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The Implications of Books in Dollar Stores

October 24, 2009

value books

For the past ten years I’ve had the pleasure of selling Bibles to three of the country’s largest dollar store chains–a collective of  about 17,000 stores.  I figure I’ve sold more than 3 million Bibles by now.

I’ve also sold a lot of books.  Historically, book sales weren’t sold into stores the same way Bibles were.  Bibles were “everyday” items, sold year-’round in a permanent spot on the shelf.  Books, on the other hand, were sold only occasionally, and then only as  “in and outs” at peak promotional times, like Christmas or Easter.

Until a couple years ago.

In 2007 Thomas Nelson started selling larger everyday programs into Fred’s Discount Stores—a 625 store chain.  Fred’s increased their permanent space for adult published products from 12 inches (2 bibles) to a full three-foot shelf.  And it worked.

Soon we added another shelf and focused on building the story of how books could sell among the poor, marginalized customers of these chains.  Dollar General noticed (we’d had some successful experiments there over the years) and today dedicates over 50 running feet of adult-level book products in their stores, and they’re ripping through them.  Fred’s now has a full 5-shelf endcap of books and Family Dollar appears to be getting the message and should soon be following suit in the book business.

While I fought hard, long, and patiently to introduce books into the dollar store channel, and their presence in the channel is a boon for the few publishers allowed in (it’s a LOT of units per title) at least for a while, the implications of having a major book presence in the dollar stores should be considered from a 30,000 foot level. That books are a reading technology that is finding a “permanent” home in the extreme discount channel is, I think, instructive for the publishing industry.dollar store bookshelf

Poor people read and buy books—but only on their terms. Everything about this truth is undoubtedly news to publishers, since nearly all book publishing targets the middle- and upper-classes. [Well, they have always been willing to sell the scraps–remainders–to the poor.]  The adult poor will thrown down for a book IF it’s cheap enough ($3 – $8) and IF they can buy it where they ordinarily shop and IF the topics are inspirational or fictional.  The typical Dollar General customer doesn’t browse at Barnes & Noble.  Don’t let the economic downturn you see fueling huge increases at the extreme discount chains mislead you; books are succeeding among their core constituency—single mothers with family incomes under $32,000 a year.

If the technology that is a book has made its way to the dollar store channel, it’s about to disappear altogether from the normal trade and discount markets. Dollar stores are the tail end of the long tail of technology.  (Well, then there’s flea markets.)  If what was once cool is now clunky and obsolete, it will pause briefly on a dollar store shelf on its way to the grave.  You can still buy a VHS tape at a dollar store, but the selection is scarce as garden rake tines.  DVD’s are now there, sold in too heavily, and not moving nearly quickly enough.  DVR’s, Netflix, and downloading already rule.  So seize as much from the dollar stores as you can while you can, but the next publishing frontier (digital, virtual, and viral) is already pushing books into the last civilized retail channel.  For how long?  Who knows.

The book (and I use the term loosely) business could be ubiquitous rather than economically sectarian. If good books will sell in a dollar store, they will sell just about anywhere.  The issue is:  can publishers and booksellers figure out how to distribute them where everyone is?  Publishers have ignored the provinces of the other half of America for so long that it’s hard to know if they can or will be creative enough to develop accessible products (educationally, economically, topically, and geographically) that can reach ALL of mankind.  But in a new world where revenues will be down even if readership were to go up (and that’s, as my mom would say, a BIG IF), finding ways to reach every human is a worthy if essential goal.

What implications do you see?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 12:26 pm

    Some challenging thougths here, David. Thanks.

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