By Edward Nawotka
“In the UK, retailers have been very introverted. That’s what we’re trying to change by working with international customers,” says Kieron Smith, managing director of BookDepository.co.uk, an online bookseller best known for its free shipping to more than 90 countries around the world. “More than half of our customers are overseas and it’s fascinating to watch the live Google maps feed on our web site that show where customers are located and what they’re buying. ” He adds, “Our sales follow the path of the sun.”
Launched four years ago, the company just hit $100 million in book sales for the financial year that ended in June. The majority of customers still come from English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada, with the fastest growth coming from Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Outside the UK, the US is the strongest market and, only yesterday, the company launched a dedicated US web site — BookDepository.com.
“The US Site will enable us to offer more titles from US publishers to worldwide customers,” said Smith, who emphasized that with the addition, the company can now offer a total of 2.4 million titles, sourced from distributors and booksellers across the globe.
Sales for both Book Depository’s UK and US sites go through the company’s distribution center in Gloucester, England. While that seems costly, Smith asserts that since his company ships between 120,000 and 150,000 packages per week, it has enabled them to negotiate cost effective rates with their primary shipper, Royal Mail. He adds that the shipping, though free to the customer, is still fairly fast: Shipping to Australia takes between 8-10 days and times to the US, where the Royal Mail has multiple distribution points, is even quicker.
As far as competing with Amazon.com — by far the dominant force in online US retailing — Smith says that not only will his company’s prices be lower, but his site should be able stay in closer touch with its customers and react more rapidly to their demands. “Amazon is now a very big site that cannot change very quickly,” he said. “Look at it, the site’s design hasn’t been updated much in five years.”
As the Book Depository continues to grow and add suppliers, Smith says it is likely to expand its selection of books in languages other than English, which now already includes a small number of books in French, German and Spanish. “We’re actually running out of English language titles to sell,” said Smith. “It all depends on distributors,” said Smith. “For example, we’d like to offer more in French, but in France there are only a limited number of distributors willing to work with us.” Not everyone, it seems, wants the competition.
Though he didn’t express a desire to sell e-books, Smith says he’s been ruminating on what the advent of the ebook means for booksellers. It’s a topic he’ll address when he speaks at the forthcoming Tools of Change conference at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
“We’ve held on to slightly romantic notions of bookselling for a long time,” says Smith. “As the divisions between the author and the reader become closer, the question is how the bookseller plays a role in that without being a hindrance. I think maybe it’s about making those relationships happen, and doing that which we did on the shop floor — enabling conversation. If you have a million customers, as we do, then that’s a million conversations. A million conversations sounds like a grand notion, but you also have to manage it so it doesn’t merely become noise. I suppose the thing is to keep experimenting. Some things you’ll get right, some wrong. But the one thing you have to do is try.”
SHOP: Book Depository’s US site
CONTACT: Kieron Smith directly