Survival is not enough
By Chan Siu Sin
Large, well-established bookstores used to be the leaders in book sales. They are located in busy districts, and they devote large spaces to book displays. Some of them have been in business in Hong Kong for more than a century, and they often have their own personal missions in life. However, newcomers have had a great impact on the market, forcing the large bookstores to undertake reforms in how they do business.
Many people say Hong Kong is a cultural desert. Nevertheless, many long-standing bookstores are expanding their services while many new bookstores are setting up business here.
However, running a bookstore is now more than just selling books. In fact, bookstores have to look for the right niche in the industry in order to survive the intense competition.
Big bookstores that launched their businesses in Hong Kong years ago, like The Commercial Press and Cosmos Books, have been focusing on promotion of Chinese culture.
Established in Shanghai in 1897 and opening its first branch in Hong Kong in 1914, The Commercial Press opened its tenth branch in September 1999 The Commercial Press Star House Book Centre.
According to Mr. Charles Kwan, retail director of The Commercial Press, the company has been promoting Chinese modernization and culture since its establishment, mainly by spreading knowledge through publications, sales of books, and sponsorship of ad hoc seminars and talks.
Examples include the Tour to the Essence exhibition and The First Exhibition of the Largest Mural: Wutaishan, held in 1999.
Cosmos Books, which was established in Wanchai in 1976 and which opened its second branch in Tsim Sha Tsui in September 1999, has a similar mission of promoting Chinese culture.
Working in Cosmos Books since its establishment, Mr. Lee Chun Hung, deputy general manager of Cosmos Books, said Cosmos Books still puts emphasis on promoting culture and art subjects despite changes in the market and society.
To achieve this aim, Cosmos Books has been organising a novel writing competition annually for 3 years. Winners works are published with subsidies from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Although these bookstores are well-established in Hong Kong, they are still affected by a change in the business environment in Hong Kong.
Said Mr. Kwan, The retail market for books is still profitable, as the rent and labour costs were lowered after the economic downturn in 1997.
Mr. Kwan also said that the number of readers in the market is increasing due to improvements in public education.
However, the buying of books is growing at a slower rate than the increase in the number of bookstores. As a result, the market share for each store is decreasing, said Mr. Kwan.
In order to differentiate itself from competitors in the market, The Commercial Press has been publishing large varieties of books, including reference books, dictionaries, social science works, literature, history and philosophy.
Like The Commercial Press, Cosmos Books also emphasizes the publication of books, especially literature.
According to Mr. Lee, not only has the business environment changed a lot, but also the reading habits of readers.
He said that readers bought more books about literature and social science than they did about 10 years ago.
Now, more readers are shifting to books about information technology, finances and economics, Mr. Lee added.
Moreover, he pointed out that the most popular titles in Cosmos Books are popular fiction written by modern local writers such as Cheung Siu Han, Erica Li and Isabell Nee.
Readers tastes have changed from classical literature to popular fiction, said Mr. Lee.
However, Mr. Kwan of The Commercial Press has another point of view.
He said that reference books, dictionaries, and maps are always the bestsellers in The Commercial Press.
He also said that the sales of books like novels always change with changing social trends.
The sales of popular fiction are greatly influenced by the mass media, Mr. Kwan said.
One of the examples is the big hit Taiwanese drama series called My Fair Princess boosted by Asia Television. As the TV series is based on a Taiwanese novel, the sales of the books have drastically increased.
He therefore concludes that there are no fundamental changes in the general reading pattern.
Compared with corner bookstores and bookstores that are located on the second or third floors of old buildings, Mr. said large-scale bookstores have the advantage of different varieties of books, whereas corner bookstores usually have more specialized books.
However, due to the keen competition, both The Commercial Press and Cosmos Books have tried new ways to attract more readers.
Both bookstores have started to provide seats or even cafes for readers to take a rest and choose books in a relaxing manner.
According to Mr. Kwan, The Commercial Press in the past played a low-key position in the retail industry. They only stressed the varieties of books but not the shop design and displays.
With readers increasing demand for better services and comfortable reading environments, The Commercial Press started launching a new marketing strategy in its new branch at the Star House, providing seats and spaces for readers to rest and read.
Cosmos Books also started this new gimmick in their new branch located at Tsim Sha Tsui.
Mr. Lee said their branch in Wanchai was already providing sofas in 1976 for readers. However, they eventually removed the seats due to the lack of space.
Nevertheless, in its new branch, the strategy has been re-adopted and seats are provided for the readers again.
Besides, providing seats for readers, The Commercial Press also started selling books on the Internet to meet the rising demand from readers.
Mr. Kwan said that this new way of selling books could help them explore and expand their existing market. He said that he did not think it will affect the sales of their bookstores.
Page One, a young bookstore established in Hong Kong a few years ago, uses a different approach to running this culture business.
According to Mr. Owen Ngau, the shop manager of Page One at Festival Walk Kowloon Tong, what they are concerned about is not only books, but also the environment in selling books.
The atmosphere is very importantthe interior design of the shop, the display of books, lighting and music. We would like our customers to regard coming to our shops as an enjoyment, said Mr. Ngau.
In the branch at Festival Walk, a cafe provides a place for readers to have a cup of coffee, take a rest and read.
The first thing most customers are aware of is that Page One is comfortable, spacious and the products sold are interesting and appealing, Mr. Ngar.
In the beginning, the shop used to specialize in selling books about design, photography and architecture, targeting mainly professionals and designers.
After collecting opinions from the customers, the shop decided to provide other books such as popular fiction, kids books and business books.
Mr. Ngar stated that by providing more varieties of books, the shop can help widen readers perspectives and exposure.
Concerning the reading habits of Hong Kongers, Mr. Ngar said that they pursue high speed.
Due to the fast pace of life in Hong Kong, it is not very easy for local people to squeeze in time reading difficult books, so they prefer short stories that are easier to digest.
However, this does not mean that they do not like reading, Mr. Ngar said.
He said that the interest in reading can be stimulated and enhanced by providing a greater variety of books.
He also said that if the media can do more reporting on books, more people may be interested in reading.