Internet proves saviour for traditional bookshop

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 4:24am

When Desmond Wong Yik-bun came up empty-handed from a search of Hong Kong's bookstores, his quest to find the title he was after took him on the first steps towards a new business.

Frustrated at not being able to find the book in Hong Kong, he tried his luck on a trip to Taiwan. He not only found the book but discovered that the island has far more publishers than in his home city. And, crucially for Hong Kong, the island's publishers offer more books in traditional Chinese characters.

The experience prompted him to set up an online Chinese-language bookstore called 2-floor.com, a version of Amazon of the United States, in 2009.

Wong, who runs his business from a modest office in a Tuen Mun shopping centre, said: "I think many people may also have the same needs as I do. They want to have a quick and easy way to buy books they want with no need to spend hours shopping around."

While the office is small, the business is not. With 2-floor.com generating a monthly turnover of HK$300,000, Wong believes the online bookstore has tapped into a market with plenty of opportunities for growth.

"We now focus on offering traditional Chinese book services. Later on, we will consider expanding that further to other products," he said. "I believe online shopping will be the trend for people to buy the books they like, while the website may also be used to sell other products, too."

Wong is mindful that Amazon, the pioneering American shopping website, also started with books but has expanded into a wide range of products from DVDs and music to electronics and computer products.

He is no stranger to the book business. In his first year of study for a computer science degree at Chinese University in the 1990s, he and several classmates set up a bookstore in Tuen Mun which offered an exchange service for used textbooks aimed at secondary school students.

"We thought that was only a summer holiday job, but it eventually was profitable, so we continued that as a business and it became my full-time job after graduation in 1997," Wong said.

However, the city's declining birthrate took its toll on the textbook exchange business, as fewer students visited the shop. The slump in demand at the Tuen Mun shop convinced Wong that an online venture would be a better replacement.

His computer knowledge enabled him to set up the sales platform himself, saving on the venture's running costs. Vindication for his decision to make the switch to online came after only six months, when the first profits were booked. Since then, Wong has not looked back.

Buoyed by the success of the online bookstore, he has decided to close the Tuen Mun bookstore after this year's student summer holidays. He will be free to devote himself fully to the online venture's expansion plans.

"The online bookstore is providing a lot more advantages than the physical bookstore. Its running cost is at least 30 per cent below that of the physical bookstore, considering that we do not need to pay rent for the online shop, while the rents in Hong Kong are so high. In addition, the online platform can run 24 hours a day automatically without staff, unlike a physical shop," he said.

Wong said the online platform was designed for ease of search, with customers able to choose from 400,000 items provided by five Taiwan publishers.

"If I need to rent a shop to display the 400,000 books in a decent way, it needs a lot of money to rent such a large space, and the decoration costs would be huge," he said.

"Now I do not need to keep too much in books stock, but only need to connect with the Taiwan publishers after receiving the customers' orders online."

Book lovers can choose titles as displayed on the website, or they can request for an item through the site that Wong and his four staff can secure from the Taiwan publishers. "Taiwan has many more book titles published than Hong Kong, so the chances of successfully finding sought-after items are very high," he said.

After customers make their selections, with the option of paying payment options over the internet or by direct transfer into the company's bank account, they receive their books in the post in about two weeks.

The most popular online titles relate to children and parenting. "Parenthood is an important topic, as many customers want to know more about how to raise their children and they are willing to buy educational material to help their children learn languages or other skills," Wong said.

Wong said he liked business-related books, but for his customers, it is a broader field. On offer are titles covering a wide range of interests, including detective stories, romantic works, comics, horror tales, science, history, culture and photography.

Most of the items are in traditional Chinese characters, but Wong has access to some English-learning books and Chinese translations of English-language novels.

A key challenge for his young business is to build up sufficient trust that people are confident to buy online. To promote the company, Wong pays about HK$10,000 a month to advertise the site on Google or Yahoo.

"But I think word of mouth is more important, so we have to treat our customers well to ensure they are satisfied and then spread the word about our services," he said.