Hong Kong bookstores feeling the pinch as online sellers storm the market

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 10:09pm

I refer to the article on the closure of the Page One chain (“Sad chapter as bookstore chain shuts outlets”, November 18).

The current plight of bookstores in Hong Kong is plain to see. To my dismay, but not utter shock, I find the prevalence of online sales has taken a heavy toll on physical bookstores like Page One.

The perks of online shopping are irresistible – a variety of titles offered at a bargain price and shipped to our front doors. Online stores like eBay offer a vast array of titles, ranging from philosophy and religion to comics and encyclopaedias.

Amazon.com even has a list of “very strange books”, featuring weird and witty titles like 15 Days Without a Head, A Book about Absolutely Nothing, and Knitting With Dog Hair: Better A Sweater From A Dog You Know and Love Than From A Sheep You’ll Never Meet.

It was obvious that Page One could only offer limited choices compared to online platforms. Moreover, its lack of Chinese books further exacerbated the effects of the retail downturn for the store, as it failed to satisfy avid teenage readers in Hong Kong who prefer material in their mother tongue.

Overpriced books also threaten the survival of physical stores, and that was true of Page One as well. It is perfectly understandable that prices inflate in keeping with skyrocketing rents, but the teenage market shrinks rapidly when a book costs them an arm and a leg. Books by popular authors like John Green or Rainbow Rowell cost around HK$100 in Page One, while magazines were also relatively pricey.

This trend has given rise to a phenomenon where readers spend hours in the store flipping through books, without actually purchasing them. Some even finish a whole novel in a few visits. Revenues are greatly hampered this way. Ironically, Page One facilitated in-store reading with its cosy, dim lighting and ample space. This results in a vicious cycle, where books become even more expensive to compensate for the loss and eventually the company ends up in financial trouble.

To remedy the plight of bookstores in Hong Kong, more market research must be conducted to target specific consumer demands. Companies should sell fewer books of genres that have seen sales plummet, such as cookbooks, travel and child care guides, as reliable information on these are easily obtained, and constantly updated, online.

Though I am optimistic that physical bookstores will not be replaced despite the changing reading habits of people in Hong Kong, I fear that upcoming challenges amid fierce competition with online platforms will still lead to multiple sales crises among traditional retailers.

Erica Yeung, Lai Chi Kok