Canadian English-Language Bookstores: 2020 Shipping Cost Increases

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The 2020 survey of English-language Canadian independent booksellers from BookNet Canada finds that a largely digital-ready retail industry was in place last year.

In Toronto on January 31. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Peter Spiro

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Rating Each Other’s Store’s Health as ‘Fair’
The nonprofit BookNet Canada research program reports, “For 83 percent of independent bookstores across Canada, shipping costs increased between 2019 and 2020.”

One bookseller, the report says, was quoted predicting that “The true costs of online shopping and shipping will become apparent in 2021 and beyond. There was so much government support (both directly and via publishers) in 2020, that many of those costs were offset, and we will see less of that going forward.

“Profitability will be a real issue.”

It’s worth noting that the information in this study comes from some 55 brick-and-mortar bookstores only in English-language Canada. BookNet says this represent about 20 percent of the English-language industry’s bookstores.

As the pressures of the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic buffeted the sector, 79 percent of respondents to BookNet’s survey said they qualified for COVID-19 government assistance programs last year, 55 percent receiving Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and 55 percent on the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA).

The survey, called The State of Independent Bookselling in Canada 2020, gathered data from English-language independent bookstores across the country.

The insights compiled range from operating expenses and processes, to revenue and profit margins, returns, and more. It also delves into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on bookselling: both what changes have been difficult and which ones independent bookstores intend to keep post-pandemic.

Overall, In 2020, 66 percent of booksellers rated the health of Canadian publishers as fair.

What about other independent retailers? Twelve percent of booksellers rated the health of other retailers as excellent, and 67 percent gave a “fair” rating.

Selected Results

Image: BookNet Canada

Among the top-line outcomes is a telling one, when Canadian bookselling is placed in the context of the world industry. The market’s respondents were for the most part running digital stores prior to the arrival of the pathogen, and thus had some fluency, themselves and among their patrons, with digital operations.

  • Almost all respondents were running an e-commerce or online store (96 percent) and 74 percent had done so since before 2020
  • Only 22 percent of bookstores set up their online store after the onset of the pandemic
  • The more revenue a bookstore had, the more likely it was to outsource deliveries
  • The majority of booksellers said they thought their number of returns to suppliers were about right (36 percent) or somewhat low (34 percent)
  • On average, new books made up the bulk of overall 2020 revenue (78 percent)
  • Between 2019 and 2020, sales for puzzles increased for 80 percent of responding bookstores, followed by a growth in sales for new books for 67 percent of bookstores surveyed, and toys and games for 45 percent
  • About seven out of 10 booksellers responding rated their bookstore as extremely or moderately healthy (74 percent) and about six in 10 said they viewed bookstores in general as extremely or moderately healthy (63 percent)
  • Fifty-five percent of booksellers rated their own bookstore’s health as excellent and 36 percent of surveyed booksellers said they rated Canadian bookstores’ health as excellent

Regarding the point about shipping costs increasing for surveyed booksellers by 83 percent in 2020, the shipping data about which booksellers were asked could include both consumer-order shipping and other business-related shipping.

It’s interesting to note, too, that when asked which processes they performed with the least efficiency, one of the Top Five most frequently listed was “delivering to customers.”

Image: BookNet Canada

In other operating expenses that changed between 2019 and 2020, booksellers responding said that supplies and equipment costs increased for 61 percent of respondents. Rent stayed the same for 50 percent of respondents and Internet and telephone costs stayed the same for 45 percent of respondents.

Working Part-Time, Closing Earlier

Working at a bookstore was mostly a part time gig in 2020. More than half of bookstores that answered our survey employed more part time staff than full time employees (57 percent), 28 percent employed more full-time employees than part time, and 15 percent employed the same number of full-time and part-time employees.

Part time and full time staffing by the numbers in 2020:

  • Total employees: 241 full-time and 379 part-time
  • Average: 4.4 full-time and 6.9 part-time staff
  • Median: Two full-time and four part-time staff

And a trend likely to continue is spotted in this quote from a survey respondent: Closing at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. has increased staff retention and happiness and allows us to put more staff during busier hours which have always suffered from the need to stretch thin to cover night shifts.”

More information is in the 48-page report, which can be accessed free of charge here.

Canada is Frankfurt’s Guest of Honor

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Guest of Honor Canada is building a program for Frankfurter Buchmesse to involve both a physical pavilion at the in-person trade show in Germany and an online parallel presence.

You can read more about the extensive plans for the market’s guest-of-honor participation here.


More from Publishing Perspectives on bookselling is here, more on bookstores is here, the Canadian market is here, more on the German market is here, more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, and more on publishing trade shows and book fairs is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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