Book chains better watch out: Amazon is coming to town

A delivery man carries a customer order as he leaves the Amazon Prime warehouse in New York. Bookstores are feeling the squeeze from Amazon’s incursions into their territory across the US. (AP)
Updated 23 December 2017
0

Book chains better watch out: Amazon is coming to town

Bethesda, US: Bookstores are a go-to for the procrastinating gift-getter, a one-stop shop that has a little something for everyone.
But there’s a new kid on the block this holiday season as online giant Amazon creeps into the physical realm, with 13 brick-and-mortar stores across the US and counting.
In the upscale Washington suburb of Bethesda, the sector’s transformation is playing out in full view: traditional bookstore Barnes & Noble is closing up shop and Amazon is coming to town — with a gleaming new store soon to open not two minutes’ walk away.
“I think the elephant in the room is Amazon,” said Donna Paz Kaufman, a Florida-based industry consultant. “Anybody in publishing is concerned about the tremendous market share that Amazon has garnered.”
Since it began soaring to e-commerce domination in 1995, Amazon has been a thorn in the side of independent bookstores and big-box chains alike, with Borders shuttered in 2011.
Barnes & Noble’s numbers, meanwhile, are dwindling.
The regal, three-level Barnes & Noble in Bethesda feels like more than just a store: coffee drinkers overlook passers-by, while children gather around a storytelling stage, decorated with woodland creatures.
But Barnes & Noble says it was unable to agree on a lease extension, and the shop will close in January after two decades.
Up in arms, over 5,600 people signed a petition urging the Federal Realty Investment Trust — the property owner — to “strike a fair leasing deal” and keep Barnes & Noble open.
Sarah Pekkanen, a local author whose first book signing was in the store, dubbed the closure “a loss.”
“I bring my kids there all the time, I know some of the people who work there,” she told AFP. “It’s always sad when a good bookstore closes.”
Though itself a big-box store that at its zenith menaced independent sellers, long-time customer Liz Cummings said Barnes & Noble “became a part of the community.”
But although she is dismayed by the loss, Cummings, who directs a local writing center, is welcoming Amazon’s neighborhood debut.
“There’s no concern as far as I can tell, because people want to be able to browse for books,” said Cummings. “We’ll take it.”
Amazon told AFP it will stock only bestselling or highly rated titles and feature local authors in the store, which it said is “all about discovery.”
For the industry, which includes an increasing number of independents according to the American Booksellers Association, welcoming Amazon is more of a challenge — but not something to pout over.
“Our culture is at risk if there isn’t diversity in the number of outlets selling books,” said analyst Kaufman.
She believes Amazon’s move into the brick-and-mortar market — with stores selling books and technology like the Kindle e-reader and Fire tablet — is about accessing a certain type of customer.
“We know that their interest in the bookstore world is really a portal,” she said. “You have upscale, educated, higher income customers who are early adopters in technology.”
“They started with books because they wanted the profile of those customers that would then buy a lot of other things.”
But independent bookstores are here to stay, she said, as they can dodge the key issue of scale, which crippled big chains.
Plus, “younger people want authenticity,” she said.
“They’re not necessarily big on big,” she explained — adding consumers are “looking for something beyond the click.”
Her assessment echoes an upcoming Harvard Business School study on the resurgence of independent bookstores, whose numbers — according to the study, citing the ABA — rose 35 percent between 2009 to 2015, having plummeted 43 percent between 1995 and 2000.
Study author Ryan Raffaeli said community engagement, thoughtful curation and “convening” — hosting events to attract like-minded customers — help independent shops survive and thrive.
Testament to these findings are ex-Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham and his wife Lissa Muscatine — former speech writer for Hillary Clinton — who took over iconic Washington bookstore Politics and Prose in 2011, and have enjoyed record sales ever since.
Their store is located almost equidistant from Bethesda and Washington’s posh Georgetown neighborhood — which also lost its Barnes & Noble in 2011, and is slated to get an Amazon Books on the very same block.
While Graham admits Amazon’s “convenience and cost” is hard to beat, he believes there is “room in the market for them as well as us.”
He likens local bookshops to community centers — and he’s not convinced the cyberspace behemoth can replicate that crucial human touch.
“We’re more really agents of culture than instruments of commerce,” he said.
Although independents have “weathered the storm,” Graham said, bookselling remains a game of narrow margins, with non-book offerings and behind-the-scenes technology crucial to boosting revenue and shaving administrative costs.
Still, he remains upbeat about bookstores’ prospects.
“The book, with some improvement, has existed for several centuries, so that’s reassuring,” he jokes, reflecting that the “faddishness that first greeted e-books” has somewhat worn off.
As for Amazon, his message clear: “Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said. “Bring it on.”


Japan ships fewer cars to US as export growth slows

Updated 16 August 2018
0

Japan ships fewer cars to US as export growth slows

  • Japan’s exports to the US fell 5.2 percent year-on-year in July, down for a second straight month
  • Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan’s overall exports, rose 8.0 percent

TOKYO: Japan’s export growth slowed more than expected in July as shipments to the US fell for a second straight month, with the automotive sector down sharply and global trade disputes casting doubts over foreign demand.
Ministry of Finance (MOF) data out on Thursday showed exports rose 3.9 percent year-on-year in July, far below a 6.3 percent increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll. The rise followed a 6.7 percent year-on-year gain in June.
Japan’s exports to the US fell 5.2 percent year-on-year in July, down for a second straight month, due to a 12.1 percent decline in car shipments.
“The drop in US-bound car exports was in reaction to brisk sales seen there a year ago, boosted by the solid US economy and declines in oil prices,” said an MOF official in charge of compiling the data.
“We cannot say whether it was affected by trade tensions with the US.” US President Donald Trump has made the threat of heavy tariffs a core part of his agenda, with an eye on the US auto sector’s trade deficit with countries such as Germany and Japan, raising speculation about restrictions on US-bound car exports.
Japanese carmakers have so far shown no sign of rushing to boost car shipments to the US, which would happen if they anticipated higher tariffs were to be imposed on their products in coming months.
“While caution is heightening over US trade policy, US car sales are levelling off, causing Japan’s car exports to the US to level off as well,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.
“If capital outflows from emerging economies accelerate on top of this, it would cause a marked slowdown in global economy, further weighing on Japan’s exports.” Imports from the US rose 11.0 percent in the year to July, led by crude oil, motors and liquefied petroleum gas.
As a result, Japan’s trade surplus with the US fell 22.1 percent year-on-year to ¥502.7 billion ($4.55 billion). Exports to China, Japan’s largest trading partner, rose 11.9 percent in July from a year ago.
Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan’s overall exports, rose 8.0 percent, led by semiconductor production equipment and electronics parts for China and sales of steel to Thailand.
Overall imports rose 14.6 percent in the year to July, roughly matching economists’ median estimate, resulting in a trade deficit of ¥231.2 billion, vastly exceeding the expected ¥50 billion.
Thursday’s trade figures came after gross domestic product (GDP) data last week showed Japan’s economy, the world’s third largest, rebounded in the second quarter from a January-March dip.
Analysts say global economic growth is likely to support Japan’s exports, but international trade conflicts are an ever-present risk to Japan’s export-reliant economy.
The impact on the broader economy from higher US tariffs on Japanese automotive exports would be significant, they say.
Japan’s economy grew at an annualized rate of 1.9 percent in the second quarter on the back of household and business spending, recovering from an earlier contraction.