It’s National Bookshop Day in Australia today. Isn’t that lovely? So many of us have a warm, fuzzy feeling around bookshops – they’re often quaint and beautiful, delightful places to spend an afternoon browsing, and the people who work in them are so clever and helpful… But, if there’s the chance to save a dollar or two by buying from an online overseas website with just one click of a button from the comfort of our chairs, then of course we’re gonna take it. Right?
Well, consider this. As well as the other obvious benefits of buying from a local store such as personalised service and supporting the local economy, what we sometimes don’t realise is that the savings when buying overseas may not be as big as we think. In fact, there may be no savings at all when taking all factors into account.
There’s a prevailing – and sometimes mistaken – idea in Australia that it’s always cheaper to buy books online from overseas booksellers. We see the advertised prices or hear from friends how cheap it is to buy overseas. But the Australian dollar is down by around 30 per cent from last year against other currencies and, while this may ultimately mean Australian sellers have to increase their prices slightly, this will make overseas purchases much less attractive right now. And if the Australian government gets around to lowering the threshold for GST on overseas purchases, then buying overseas will make even less sense and will even the playing field for Australian retailers. So if the dollar savings are diminished, why not buy from businesses that pay tax in Australia, employ people in Australia, support local charities and local publishing?
We decided to put some book buying to the test and see what the real savings are and we spoke to two Australian booksellers about their thoughts on buying locally.
Scott Whitmont, owner of The Lindfield Bookshop in Sydney, is passionate about this topic: “When you buy books locally, whether it be from Australian online booksellers or bricks and mortar bookshops, you’re supporting the local community, work experience, local schools and libraries. When you’re buying overseas, you’re making no contribution to the local community.”
Whitmont finds that many people don’t think about it until he points out that their children will be needing work experience, or a job, at the local bookshop in the future, then they understand that saving what is sometimes a dollar or two on buying books overseas may not be worth it.
Then of course there’s the obvious hands-on and personalised experience that Whitmont’s store can offer its customers: “We can tell people, ‘Your mother will like this, your son will like this…'” he says. “If I know a customer of mine likes hardback fiction or another is interested in US presidential politics, I’ll order books for them. People appreciate that knowledge and expertise and those personal recommendations.”
In addition many local bookstores are proactive in their communities – offering events as well as discounts to local groups, and helping and donating to local charities.
“We support author programs, we support book clubs – we offer a 15% discount for bulk purchases – and we write newsletters with book recommendations.”
Whitmont acknowledges that it’s labour intensive but says that bookshops needs to be proactive in a more difficult market.
“Bookshops may need to rethink their stock and broaden the experience for the customer. We’ve started to sell a few more things – it hasn’t taken over – but some jewellery, scarfs and giftware.”
Buying books locally can also help to support the local book publishing industry.
“You might not be able to buy an Australian book overseas and if you do buy it overseas, the author would get less of a royalty. If we want a vibrant Australian literary culture, we need to support the local industry or it will diminish.”
There’s another idea that overseas online retailers have a greater range of stock, but local bookshops can order books and have them within days. And online Australian booksellers, such as Booktopia, now have the capacity to hold high amounts of stock.
John Purcell, Booktopia’s Chief Buyer and a former bookshop owner, tells us, “If a book is available, Booktopia is either already stocking it – our new warehouse has the capacity to hold over a million titles – or we can order it in within a few days, even from overseas.”
And what Booktopia can offer over overseas online retailers is much faster delivery. “Stock from our warehouse leaves within 1 or 2 business days, which means many readers in capital cities receive their orders within 48hrs.
“US and UK booksellers cannot compete with that,” says Purcell. “And Booktopia is moving to ensure even faster delivery as our new largely automated warehouse in Lidcombe [Sydney] kicks into gear.”
Booktopia is Australian owned and operated. It employs people on the ground in Australia at its warehouse and in customer service.
Purcell agrees with Scott Whitmont that buying Australian supports the Australian industry in general.
“I sit with 30+ Australian publishers and suppliers each month to discuss and purchase their latest titles. It’s my job to ensure Booktopia stocks Australian books.
“One of the great benefits to buying from local retailers is ensuring Australian authors and publishers have a place to sell their books.
“Without local bookshops stocking and local booksellers handselling Australian books I fear that Australian content would be lost amongst all the UK and US titles and over time our unique Australian voice would be silenced.”
Roadtesting the Experience
I decide to roadtest the overall experience of buying books via the various outlets, locally and overeas, online and in person. I look for the same book at each place and I choose a title that’s now available in paperback and was the 2015 Pulitzer winner – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – which should give each of the outlets a fair crack at availability and it’s also a book I genuinely want to read. For now, I’m only focusing on actual books not e-books (that’s another story).
Even though I live in a regional area (The Blue Mountains, 2 hours from Sydney), I’m quite well-placed for book outlets. The nearest town, Katoomba, is a 5-minute drive away which happens to have a Big W that sells books. Sadly, the local bookstore recently closed down but in the next town, Leura, another 5-minute drive away, is a local bookstore, Megalong books. I also have high-speed internet access and a computer so I can simply not leave the house if I choose to.
So first off I head to Big W, which is the nearest place to buy books for me. I’m impressed, and I have to admit surprised, at the quality of the selection here. I can’t see an assistant to ask for help but the books are alphabetised by author’s name so I find the book very quickly. The price has been discounted from the recommended retail price of $19.99 down to $12.97 which strikes me as very cheap.
Next I head to Megalong Books. I have a bit of a browse before seeking my title. As usual everything’s laid out beautifully; the books are clearly displayed, and it’s a warm and cosy shop – I could definitely spend an afternoon here. I find Doerr’s book quickly and as soon as I pick it up the shop assistant comments that it’s a great book – not in a pushy way; it’s a genuine comment that would be helpful if I wasn’t already decided. We then have a long chat about books in general and he gives me some great recommendations for future reading. I check the price – it’s $19.99 and with my loyalty discount, around 10 per cent off, so only $18. That’s sounds pretty good to me, especially given the overall experience.
So I return home for my online buying. I head to Booktopia and sign up. It’s all very easy and I like the idea that I can call a local call centre if I have any issues or questions. The total price with delivery comes to $22.90. Again, not bad given that I don’t have to leave my house, so for those who like the online shopping experience a good option. It’s also worth noting the delivery charge – $6.95 – is a flat fee so if were to buy more books that would bring the price right down even if the books weren’t all delivered at once. Booktopia do sometimes offer shipment deals to member customers so it’s worth keeping a look out for these too.
Next, I head to Amazon. I sign up which doesn’t take long. The stated price is $15.29 but when I go to checkout the total price with shipping is $25.77 which makes me think that drop in the Australian dollar must be taking effect. The estimated delivery time is 9-12 business days.
Next up is Book Depositary, a UK online retailer which I hear is famed for its cheap books and I now understand has been bought by Amazon. Book Depositary offers free shipping. The cynic in me thinks that nothing can be free – it must be built into the price right? The overall price is $18.24 – admittedly tempting, but then I look at the delivery time. It’s 5-8 business days to Australia. That’s way too long for me. I like instant gratification when it comes to books – and I personally love high street shopping.
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