year and MPH plans to promote its portal soon.

Smaller bookstores told The Sunday Times the impact of online competition has been smaller on them, and they try different tacks to keep customers coming back.

Mr Kenny Leck, owner of Books Actually in Tiong Bahru, said he introduces customers to little-known books by familiar authors.

'Most bookstores will carry George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm because those are the classics, but we also offer his other, less well-known books, such as his first book Down And Out In Paris And London,' he said.

Staff address customers by name, and offer regular patrons discounts on books.

Woods in the Books, which opened in 2009 and now has two outlets - in Chinatown and Millenia Walk - estimates that merchandise such as stationery, bags and even local artwork makes up 25per cent of its sales.

Both bookstores said they were in the black but declined to provide figures.

Mr Jeremy Liew, 32, an administrator, said he spends about $100 on paper books every month.

'It's a good break from looking at a computer screen all day for my work.

'I like bookstores because I can flip through books and get a sense of whether I will like them. It's hard to do that with electronic books,' he said.




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