Bookstores Arrive At Airports

The trend to move the selling of books away from newsstands to nationally known retailers has resulted in a dramatically changed bookselling landscape at airports. The change in philosophy by airport operators has been a boon to Borders, which is quickly becoming the dominant player at airports, according to Mark Knight, v-p and regional director of developer BAA USA. Borders will have 18 airport stores by the end of 2005.

Borders doesn't break out its airport sales, but Sue Dasse, senior v-p of the specialty retail division, said, "Sales are encouraging and growing. We look at our airport stores as the hallmark of our overall brand. It's been a benefit for getting our name out there." With Borders's growing influence on the tarmac, other airport retailers are fighting back with aggressive bids for airport locations, marketing and, in one instance, a name change.

Two years ago, the Hudson Group increased its market share with the acquisition of 155 WHSmith airport stores. Now it has more than 50 Hudson Booksellers, including a new one slated to open in Memphis later this year, as well as a significant book presence in 300 of its 450 newsstands, making it the largest book retailer in U.S. airports. In 2004, Hudson reported book sales of $80 million, and Sara Hinckley, v-p of book buying and promotions, projects that figure will grow to $100 million this year. Hudson's specialty bookstores stock between 3,000 and 8,000 titles, while its newsstands typically carry 100 to 300 titles.

Late last year, Atlanta-based The Paradies Shops, which operates 12 specialty bookstores under the Heritage name and five "local" bookstores (in addition to selling books in 218 of its 400 news and gift stores), moved into bookselling in a bigger way: it licensed the New York Times name for a new line of bookstores. "We needed a brand," explained Lynn Bennett, v-p of marketing. "Where would you shop, a Borders or a Heritage?" In October, Paradies will open its first The New York Times Bookstore, a refurbished Heritage store in Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. "It'll be a bookstore," said Bennett, "but it will also carry crossword puzzles, games and DVDs and have a piece of equipment enabling you to print out the front page of the newspaper from the day you were born." No date has been set yet for the opening of a second New York Times store, a former Heritage shop in Hartford.

Even before it began working to create a recognizable brand, Paradies's Read-and-Return marketing program began pushing up sales. The program encourages travelers to purchase a book for full price at a Paradies store and return it to any other Paradies Shop within six months for a 50% refund. The books are then resold at half price. The program, which was tested in fall 2003, was rolled out to all Paradies stores that sell books last fall.

Although best known for selling food, longtime airport vendor HMS Host is also adding specialty bookstores and operates 120 newsstands. "We will have 13 Simply Books stores by the end of the year," said book buyer Tanesa Taylor Nurse, who attributes 60% of the company's airport book sales to its specialty bookstores.

Local Brands

Taken together, indie booksellers comprise a formidable force, operating more than a dozen airport bookstores. Renaissance Bookshop, which specializes in used and rare books at its store in downtown Milwaukee, has been operating the bookstore at the Milwaukee Airport since the late 1970s. According to owner Robert John, the airport location has strong aviation, history, cooking and genre fiction sections, plus rare books.

One of the big problems for Don Barliant, co-owner of Chicago-based Barbara's Bestsellers, is that "airports are hideously expensive" when it comes to remodeling. In addition, he said that like mall developers, airport developers (many of whom are one and the same) find it safer and easier to go with a national brand and often avoid independents. Barbara's, which currently has two airport locations?one in New York's LaGuardia Airport, the other in Philadelphia?is looking to add more airport stores through joint proposals with CA One Services, a division of Delaware North.

Some booksellers were invited into airports to create local flavor. That was the case for Powell's Books, which opened three stores in the Portland airport between 1988 and 2003; Books Inc., which has a 2,700-sq.-ft. bookstore in the San Francisco airport, in addition to its 10 street stores; and Olsson's Books & Music, which is in Washington's Reagan National. Although all are happy with their airport stores?in Olsson's case, it's the most profitable of all six locations?it doesn't always make for smooth flying.

As Michael Tucker, owner of Books Inc., noted, "The minimal guarantees can make you choke." On top of that, the minimum wage at airport stores can be higher than at street stores, and the store has to be open 17 hours a day. On the other hand, Tucker said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. We can move things in that store. It's a barometer for us. We open at 5 a.m. By 7 o'clock, if we've sold 40 or 50 copies of a new book, we know it is hot." And, he notes, turns can be so strong at the airport that they resemble "an agitation cycle."

High Flyers

No matter what the brand, many booksellers report similar trends. "The trend we're seeing is more hardcovers. It really started a couple years ago with The Nanny Diaries and The Lovely Bones ," said Books Inc. buyer Barry Rossnick. That's not to say that the store doesn't do well with anything other than hot hardcovers like The Historian , The Da Vinci Code and Freakonomics . "We sell more Penguin classics at the airport than at our other stores," Rossnick noted.

Classics are strong sellers even at used-book stores like Renaissance Bookshop, which stocks new copies of J.D. Salinger's and Ayn Rand's novels, as well as Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , when it runs out of used copies. "Customers don't have a long time to make up their mind, so they buy what they know," said Olsson's head book buyer Joe Murphy, who regards the airport store as "a machine for bestsellers."

Powell's not only sells used books at its airport stores, it buys them, too, although increasingly airlines are turning to eBay to sell books left behind on planes. "A lot of people are looking for used books, but in mint condition," said veteran bookseller Mike Irwin, who acknowledged that "our airport customers really want the latest thing that has just come out. If an author is on The Today Show while they're getting dressed, they have to have it. Turn is a big deal here. At our main store, a book could sit for two or three years. Here, if it doesn't turn in two months, it's gone."

"We rotate ongoing bestsellers and backlist so frequent travelers will find a variety of titles each time they visit," said Hudson's Hinckley. In addition, children's books and merchandise tend to be strong sellers. "I am definitely not a firm believer that business travelers buy business books," adds Host's Nurse. "There are plenty of travelers on the go who are looking for that book club book."

As tensions about travel mount once more in the wake of the bombings in London, airport booksellers continue to seek out the right mix of books to feed traffic made up of almost equal parts business and leisure travelers. With an average dwell time (or total time in the airport) of 103 minutes, some airports are even asking specialty booksellers to add comfy chairs for customers to relax.

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