Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: Toronto Shopkeeper Shops Chapters (iStore)

Is the bookseller starting a new chapter?

Location: Chapters Queensway (1950 The Queensway, Etobicoke, ON)

It's no secret that the last fifteen years have been a tumultuous time in the book industry. Retail big box behemoths Chapters and Indigo helped squeeze many independent bookstores out of business, while discounters Costco and Walmart drove down the cost of bestsellers to razor thin margins. The growth of e-commerce saw Amazon dominating online retail and now tablets are fundamentally changing the way many people read while challenging old business models.

Yet Indigo Books & Music (which has owned the Chapters banner since 2000) remains Canada's largest seller of books and under CEO Heather Reisman has been striving to reinvent itself as a multi-category creative department store. The central focus remains books, but new categories such as small electronics, toys, gifts, and home accessories are taking a bigger piece of the retail real estate. Non-book items now account for 22% of Indigo's sales.

Last year Indigo sold the Kobo e-reader brand that it helped to develop and recently announced the opening of Indigo iStore electronic boutiques with a focus on Apple products, tablets, and smartphone accessories. The first of 40 planned boutiques opened last month at Chapters' reorganized Queensway location.

Design: When you enter the store there is no way you can miss the gleaming white hulk of the iStore sitting front and centre by the entrance. It's meant to grab you attention and is well organized. Counters display tablets and e-readers while fixtures feature accessories, mobile phone cases, and chargers. The selection looks impressive enough to make the iStore a destination in its own right.

The rest of the store has been reconfigured with giftware now spread throughout the store in mini vignettes that complement rather than clash with the bookcases. The bargain books area, which used to be fairly prominent is pushed to the side, and the Paper Shop is newly enlarged next to a baby department.

Merchandise: Books remain the core of the store but the other categories make browsing enjoyable and likely to increase a customer's time in the store. A fun baby department resides next to the children's book area and is filled with plush toys and baby gifts. Nearby the Paper Shop features Moleskine products, journals, greeting cards, and gift wrap. Also, the store now carries the colourful and affordable Poppin line which manages to make stationary covetable.

Service: Two associates were manning the iStore and were eager to offer guidance. Staff were also in evidence throughout the store approaching customers. The associate at the checkout promoted the store's Plum Rewards program, which enables customers to collect points on purchases and e-mails them personalized book recommendations.

Online: Facing the online colossus of Amazon can't be easy, but the newly redesigned Indigo website is a pleasure to navigate. While many Canadian retailers have yet to face the challenges (and potential) of e-commerce, Indigo is a well established player and has recently launched a free ship-to-store option that provides complimentary shipping to any of their locations. Additionally, they offer free standard shipping for most purchases over $25 and a Toronto Quick Ship option for $9.95.

Confusingly (and frustratingly) the website offers often substantially lower book pricing than found in store. No doubt this is due to being competitive with Amazon. Terminals are also found throughout the store, enabling customers to place special orders directly in store.

The website also features an electronics department with Kobo e-readers, iStore branded accessories, tablet and smartphone cases, and Beats headphones.

Grade: 75%

Lost marks for: While the website should be a strong ace up Indigo's sleeve, the variance between in store and online pricing is an annoyance.

Gained marks for: Good staffing levels for a weeknight. The new store design is engaging and makes one want to browse (though I suspect committed bibliophiles would think differently) and the iStore is an innovative way of treating a business threat as an opportunity.