Survival of the Fittest

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Survival of the Fittest


The Strand bookstore is a well-known independent bookseller in the East Village of New York City that boasts more than 18 miles of new, used and rare books of all kinds.

Opened in 1927, today, it’s the sole survivor of Book Row -- which originally consisted of six blocks that housed 48 independent bookstores -- and I believe it will continue to exist long after the chains go the way of Borders. Here’s why: they have successfully adapted to the needs and tools of today’s digital shopper, while at the same time maintaining the in-store experiences that true bibliophiles love. Independent grocers can learn a lot about ambiance and creating a sense of discovery from visiting The Strand.

And not only does the bookseller address the fact that shoppers behave differently across platforms, but also how a shopper state of mind, such as being a browser or a buyer, can change within minutes while inside the store.

Take my recent experience as an example. I recently finished "The Retail Revival" by Doug Stephens, and wanted to check out several of the books that were referenced in the text, with the goal of buying one or two of them. Since they were very specific books, I knew Barnes & Noble most likely didn’t have all of them, so I searched for them on The Strand’s website. Six of the seven on my list were in stock, so I printed out the information for each of them and headed over to the store.

Inside the bookstore, I made my way to the information desk located in the rear of the street level. There were two associates manning computers, and I handed one of them my printouts. For each one printed out a sticker – the same stickers that are affixed to each book on the shelves – identifying the book’s location and price. “Just hand those to any associate on the floor, and they can take you to the correct shelf,” the associate told me. I did just that. Not only did the associate tell me in which section each book was located, but he walked me over to each section, found each book on the shelf, and handed it to me. Within a couple of minutes I had three of the books in my hands and I dismissed the associate, who would have happily found every book on my list for me. After deciding on two of them and replacing one (after following the associate around, it was easy to figure out the shelving system), I shifted into browsing mode.

I love wandering The Strand. The store is also perfectly set up for browsing, with dozens of tables grouping books by convenient themes, such as vintage New York City books, new writers, American history, and so on. Not only that, but it has an ambiance that any book lover would find inviting: the creak of the slat-wood floors, the smell of old books, the sounds of the mobile ladders being rolled along the shelves so someone can reach a book at the upper levels (the books are almost from floor to ceiling here). Then there is that sense of exploration, making your way from one pile to another hoping to find a gem, which I did, in a Psychology-themed table, which featured books ranging from Freud’s "The Interpretation of Dreams" to the one I added to my pile: "The Power of Habit: Why we do What we do in Life and Business."

It was a true Omni-channel experience that satisfied several need states: my immediate needs of finding the books on my list; my desire to leisurely explore as my whim desired; and lastly – and most important for the retailer – my wanting to add these books to my personal collection, even though it ended up being one more than I originally planned to buy.

As the chain book stores disappear and eBooks become more prevalent, small independent shops that can replicate The Strand experience will remain successful for a long time to come.