An excerpt from
Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption
Laura J. Miller
Designing the Bookstore for the Standardized Consumer
Bookselling Goes to the Mall
Among the important changes that came with the post–World War II suburban boom were new patterns of shopping. Before midcentury, cities were the unrivaled commercial centers of the country. Small towns were limited in their shopping opportunities, though the offerings of local stores were supplemented by goods available from national mail-order houses. On the other hand, the suburbs that grew up early in the twentieth century were generally built with the assumption that residents would do their major shopping in the city. Suburban women would take periodic shopping trips to the city, and commuting men would pick up items on their way home from work. Some suburbanites minded the inconvenience, especially those who saw the city as a place of iniquity and danger. But though there were some suburban shopping centers built in the years preceding World War II, it was not until the 1950s that developers of suburbia routinely constructed shopping districts that made trips to the city unnecessary.
These shopping areas differed significantly from urban central business districts or the main streets of smaller cities and towns. Corresponding to the automobile orientation of the new suburbs, stores were designed to be easily accessible from major thoroughfares. Thus, there developed the low-density strips that grew up along arterials on the outskirts of town, with retail buildings connected to parking lots and often sporting garish signs to catch the attention of the drivers zipping by. Following the war, there was tremendous growth of shopping centers (also called strip malls) comprising several businesses that shared a parking lot. And, of course, the shopping mall, which became an emblem of suburban living, made its appearance. Shopping malls thrived because they accommodated (and encouraged) the automobile dependency of suburbanites, and because they created controlled environments that kept out both inclement weather and socially marginal people. Shopping centers and malls gained the enthusiastic approval of suburbanites, and in these sites, chain outlets found fertile ground. Mall owners paid careful attention to the retail mix included on their properties, and chain outlets were, and continue to be, especially favored as tenants. The chains could pay higher rents than could independents, could afford to lose money in a single location until establishing a customer base, and were almost guaranteed not to go out of business, no matter how slow mall traffic was. Independent stores still have a much more difficult time winning a mall lease, and once in the mall, have a harder time staying in business.
The population shift and recentering of shopping to the suburbs was quite apparent as it was happening, and as far back as 1950, Publishers Weekly was advising booksellers to consider locating in the suburbs. However, booksellers only gradually acted on this advice. Department stores did establish book departments in suburban branches during the 1950s and '60s, and some adventurous bookshops were also finding homes in this new commercial frontier. For instance, Lauriat’s, which later became the fifth largest bookstore chain in the country, long preceded Waldenbooks by opening its first branch store in 1950 in a suburban Boston shopping center. But by and large, bookstores were slow to arrive in the suburbs. Booksellers were accustomed to looking to urban, downtown locations in order to attract both the kind of sophisticated individual who was interested in patronizing a bookstore, and the necessary amount of foot traffic to keep a business going.
In contrast, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton realized that in a changed urban and social landscape, locating where parking facilities were available could be more important than being in the heart of the city. And with large numbers of Americans opting for leisure pursuits close to or in their suburban homes, placing the bookstore nearby was a way to encourage recreational reading. Especially when trying to attract women, who were now better educated than ever before, and who were also now the caretakers of a massive new generation of potential readers, a suburban locale made a good deal of sense. So these chains defied tradition and made the suburbs their base of operations. Walden and Dalton did eventually experiment with establishing stores in urban central business districts, but the vast majority of their outlets remained in suburban areas.
The 1970s saw the mushrooming of enclosed shopping malls, and Waldenbooks and B. Dalton became staple tenants in them. As large, nationally recognized, financially secure organizations, the chains were far more likely than a local book business to win a lease at a new mall, and could negotiate a lower rent than an independent would be required to pay. There is some dispute as to whether the chains settled in areas that lacked a bookstore or targeted areas where a bookstore already existed. But in actuality, both things happened. In following the construction of new shopping malls, the chains did not avoid those communities that already supported one or more independents. On the other hand, especially in their early days, the chains set up shop in communities where the nearest bookstore was miles away. For many people, the establishment of the local Walden or Dalton represented the first time that they had convenient access to a sizeable number of books for purchase. There is no question that the chains contributed significantly to making the bookstore a common retail institution across the United States.
The placement of bookstores in these locations served another important purpose. It lessened the elite aura that had formerly encircled the bookshop by bringing the bookstore down to the level of the supermarket across the parking lot or the teen jeans outlet next door. This association with the other consumer-friendly businesses of the shopping center, strengthened by an architectural design that allowed the bookstore to fit into its surroundings, helped to make the chain bookstore appear as just another place to shop. It was part of a deliberate strategy to attract nontraditional book buyers, who as Crown Books’ market research found, “perceived that bookstores are intimidating.”
Along with their suburban locations, the decor and atmosphere inside the book chains were very different from that of the traditional bookstore. The old-fashioned bookshop had gained a reputation for being either patrician and clubby or dark and musty, and often stereotyped as a place of narrow aisles and a confusing jumble of books whose logic was known only to the bookseller. The bookstore was thus assumed to be a serious place for serious or affluent individuals. The modern chain did not immediately eschew this old appeal to class and intellect, at least not entirely. For instance, as we have seen, the reasoning behind the selection of the name B. Dalton, with its “English” sound, indicated that parent Dayton had no intention of abandoning the bookstore’s traditional association with high culture and the elite (England, at this time, still signaling unimpeachably high culture). This belief in the value of a classy image extended to the original design of the stores. Initially, Dalton tried to create an atmosphere that combined gentility with accessibility. Stated the architect for the original B. Dalton prototype, “In a bookstore, we strive for a design mixing leisure with excitement, casual warmth with soft elegance, high-brow culture with worn-shoe comfort, and serious study with simple fun.” All of the early outlets were replicas of one another, with the same four-room division, parquet floors, gold ceiling, light beige walls, and Williamsburg library desks. This vision of the bookstore intended to communicate the message that books belong to both the intellectual elite and the ordinary American looking for entertainment. However, after two years, a Dalton executive said that the store may have gone overboard in its attempt to set a tone of elegance and would be rethinking the concept. Indeed, a few years later, new stores were decidedly more casual.
Each of the major chains soon renounced elegance and abandoned any suggestion of highbrow culture to settle upon a formula that emphasized a distinctly modern, casual look. They did this by using bright colors, contemporary materials for shelving and counters, bold signage, and above all, good lighting. Aisles were wide and shelves were low to create an open, uncluttered feel. While such design principles were common in other retail fields, they were considered innovative in bookstores in the 1960s. An architect who designed some of the Doubleday outlets compared his approach to what he saw as typical attitudes of the past regarding bookstore design:
In the old shelf-and-table days most of a store manager’s ingenuity seemed to be devoted to seeing how many obstacles he could crowd in the middle of the floor without making the aisles literally impassable. The walls took care of themselves; they were lined with (occasionally adjustable) shelves anyway, and the only option left was how high to build them. The result may have been admirable for browsers. If they found what they were looking for it was a small triumph in itself! Certain it is that books became shopworn (for it was necessary to paw through them in order to find what one wanted) and cleanliness was difficult to maintain.
In contrast, books in the chain store were organized and signage was clear, so that a customer could avoid asking for help from a bookseller who might disapprove of her taste or ignorance. As a former B. Dalton executive noted, the chains’ emphasis on self-service was key to breaking down the carriage-trade image of bookstores. It was an important element of the atmosphere of informality the chains were trying to foster—as well as being a way to save on labor costs.
The chains also communicated that they were informal places welcome to all by standardizing the interiors from one outlet to another. By the early 1970s, Waldenbooks maintained its own construction company to build its similar-looking outlets around the country. And by the early 1980s, Walden had established a visuals department to develop shelving, signs, and furnishings to be installed in each new store. By using the same paint colors for walls and the same typefaces for signs, for instance, a Walden outlet would become “instantly recognizable.” Even if far from home, potential customers knew that inside a Waldenbooks was familiar terrain. Among the major chains, it was actually Crown Books that had a reputation for taking standardization to the limit. This not only fit with Crown’s emphasis on keeping costs down, but such standardization could also be reassuring to some book buyers. Browsing a Crown anywhere was an easy, predictable experience; consumers need not worry that a display of cultural capital was the price of admission.
Because of a continuing association of books with education and an attendant stratification system, any bookstore is vulnerable to being perceived as an elite enterprise. But the kind of standardization practiced by the chains mitigated some of these class associations. Standardization is precisely not about distinction and exclusivity, but rather about transcending differences. Standardized chains smooth over some of the status markers in consumption by removing any mystery about the style and substance of what might be found inside. Class-based market segmentation thus appears to represent merely minor variations in lifestyle choices rather than separate worlds marked by customs and tastes the outsider can never comprehend.
And so, in part because of their standardization, the book chains were perceived as more accessible than the independents. Of course, the low status of the chain bookstore patron should not be exaggerated. Book purchasers remained well above average in both education and income, and before building a new outlet, market studies were conducted to assure that a region contained a critical mass of the desired segment of the population. The chains were hardly drawing in the poor and least educated. But they did capture a wide range of the middle class, including some of the same clientele who once preferred to patronize drugstores and variety stores for their books. These readers had not been typical bookstore patrons before.
Superstores: Mass-Producing Homeyness
The spare, modern look of the mall chains became so much a part of their identity that when the chain superstores appeared, they drew almost as much attention for their decor as for their size. The superstores, which aimed to attract the book aficionado as well as the occasional reader, in many ways went back to B. Dalton’s original concept. While keeping the good lights, wide aisles, and clear signage that helped to make the mall stores so easy to navigate, the superstores were designed to project a little more (i.e., higher) class and, in a major departure from the mall outlets, to invite people to linger. To accomplish these goals, Barnes & Noble, for example, claimed to provide “a library-like atmosphere of wood fixtures, antique-style chairs and tables, and ample public space used for sitting and reading.” Taking their cue from popular independent bookshops, the superstores aimed to establish an air of homeyness to encourage customers to stay awhile. As Barnes & Noble stated, “store ambiance [is] designed to treat customers like house guests in a relaxed yet exciting environment.”
Like the mall outlets, a chain superstore is quite identifiable. Visits to several Barnes & Noble superstores show that the layout may be somewhat different from store to store, but the signage and color scheme are unmistakably familiar. One is struck on the one hand by the combination of classical music and dark bookcases, suggestive of high culture, and on the other by bright lights, signs announcing discounts, and assertive displays, suggestive of a supermarket. Chairs and tables are placed all about the premises and, like the store caf, are frequently filled. A similar atmosphere can be found in any Borders. These chains have found tremendous success in this careful mixing of high and popular cultural symbols. As one architect observed, Barnes & Noble manages to express a hip sort of casualness along with the grandeur of a public space.
Not all superstores followed the same design route. Before Crown Books went bankrupt, its Super Crowns were not radically different in style from the chain’s smaller outlets, though its first superstore did win admiring reviews for such features as high ceilings and tasteful carpeting. Those chains that were less intent on attracting the traditional customer of the independents were more likely to reject the “old world” or “library-like” touches. Media Play, for instance, developed a high-energy design that utilized bright colors and loud music. And Bookstop/Bookstar, superstores owned by Barnes & Noble, at one time strove for “a high-tech look with metal shelves and much neon lighting.” Yet the most successful superstores ended up being those whose ambiance was high culture “lite.” In a nod to this, Books-A-Million opened a Books & Company outlet in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2002 that, with its dark wood and soft lighting, resembled a Barnes & Noble or Borders more than the typical Books-A-Million.
Consistent with these design tendencies, the demographic profile of the chain customer has changed since the coming of the superstores, with less representation from low-income households, and more representation from the highest-income households. Indeed, while comprehensive national statistics are not available, one annual survey shows that among those households of heavy purchasers of books, the independents attract more lower-income readers than the chains do, though these differences are minor compared to the differences between bookstores and other types of outlets. Mass merchandisers, supermarkets, drugstores, and mail-order book clubs still cater to a greater percentage of lower-income and lower-education readers than do chain or independent bookstores (with the exception of used bookstores). Of course, the chains are aware that the bourgeois allusions in their superstores might be off-putting to some customers. But Barnes & Noble Inc. and the Borders Group resolve this problem by retaining their mall outlets. Through their different subsidiaries, the chains try to segment the market and appeal to a range of book buyers, as an analysis of mall stores by Barnes & Noble makes clear:
B. Dalton stores employ merchandising strategies that target the “middle-American” consumer book market, offering a wide range of bestsellers and general-interest titles. Doubleday and Scribner’s bookstores utilize a more upscale format aimed at the “carriage trade” in higher-end shopping malls and place a greater emphasis on hardcover and gift books.
For their part, independents learned from the successes of the chains, and over the past few decades, they have made conscious efforts to modify the elitist atmosphere of their shops. Booksellers have done this by paying more attention to creating a decor that projects a friendlier image for their stores. In articles, seminars, manuals, and testimonials on bookstore design, the themes of warmth, lack of intimidation, and user-friendliness are constantly stressed. The 1997 BookExpo America (the primary industry trade show in the United States) even featured two sessions on using feng shui to help stores achieve greater balance and harmony. After continuous urging by book trade leaders, independents came to accept that brighter, cleaner, and less cluttered stores will provide a more welcoming environment for the contemporary consumer. Booksellers generally now agree that the bookstore itself—as well as its staff—must have a winning personality.
Positioning a Book for Success
Standardization is clearly a cost-effective strategy for the building and maintenance of a vast fleet of bookstores. The same principles come into play with advertising and marketing. The pre-superstore chains invested heavily in advertising, both on a national and a regional basis, with ads tending to highlight those books aimed at a mass audience. Crown’s advertisements in particular became familiar to consumers, with the ever-present photo of Robert Haft himself—that is, before the Haft family fell apart—and the slogan that defiantly proclaimed Crown’s discount philosophy: “If you paid full price, you didn’t buy it at Crown.” By training their patrons to expect a similar appearance and experience when they entered a chain outlet, the chains were also teaching bookstore users to consider themselves part of a national market and therefore the “natural” targets of geographically broad advertising campaigns. The assumption that book buyers will respond to marketing in the same way no matter where they are located obviously creates huge efficiencies in the creation and deployment of marketing materials. The retailer can reach more people with less effort and expense than if visuals, slogans, humor, and the like need to be customized for every locale.
The book chains did not stop there in adopting the techniques of mass merchandisers. Marketing inside the store was similarly guided by efforts to vigorously promote a relatively small portion of available books (leading to high sales of those titles), and to standardize promotion across all outlets. One of the most important means for in-store marketing was the creation of displays. As William Leach has shown, new approaches to retail store display at the turn of the twentieth century were notable for dramatizing commodities and the places that sold them, and for fueling consumer desire for goods. Display still serves those functions in retailing. In the bookstore, the ways in which books are displayed both help to set the tone for the shop and influence the sale of particular titles. At the most basic level, the naming and placement of the different sections in a store is a key element in channeling customers’ attention. Shoppers’ browsing behavior is partly a consequence of their gravitating to those categories in which they have some prior interest. Similarly, decisions about where to shelve individual titles influence which readers will pick up a book. While one title could conceivably be classified as either “self-help” or “religion,” the corresponding sections will be browsed by different groups of people (with some overlap, of course), and thus the simple act of classification may predetermine a book’s audience.
Aside from classification considerations, the physical arrangement of books has a large impact on browsers’ likelihood of making a purchase. Books displayed face out, rather than spine out, are more likely to be noticed, as are displays with multiple copies of the same title. The mall-based chains were diligent about putting these rules of merchandising into effect—and consequently attracted much criticism for their willingness to stack volumes up in huge piles as if they were so many cans of soup. In defending their style of marketing, the chains claimed that the well-being of the book industry depended on casting aside sentimental inhibitions about treating books like any other commodity. As Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton head Len Riggio stated, “I disagree with the elitists who say we can’t sell books like we sell toothpaste. I think what we should be looking to do is sell more books than toothpaste.” From this perspective, adopting modern merchandising techniques is the means to sell more books, hence increasing profits for the companies involved, and furthering the book-reading habit among the public. In this scenario, everyone wins.
Yet the toothpaste analogy remains a highly discomfiting one for a large portion of the book world. To sell books like toothpaste appears to reduce what books represent—the life of the mind—to something as generic and purely utilitarian as toothpaste. Of course, largely thanks to marketing, even toothpaste is not a purely utilitarian item. But the sex appeal or other symbolic traits associated with using one or another brand of toothpaste are usually recognized as byproducts of more mundane purposes. For those who see books as different from other commodities, reading effects a transformation of the mind that is thoroughly intangible, unpredictable, and ethereal—and there lies its great value. The independent bookseller who commented, “We don’t stack them twenty-five or fifty like some chain might do. To me, it somehow diminishes the book rather than makes it look better,” appears to believe that the “pile 'em high and watch 'em fly” style (as another independent put it) is an attack on the dignity of the book, and by extension, an attack on the dignity of the humanity represented within the book’s pages. In contrast, the bookstore that displays books more like gallery objects than prosaic commodities compels the browser into an attitude of thoughtful contemplation. The distaste for mass marketing exhibited here thus reiterates the independent bookseller’s stand against a mass society dominated by standardized mass culture. By recognizing each book’s singularity, the book professional tries, as indicated by the bookseller quoted above, to uphold a world that is distinctive, not homogenous.
Less controversial, at least in principle, is the use of special themed displays. The New York Times bestseller wall is one example of this; also common are tables or racks in prime locations containing new titles, recommended books, books tied to some event or subject, or bargain books. Books displayed so prominently are far more likely to be sold than if they merely sat on a shelf. However, since these kinds of displays also take up valuable space, they tend to be reserved for a select number of titles.
The location of displays, along with a store’s floor scheme, also makes a difference for book sales. As a rule, sections at the front of a store receive much more traffic than those at the back. Some booksellers try to lure their customers through the length of a store by putting the destination sections, such as bestsellers, toward the rear. More commonly though, booksellers place the sections likely to produce high sales at the front. Waldenbooks’ vice president of marketing explained how Walden combined several of these display principles during the early 1980s:
One of our first moves was to make our 800 stores visually exciting. We dedicated the first 20 to 25 feet of our stores to the display of bestsellers, magazines, computer software, audiovisual cassettes, and classic titles. This strategic positioning, coupled with different storefront themes which change every two weeks (for example, signage and featured titles for Mother’s Day, Summer Sports, and Baby and Child Care) gave our stores a fresh look on a regular basis. About two dozen books which relate to the ongoing themes are discounted during these promotions.
As well as the front of the store, the best locations for generating sales are at the intersections of main aisles. An especially prime spot is the endcap, a display area that faces the aisle, placed at the end of a wall of shelves. “You usually get three to four times the normal rate of sale when they’re featured on the endcap,” noted one bookseller. Also conducive to generating sales are areas near the cash register, called point-of-purchase displays. While nonbook items (cards, bookmarks, etc.) do very well here, books that lend themselves to impulse buys are also favored for this spot.
From the customer’s perspective, these various types of displays are visually appealing; they break up the imposing monotony of walls of books, stir interest, and enhance the shopping experience. Yet special displays also, if unobtrusively, communicate the message that some books are more worthy than others. One may then wonder whether the range of titles selected for such displays reflects the bookseller’s professed commitment to promoting diversity. Although some independents pride themselves on their unique choices for displays, the general pattern is to showcase new books and bestsellers. This may seem only logical; after all, readers appear to desire what is new and popular, and the bookseller can maximize sales by capitalizing on whatever buzz the publisher has created. Yet this also reinforces the divide between the relatively few books currently in fashion and the vast majority of titles. The result of current practices is that few backlist books or new titles with little publicity behind them get prominently displayed—and therefore, their lower sales are assured.