Access to books and ownership of books, is one of the determining factors in helping children to become readers but for many families, bookshops appear to be intimidating or inconvenient places. Supermarkets on the other hand, are full of parents and children shopping together. Can they provide the books children need? Julia Eccleshare investigates.
Over 60% of children’s books are currently sold through book clubs, school bookfairs and the rest, so debate about other outlets, such as supermarkets might be thought of as an irrelevance.
Children owning books
But, not so. Breaking down barriers between parents and the books their children read, and enabling children to become self-purchasers are hugely important. Access to books and specifically ownership of books, is just one of the determining factors in helping children to become readers. The difficulty is, where should children’s books be most usefully sold?
Supermarkets the solution?
The obvious answer is supermarkets where many adults shop around once a week and where parents and children often shop together. However, the last ten or more years have shown that selling children’s books in supermarkets is not as straightforward as it sounds.
On the plus side, there are clear benefits for the retailers, the suppliers and the buyers. These markets open vital new opportunities. For the supermarkets, they provide the chance to add a new area of business which does not compete directly with any of the other goods on sale in their shops; for the publishers they provide a brand new market which does not compete with the bookshop market and is, instead, incremental business which has to be a bonus. For the shoppers, many of whom have no available bookshop or are intimidated by the ones they could reach, they provide a one-off opportunity to browse and buy at what is already a shopping moment. And yet, for all three groups there are also substantial downsides that reduce the importance and impact of the whole enterprise.
An idiosyncratic ‘product’
Much of the problem lies in the very idiosyncratic nature of children’s books which makes them difficult to sell in a supermarket context. They do not have the same kinds of profile as most other commodities. They have few ‘market leaders’, they are not usually ‘impulse buys’ and they do not get bought as repeats. This makes it hard for supermarkets selling them because they have to be treated as special cases in an otherwise highly streamlined business. It also makes it hard for the publishers supplying the supermarkets because the difference between the needs of the supermarkets and the major or trade outlets that are their standard business is so great. And, it raises questions about the fulfilment of book buying opportunities that supermarkets can realistically provide for their customers. Because of this, the winds around children’s books in supermarkets blow hot and cold.
The truth is that, specialist children’s bookshops aside, it is notoriously hard to make a profitable business out of children’s books. The problems of very low unit prices and therefore a tiny profit margin on each individual title makes them far from cost effective. This could be outweighed if the ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ philosophy that operates throughout supermarkets could be applied but two things make this hard to put into practice. Firstly, the space-consuming face out display that Sainsbury’s opted for with its launch into children’s books in the 1980s and which has been widely copied elsewhere, is far more enticing than the rather mingy spine displays in most bookshops. Secondly, the evidence is that parents and children like a range of titles from which to choose and will buy more if the range is bigger.
Which children’s books to stock?
The range is, of course a crucial issue. While it makes sense for supermarkets to stock children’s books, the problem of stock selection is enormous and fundamental. Policy on what kinds of books are stocked varies from one chain to another and, according to the sales directors of the supplying publishers, depends very much on the personal commitment of each company’s book buyer. Inevitably, all supermarkets will go for the children’s books that sell cheaply and in large volume. Their shoppers visit a store about once a week and expect to see fresh stock pretty frequently. The books are of course open access and unsupervised which means that they are liable to be much fingered even after only a relatively short display time – and nothing is more off-putting than tired and bedraggled stock. Tesco change about 20% of their children’s books every six weeks, pulling out the underperforming titles. A six-week turn around of at least a proportion of stock makes absolute sense to a supermarket but is a very different stock holding pattern for publishers to respond to the model they are accustomed to.
The need to sell a lot of copies quickly and cheaply governs the kind of children’s books supermarkets stock. As Fiona Kennedy, book buyer for Tesco says, ‘We don’t sell a lot of titles but we sell them in depth.’ The books that sell quickly are the ones that the customers know about without any advice. Books associated with mass market merchandising such as Thomas the Tank Engine and The Telly Tubbies are sure-fire successes. Home learning titles, tying in with the current national obsession with passing tests, are hugely in demand. Well known series fiction such as Goosebumps and Animal Ark also go well. All are easy purchases with the shopper already knowing the kind of book that they are getting. There is very little room indeed on the supermarket shelves for new authors, literary fiction or high quality picture books.
Own brand or trade?
The history of children’s book selection has been chequered as supermarkets have moved in and out of a belief in own branding. Sainsbury’s pulled out of its twelve-year-old ‘own brand’ deal with Walker Books last year partly so that they could cherry pick from all publishers’ lists and partly on the grounds that they could make more money from the shelf space with food products. Almost coincidentally, Tesco then embarked on a partnership with Brilliant Books aiming to create an own brand range of children’s titles.
Fiona Kennedy at Tesco is clear that having own brand books is just one strand of their book supply. ‘We developed our own brand so that we can provide our customers with exactly what they want, based on our extensive customer research. With our own books we have more control over content and price. But own brand and trade titles can happily co-exist so we also follow the market closely by watching Book Track and choosing the most successful titles. Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and the Mr Men all do well for us. We wouldn’t be serving our customers fully if we didn’t stock that kind of title as well as our own.’
Last year, as part of a commitment to raise the sales of paperback fiction and children’s books by 50%, Asda moved from dealing with Parragon as its book merchandiser to dealing direct with major publishers such as Transworld, HarperCollins, Random House and Scholastic. To keep up a range, they also buy through the wholesaler, Gardners. They do not have their own brand believing that they can offer their customers good books by taking selected titles from individual publishers. Like Tesco, but unlike Sainsbury’s, Asda are bullish about the non-food market in general and see children’s books as just one of the wide range of goods and services that they provide.
Price points important
Price points are critical at Asda because, as book buyer Julian Graham-Rack says, ‘The whole Asda philosophy is about selling products to customers at a good price.’ Keeping to the four price points from 99p to a top price of £4.99 is the guiding principle behind the range of children’s books stocked but, beyond that, there lies a real belief in serving children well. ‘We cut back on the pre-school area, specifically on colouring books, in order to stock authors like Dick King-Smith and Jacqueline Wilson,’ says Graham-Rack who is confident that the sales of children’s books in supermarkets will grow. ‘We’ve seen growth of over 20% in the last year and we know both from the sales figures and from the customer research that we do that books are very popular with our customers.’
Safeways, the other major supermarket, has a more limited commitment to children’s books. They have no own brand but rely instead on top selling trade titles such as the Mr Men and Roald Dahl. Waitrose also has no own brand list but carries a considerable range for the pre-school market. For older children the emphasis is on home learning titles. Most usefully, they issue a monthly list of the titles in stock.
A belief in the value or otherwise of own branding currently divides the major supermarkets. Very large, firm sales of own brand titles make them highly attractive as they can be sold so cheaply. However, it is less flexible, which is a critical factor when book space may suddenly become shampoo space. It also carries all the associated risks of publishing. In particular, as those setting up own brand deals have discovered, named writers are unwilling to work for the kind of flat fee that supermarkets want to offer. This makes quality own brand expensive and therefore less competitive with buying in published books.
Each supermarket chain, then, sources its children’s books in a different way and may suddenly change its buying policy in the search for a good enough profit margin. Although publishers are pleased by the incremental sales in non traditional markets such as supermarkets they are often frustrated by the lack of a firm or coherent policy. ‘All supermarkets are aware that they ought to be selling children’s books, but they don’t always know what to sell,’ says Penny Morris of Penguin Children’s Books. ‘They are not adventurous, but will take series fiction if it is well-enough established.’
Gavin Lang, sales director of Scholastic agrees. ‘Fiona Kennedy at Tescos is very knowledge about books and so they took Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as well as Goosebumps and Horrible Histories. We also do a lot of business with Asda. If you are lucky enough to sell direct to the buyer you are likely to sell a wider range but, in general, the great strength of supermarkets is that they can sell a huge volume of some carefully picked titles.’
Can supermarkets call the tune?
The view among publishers is that while supermarket sales are an important and interesting part of their business they cannot be allowed to influence the kind of children’s books that are published. The general verdict, expressed anonymously, is ‘Supermarkets could call the tune and can do so on a selected title or range, but publishers don’t dance to this tune.’ The bottom line is that children’s book business in supermarkets is not big enough to wag the dog.
In the absence of the long life, slow build principle which suits children’s books best, supermarkets must dip and weave, plunging in to the market to pull out the financial plums. As a service to its customers this is only partially satisfactory. Yes, families shopping in supermarkets can buy children’s books. Specifically they can buy any amount of Letterland, Lett’s and the rest and the most popular of the series fiction as well as own brand imitations. But, for all the supermarkets, price is a prime factor in defining the choice of stock so many areas of publishing output for children will never make it to their shelves. Picture books are most notably under-represented as are the major quality non-fiction titles.
Reaching the new buyers that other outlets can’t reach?
But some cake is better than no cake and there is no doubt that supermarkets are selling children’s books to new buyers who would not have bought children’s books from another source. The high standard of books that Sainsbury’s offered when they launched their own brand list with Walker set a bench mark of quality that all supermarkets have, to some extent, emulated. It changed the image of non-traditional book outlets stocking only Ladybird titles and showed that given the opportunity people would buy books for children. Of course, supermarkets are not bookshops and will never begin to come near the specialist children’s bookshops in the broad support that they can offer the publishers or they can offer children as readers. But their commitment to offering a range of children’s books for everyone to add to their weekly shopping plays an important part in getting children and books together.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of The Guardian.
Thanks to Susie and Cody Parker (customers), Jason Knox (Manager) and Rachel Gunstone (Cashier) at Sainsbury’s, Lee Green, London.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.