The horse meat scandal has shown us there’s no such thing as a 99p lunch. What will it take to persuade us there’s no such thing as a 99p e-book? Speaking on BBC Radio 4s ‘The Bottom Line’, Victoria Barnsley, the boss of the publishing house HarperCollins, suggested that bookshops might consider charging customers for browsing since they are seeing increasing numbers of customers coming into their shop to look at physical items before buying them cheaper online.
I cannot remember the last time I bought something from a real bookshop. I always try and get it cheaper online first. This is not just limited to bookshops: HMV’s demise has been largely attributed to a failure to keep up with the growth in online sales. But Ms Barnsley’s comments have made me reconsider this. Is it really ethical? Do I really want to live in a society without shops?
Consumers just do not want to pay more if they don’t have to, and ethical considerations for the struggling independent bookseller are unlikely to really make them change. Fair trade products are still not the norm, and are perhaps even viewed as a luxury rather than a moral obligation. Since the horse meat scandal poses a potential risk to our health, however, it is much more likely to change consumer buying habits towards cheap meat than considerations about the treatment of banana growers in Ecuador so far seem to have been able to.
Perhaps one solution for bookshops would be for them to become primarily online services that also have a physical browsing library on the high street that consumers can visit before buying online. That way, consumers would still be able to do their price comparisons online and would know that they weren’t paying any more than they had to. Personally, I think this would be a sadder high street. But I cannot afford to be sentimental when it comes to buying course books for university, and I simply would not pay more for a book from Waterstone’s than from Amazon, because Waterstone’s is a national identikit outfit. However, I could be persuaded to spend more on a book from a shop that felt like the wand shop in Harry Potter, or that had an incredibly good independent café. These are the kinds of alterations that independent booksellers need to consider if they want to stand up against their online competitors. At the end of the day, an excellent one-off bookshop is infinitely more appealing than an impersonal massive company, but until bookshops have achieved that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes an independent shop feel special, they might just have to consider my first, more Orwellian idea of the future of retailing.