Mumbai has never been a city of great bookstores. For years, we reposed our faith in Fort’s Strand Bookstall despite its conventional inventory, helped by the hefty discounts per purchase. We did have Lotus in Bandra, which stocked an eclectic and exciting mix of film publications, graphic novels and contemporary writers. It was too good to last and it didn’t: Lotus shut down after a 13-year run in 2006. Mumbai still has several standalone and chain stores, but nothing of the calibre of Delhi’s The Book Shop or Fact and Fiction. Now it appears that we don’t need them – we have Flipkart.
Although it is still too early to call Flipkart a bookshop-killer, anecdotal evidence suggests that discerning readers now prefer the Indian Amazon to the local establishment. In the last 12 months, while Flipkart was recording a surge in attention and business, the Crossword chain of stores saw “like-to-like growth” – code for a year of no losses but no significant advances either. “Certain categories have been affected by Flipkart, like management, economics and history,” said Crossword’s marketing manager Sivaraman Balakrishnan. “When we did internal research, we realised that the discounts offered is a huge factor.”
Flipkart, which was set up in 2007 by former Amazon employees Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (they are unrelated), are increasingly selling other merchandise like CDs, cameras, electronic goods and kitchen appliances, but its reputation has been built on its ability to deliver a book anywhere in India, at a discount and within a short span of time. Navigating the website is as easy as promised by its oh-socute television commercials, in which kids acting like grown-ups share their online purchasing experiences. If you’re lucky, you may even find on Flipkart the edition which you have been dredging ocean floors for (right now, it’s a big may).
“As far as books are concerned, we presently offer over 11.5 million titles, a number which is impossible for any offline retailer to stock,” said Ravi Vora, vicepresident for marketing at Flipkart in an email interview. “It is the availability (be it a bestseller or a rare title you have been searching for), coupled with reasonable prices and the convenience of picking up your favourite title without having to drive to the bookstore that we believe has captured the imagination of the Indian consumer.”
The Bangalore company has in recent months improved its delivery rate across the country by jettisoning courier companies in favour of an in-house delivery service. Flipkart Logistics currently operates in 30 cities, including Mumbai, said Vora. “Being able to control our lastmile deliveries has significantly decreased related bottlenecks,” he said.
Ironically, the Flipkart culture is spreading in Mumbai at a time when the metropolis has a wider range of bookstores than ever before. Apart from several Crossword stores across the city, new establishments have come up like Kitab Khana in Fort last March and, more recently, Om Books at the Phoenix mall in Lower Parel. Roli Books’ art and design store CMYK will open inside Good Earth in Lower Parel in mid-April. CMYK’s closest competitors are Gallery BMB Bookstore in Fountain and Art and Design Bookstore in Colaba, both of which were set up within the last three years.
“We’ve had a great year, and the future is good,” said Amrita Somaya, who founded Kitab Khana along with her husband, Samir. Located at Hutatma Chowk, Kitab Khana compensates for its standard selection of books by offering ample browsing space and a café. “We’ve created a place where people can enjoy the world of books, which is lost in the mayhem of this city,” Somaya said.
It is chains rather than independent businesses that have more to fear from Flipkart, observed the manager of a popular store in downtown Mumbai. “When bookstore chains and later Amazon came up in the United States, they affected the small stores first, but there has been a resurgence of late of niche stores,” said the manager, who didn’t want to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media. In India, access to titles that are not locally available and discounts will dent customer loyalty in the short term, he said.
The way out for bookstores may be to relook at how they stock their shelves – to offer a mix between the expected and the unpredictable. What is also needed is “innovation in creating awareness”, said Amrita Somaya. “People expect a lot more information before they buy anything.” Gone are the days when bookstores sold books and did little else. Crossword has been organising launches and readings for many years and continues to do so despite low attendance on many occasions. “We will never stop doing events – the thought behind them is that you need to promote reading,” Crossword’s Balakrishnan said. “Sales may not be growing at the rate at which you want them to, but that is not because of websites, that is because of the general lack of a reading culture.”
Kitab Khana too held a series of events to mark its first anniversary. Its staff emails or calls regular customers – like Strand does – when titles of their interest turn up. “Interpersonal relations with customers are getting lost – people crave for the personal touch,” Somaya said. “They want to be treated as individuals and not just numbers.”
The more well-thought-out the bookstore, the stronger the chance of its survival, said Priya Kapoor, director of Roli Books, which runs CMYK. “The only way we will be able to counter online sales is to create an experience around book buying,” said Kapoor, adding that it would be difficult for e-commerce sites to sustain discounts in the long term. “The bookstore has to be a magnet, a hub where you can browse for and discover books,” she said, adding, “Readers in India are now demanding the same kind of variety they’d get anywhere else in the world.”
Mumbai’s bookstores have another reason to shake off their complacency – the mother of all Flipkarts is expected to arrive in India sometime this year. For local businesses to take on Amazon, they will have to keep both buyers and browsers satisfied. They will have to balance discounts with discernment, anticipate changing customer tastes, and pay more attention to the kind of titles they import. The bookstore has to become special again. “If you keep a good collection, your bookshop will do well,” said the manager of the downtown bookstore. “You go to a bookstore, you pick up a book – what can be greater than that?”
By Nandini Ramnath on March 30 2012 11.35am