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Booksellers try new tactics in battle to survive Covid-19

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Survival plea from founder

Doctor Fu never expected to find fame simply by reading a book. But a snapshot of him holding Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order while lying in a hospital bed was widely reposted online. Netizens were soon celebrating the image as a sign of the “indomitable spirit” of virus-struck Wuhan.

Considering how many Chinese are still homebound, you’d think books would be a wider means of fighting off boredom. Many booksellers are struggling, however. Beijing-based OWSpace is a good example, with its recent distress call. “We only sell 15 books a day on average. Moreover, half are bought by our book-loving staff,” its founder Xu Zhiyuan wrote in a letter widely circulated on WeChat. To save his shop, Xu urged booklovers to stump up from Rmb50 to Rmb8,000 ($1,145.38) in return for shopping credits, gifts and various benefits.

In WiC480 we reported that some of the bricks-and-mortar bookstores in China have reinvented themselves with dazzling décor and built multipurpose spaces where customers can meet up, enjoy a cup of coffee and even convene for classes that interest them.

At the trendiest venues visitors post selfies of themselves browsing the shelves. But the coronavirus outbreak has seen a plunge in visitors. According to the Bureau of Publishing, 90% of the bookstores surveyed nationwide were closed and 40% predicted that sales in the first half of the year would dive more than 50% on 2019.

In a separate finding by Shumeng, a local trade group, 86% of the bookstores surveyed said they had no proper income source after being shuttered, and 78% thought their businesses could last no more than three months should the grim situation persist.

Battling to survive, some bookstores are harnessing online channels in a bid to provide contactless service and drum up sales. “We’ve opened more than 40 WeChat groups to facilitate book purchases since the Chinese New Year holiday break finished. There readers can make orders and pay. Our staff then sterilise and package the items before sending them out,” Chen Hongbing, marketing director of the chain Popular, told Xinhua.

As online orders grew to 300 to 400 books a day, Popular took its digital strategy a step further by setting up a virtual bookstore on WeChat and partnering with Meituan-Dianping, the Tencent-affiliated on-demand delivery platform, to ensure that orders would be delivered to homes within 30 minutes.

Another chain Zhongshuge was one of the first to try livestreaming, a key medium for generating flash sales from “shoppertainment” (see WiC448). In a four-hour session a Zhongshuge store manager grew the company’s fan base by 30 times through detailing the shop’s elaborate design and introducing interesting titles. In another session, two Zhongshuge staff were shown solving mathematical puzzles that targeted home-schooled students.

The popularity of online videos has encouraged Paul’s Pocket, an independent bookstore in Hefei, to shift its reading groups online. “So far we’ve held four book discussion sessions. Around 200 people have joined,” says Zhu Sha, its founder, noting that each participant typically pays Rmb10.

State-owned Anhui Xinhua, which has 523 branches across the province, has followed suit. In just a few weeks its online reading sessions have attracted 100,000 viewers, giving rise to more than 1,000 reading groups.

Other stores have focused on making it safer to shop at their physical locations. Duoyun Bookstore, on the 52nd floor of one of Shanghai’s most prominent skyscrapers, has been requiring that visitors make online bookings since it reopened on March 2. The registration system allows the bookstore to control visitor numbers (it was getting 3,000 shoppers a day before Covid-19 took hold). Now only a dozen or so people are able to shop at the 2,200-square-metre store at any one time.


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