Small Business Minister Nick Sherry has sparked outrage with his prediction that general bookstores will be absent from the market within five years, but some industry groups say an opportunity exists for start-ups to specialise as the sector shrinks.
Earlier this week, Sherry told a conference that online shopping would wipe out general bookstores within five years, expecting only specialist players in capital cities to survive.
The comment sparked anger in the industry, which has seen the collapse of REDGroup Retail; the parent company of bookstore chains Angus & Robertson and Borders.
Jon Page, president of the Australian Booksellers Association, said the minister had demonstrated a “distinct lack of understanding about the Australian book industry”.
“I doubt he’s even looked at any industry stats to make a remark like that,” Page says.
Daniel Jordan, managing director of Collins Booksellers, also dismissed the comment, stating: “To assume that bricks-and-mortar retailing won’t exist in five years is just plain wrong.”
Small business lobbyist Peter Strong – who also owns and runs an independent bookstore – agrees independents should embrace the challenges presented by increasing online sales and the rise of eBooks.
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“We will have a decrease in bricks-and-mortar, but nobody knows what that means. Plenty of people still love their bookshops and love dealing with human beings,” Strong told SmartCompany.
Strong says independent retailers will also pick up additional customers as a result of REDGroup Retail’s collapse.
“A lot of the [independent] booksellers are quite excited about it. Small businesses can respond quite quickly [to consumer trends], which is exciting not only for the business but for the consumer,” he says.
“We believe there is [enough demand]. We just need to work out how many operators will be able to survive in the marketplace. We’re all on a trip of discovery at the moment.”
Shadow Small Business Minister Bruce Billson also slammed Sherry’s comment, describing the minister as a “prophet of doom”.
“Senator Sherry’s defeatist and demoralising commentary adds insult to the injury of his lack of support for retailing as small business adapts and innovates to respond to market trends and difficult trading conditions,” Billson said in a statement.
But Russell Zimmerman, executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, says changes to the industry represent an opportunity for independent and specialist bookstores to benefit from the rise of online shopping and devices such as the eBook.
“Despite the trend for consumers to move away from buying traditional books and instead enjoy the latest popular fiction on their Kindle or eReader, booklovers who seek out rare or niche books will still prefer to buy from local community booksellers and read the old-fashioned way,” Zimmerman says.
“There is an opportunity here for independent, community-focused bookstores to do very well because they are more likely to stock the wider range of unique and quality books literature connoisseurs are seeking.”