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How Indigo, a Canadian Chain, Is Reinventing Book Selling (nytimes.com)
77 points by pseudolus 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Things like this make me feel very out of touch. I went into Indigo the other day with my kids to use some gift cards from Christmas, with the idea of getting books to take on a short trip. We ended up in what felt like a bizarre home goods, toy store, book store, quasi-junk pile store. There was shit everywhere. My kids needed constant reminders to look for books, not junk.

Everything was plastic, cheap, very disposable, and very much intended for conspicuous consumption. Some part of me feels like we've fallen very far if literature, one of the pinnacles of human accomplishments, can only be sold if you can also buy the kind of garbage that's rapidly filling our oceans and landfills as well. There is a bizarre dichotomy between books - the things that can potentially last a lifetime and satisfy countless readers - and the impulsively purchased and remarkably unnecessary items which will be bought and lost or disposed of within a year.

I might be overly pessimistic about it. I want my kids to have more wholesome experiences when it comes to the type of media (especially books) they consume. I'll keep taking them to the library the majority of the time, and otherwise, go to local book shops which just sell books. If they still exist.

I feel a little bit like Abe Simpson. "I used to be with 'it', but then they changed what 'it' was.". Maybe Indigo is just fine.

You do seem a bit pessimistic and I'm not sure that your negativity is entirely warranted in the case of Indigo. The products they stock are certainly not high-end, but nor are they dollar store crap.

Most of the items are decent and some are quite nice. I've seen very nice blankets, good quality stationery and related items, board games, and the sort of mid-quality art/nerdy things that you tend to see in the gift shops of museums and art galleries.

None of it is stuff you "need" which may be causing your reaction, but if you were to buy it, you wouldn't throw (most of) it out a week later.

Yeah sort of agree here.

I don't head over there often, but I use a tea mug from that place every day in the office.

I used to like visiting those stores when they were "Chapters" whenever we'd visit the city (read extent-suburbs) as a kid. It was especially exciting when we didn't have internet or up-to-date computers and I'd get to browse the multitudes of computer and music magazines. Always left me jealous. I think that place had a bit better of a thing going—it was less frenetic.

That said, the buying power of Indigo makes it a worthwhile place to search for a book if you can't find it locally.

I feel exactly the same. In a particularly surreal moment a few months ago, I was in a newly-constructed Indigo store here in Kitchener, next door to a cinema multiplex, and there were so few books in the central gathering space of the store that they had a seating area set up in front of a giant flat wall that had a decal on it designed to look like bookshelves.

Where have we come to when even a bookstore uses a picture of books for decor in place of actual books?

I bought a Kindle earlier in the year and have read 11 books so far with it. This is a faster reading pace than I've had in at least a decade. I doubt I'll visit the new Indigo. Chapters on Weber had indeed slowly turned into a Pier 1 Imports avec books.

This has nothing to do with the health of literature. It's about brick and mortar stores being overextended in the 21st century when we've got all kinds of alternative ways to buy and consume merchandise including books.

I remember my childhood when there wasn't Indigo or Chapters big box stores in KW. There was a Coles inside Fairview and Conestoga malls taking up the space of a typical mall store. It's just the rise and fall of big box book stores.

Ironically enough, the last brick-and-mortar bookstore I was in was Amazon's. I didn't know they had those.

Books are low-margin. They're not profitable enough to sell on their own most of the time.

I watched this happen over the last 20 years and its an important development.

If you remember the 80s and 90s, you may remember lingering in bookstores because they were a focal point to daytime city life. Before online dating, you would meet women and men there, and that was the whole point. If you ask any man of a certain age from a city who the "bookstore girl," was, he will have a memory, if not a story for you. It was a big part of city culture.

What Reismann (and her predecessor, Chapters) did initially was bring suburban big box stores into the city and wiped out a lot of the street life and culture, and with it, small publishers. In effect this polarized the market for fiction, where literary fiction today has been reduced to "content," and a lot of unctuous posturing funded by grant money.

However, after hollowing the market out, Reismann branched out with Indigo and kind of re-planted, where her stores are once again places for people to linger. They are placed near movie theatres, so it was something to do while you waited.

The formula that Indigo is getting right is, like us in software, it's about generating retail traffic. You need a funnel to drive conversions. To do that, you need to attract women, who draw men, and the frisson that keeps them coming back is what turns the engine over. Let's face it, Indigo isn't a Cabela's with books because that's not how you get that retail traffic engine to turn over. It's more like Anthropologie meets a craft shop.

I don't like shopping at Indigo, but that's not the point. As a man I go there because I can get a new release or something relatively mainstream faster than amazon can deliver it, and crucially, I can get exposure to that element of social randomness and optionality that is completely absent and destroyed in cities now that everyone carries a slot machine in their pocket. The most interesting future from my view will be the one that gets people actually talking and connecting again the way we used to in bookstores and cafes.

> What Reismann (and her predecessor, Chapters) did initially was bring suburban big box stores into the city and wiped out a lot of the street life and culture, and with it, small publishers. In effect this polarized the market for fiction, where literary fiction today has been reduced to "content," and a lot of unctuous posturing funded by grant money.

The MFA was born in 1940. Form before content is not a product of Borders. The same kinds of people read pretentious literature worldwide and the same kinds of people write it. It’s like avant-garde theatre, it’s the same everywhere. Literary fiction is no more because of Borders than fantasy or detective fiction is. People aren’t completely useless at realising that there are clusters in the kinds of books people like to read, even without computers. Those clusters are genres and literary fiction is one of them.

The big box model killed small bookstores, then demanded that to access their new market, publishers print in sufficient volumes to stock all their huge stores, and then when they didn't sell all of the copies, the stores returned the unsold books to the publishers and that collapsed them.

The big box store killed the more sparse and diverse shops that sustained the market for niches like Nobel, Booker, and other prize winners. Litfic is mainly character driven over of plot driven, so to say it's all pretentious would be a bit much. The result was that Indigo came to resemble a kind of landfill of discarded ideas, where the good stuff got lost in the effort to find it.

Barnes & Noble is doing something like that, in the sense of having a good sized section of the store devoted to things not books or reasonably connected to reading.

The kind of things B&N has there are (all of these are probably incomplete since I'm mostly going from what I've noticed):

• A bunch of different kinds of games. Board games, card games, dice games from a variety of types (strategy games, role playing games, party games, for example).

• Puzzles. Assembly, disassembly, interlocking, take apart, and other such infuriating things. Rubik's assorted things and similar. Jigsaw puzzles.

• Collectables and branded stuff, such as action figures, bobble heads, key chains, plushies and such for assorted popular characters from Disney, Marvel, DC, Studio Ghibli, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and others. Even some food, such as "Bertie Botts, Every Flavour Jelly Beans".

• LEGO. A bunch of sets and kits, both generic and themed.

• Toys. Quite a bit of these are STEM related, such as simple electronics kits and simple robotics stuff, microscopes, telescopes, anatomy models, and more.

It's actually a pretty good and interesting selection.

I used to spend hours in Chapters / Indigo. Now half the floor space is devoted to overpriced crap, and I never go there.

Agreed. The amount of books at these stores has drastically dropped, and they rarely have what I'm looking for anymore. The crap they do have is now devoted to targeting a demographic I don't belong to. It's hard to argue with their success, but it's just no longer a store for me anymore.

Agreed. It's probably a good strategy for them, but I'm no longer the target market; I've lost my last refuge at the mall.

What kind of crap? Is it like B&N where half the products are toys, trinkets, and random Harry Potter memorabilia?

Pillows, throw blankets, candles, incense, stuffed animals, ornaments, coffee mugs. Indigo is essentially now a chain selling “the reading experience”—everything you need on/near a couch (or bed, or bathtub, or dining table) to have a comfortable day sitting around reading a book. Including the book itself, of course. These (both the accessories and the books themselves) are marketed as “gifts for people who read.”

They also sell some card/board games (and even, oddly, a rather large collection of tarot card decks), stationery (notebooks, journals, calendars), some greeting cards (but not a whole aisle of them), and a few other things that aren’t quite accessories to books, but make more sense from another interpretation of their paradigm: “expensive, medium-to-high-quality paper products that nobody would be likely to buy for themselves, and which therefore make good gifts when you want to make it clear that you didn’t just buy them something from the dollar store and/or Walmart.” In other words: bougie paper products.

Oh, and—separately again—their childrens’ section, as well as containing books, contains toys, but only those that could (perhaps loosely) be referred to as “learning toys.” Indigo wants to supplant traditional toy stores as the destination for adults trying to shop for a gift for a child, with a different approach—rather than stocking the toys the kids want, they stock the toys that adults think would most benefit kids to play with. If you recall the kids’ section of early ThinkGeek—before they became a HotTopic-alike “cultural branding” store—it has that same kind of feel: gifts you could get your niece/nephew, that would both make the kid excited, but also make their parents appreciate the purchase (rather than resenting it for how much it’s distracting the kid from their studies or, potentially, damaging their house.)

I used to spend hours and a lot of money there. But that was when I still bought paper magazines and books.

These days, I don't really buy technical books any more (plenty of online docs), I get audio books when possible, and I don't bother with magazines at all. On a side note, given how much money I would have saved, I would have totally loved Apple's News offering back then, but with my reading habits today, it seems like a weird idea to me.

The only time I go into the local Chapters/Indigo these days is if I'm craving a coffee and they're the only place around.

Same. I used to frequent the first Chapters store that opened in Winnipeg, and it was basically great. Tons of books, and a massive tech section that carried things like comp sci textbooks. In other words, they carried a breadth of subject matter that didn't just cater to the most popular, and this extended to other parts of the bookstore as well.

After some years, the store devolved. Again using the computer section as an example, the rows and rows of full shelves got hollowed out. The cool stuff went first, until there were many mostly-empty shelves with just the riffraff books like certification guides and software guides for specific apps and versions thereof. Really, what was left was the most disposable, and least interesting of books. Eventually, the once-awesome department collapsed like a red giant star turning into a white dwarf.

Once Indigo bought Chapters, the stores were doomed as far as being bookstores went. Most of the floor space immediately turned into places for greeting cards and scented candles, knickknacks replacing books far and wide. The NYT describes this as a big bookstore chain thriving, but it isn't really a bookstore chain at all. Maybe it's profitable, but there is no point now in my entering one.

Discovery of interesting books, and quick, convenient purchase of same, is more effectively done online now. Even before the acquisition, Chapters had gone in my experience from being able to order books that weren't in stock, to ordering and never receiving books without explanation. Perhaps they were no longer keeping up with paying suppliers.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the HN crowd is not Indigo's target audience.

This whole thread is people reminiscing of a time when we were the target audience. At one point in time geeks bought a lot of technical books and a lot of fiction from stores like Chapters/Indigo, and they catered to us accordingly.

I used to as well, but now I'm part of the problem - I look around and realize I could get it cheaper and easier on my kindle. I enjoy spending time going through the books, but then I'll go home and buy whatever I was interested in online.

IMHO, that's the fault of publishers insisting on DRM. I should be able to walk through an Indigo take a book to the counter and ask for it as an ebook that will work on my Kindle.

I think books are special enough that there should be some legislation to get rid of DRM on them or at least require DRM be cross platform, be transferable, and expire when the book enters the public domain.

In many cases a book is cheaper to order from the Indigo website, which happens to also provide free shipping for orders over $25. Unless you fancy the bricks & mortar experience, which increasingly doesn't involve books at all, there is no reason to shop at a physical location.

I've actually found that books priced on the Indigo website will be more expensive in store - I went to purchase one that was 50% more in store. What a shocker that was.

>I've actually found that books priced on the Indigo website will be more expensive in store

Right, that's what I was getting at in my post. It looks like they know they have to compete with Amazon on this front, and in the process they've reduced the incentive to shop in their physical stores.

I'm amazed to see a company in this day and age that charges more in store than online - how bizarre to not have a price match system.

I'm none too fond of the evolution bookstores into coffee shops and sellers of bric a brac but quite frankly a landscape devoid of any semblance of a bookstore is a frightening alternative which has been realized in many communities. I also realize that I can't have it both ways, sniffing out the second hand bargain on Amazon or Ebay while bemoaning and fearing the fate of the local chain store. Accordingly, I'll occasionally pay full price at a physical retailer and hope that it adds to their bottom line.

I'll start with my gratitude that a Canadian bookseller has found a way to make their bottom line work and afford locations in high-rent areas that stay open late. Also, I'd say their staff are generally attentive and helpful. Thank you for this, Indigo.

BUT... I have given Indigo too many second chances on their non-book merchandise so their new defocussed focus makes me cringe. I've had to do many returns, embarrassing gift returns, because of poor quality crap. Two "literary" mugs, on separate occasions, whose messages started to wash off after several uses. A "literary" quote pillow whose stitching came undone within months. A smart-seeming not-cheap boardgame with wooden pieces that could have lasted a lifetime time if it wasn't for crappy quality control that left the pieces painted with grossly offcenter markings that you can't unsee while playing. Sure, they sell some highish-end consumer electronics, which seem really out of place, but then that's an area where their staff are out of their depth when I've asked questions.

Too many merchandise strikes for me. So you're out, Indigo. I'll only shop there for books now. Which means I cringe and put on tunnel vision as I'm forced to walk through all their non-book plastic futuretrash.

Their model is obviously working for them and for most people. So I recognize I'm probably just a retro bookstore grouch with unrealistic expectations. And I recognize book margins may not be great. But maybe instead of selling barely-relevant disposable garbage, they could help their bottom line by moving just outside of the highest rent locations? (Multi-story retail on Robson Street in Vancouver, really??)

Books endure. Most of their new crap doesn't. Still feels awkward.

It really makes me wish that the older Chapters banner wasn't being retired. Same company but when you went to a Chapters you knew it was just going to be books and a smattering of other media. The conversion of pretty much every Chapters location into another Indigo is one of the reasons I tend to do most of my book shopping exclusively with Amazon now.

The thing I don't understand about the Vancouver locations is that 4 years ago they closed down their massive store at Robson and Howe and opened a tiny little store at Granville and Robson a block away, then they go and shut that down to open a massive store again 3 blocks up Robson again.

"It may seem strange for a bookstore chain to be developing and selling artisanal soup bowls and organic cotton baby onesies. But Indigo’s approach seems not only novel but crucial to its success and longevity"

This is the Amazon model. Start with books and move onto other items. Great for them, but not novel or innovative.

Yeah, but it's not. Ever since Amazon.ca really established their presence here, there's not a lot of reason to buy from Indigo unless they're heavily discounting something.

Their selection is generally meager compared to a lot of other online stores here. Honestly, every time I pass by a Chapters/Indigo, I'm surprised they're still around.

My guess is that they still get a lot of bricks and mortar customers who want instant gratification with a dead tree book purchase (provided it's a popular, stocked title).

Two times I go to the Indigo near me: a) wander around after I get a coffee at the attached starbucks, and 2) my kids have giftcards to spend from birthdays/christmas.

Only once in the last year did I have a focused reason to hit them up, I wanted to get a certain book for my kid to start reading together THAT NIGHT.

But in meatspace?

Glad to hear they're finding a way to make money.

My impression is that Indigo is a seller of physical books at a time when reading is increasingly going online, so they are turning into an odds-and-ends store for the people Stuff White People Like was written about.

It's as if people started drinking less and less coffee and Starbucks slowly morphed into a kitchen-gear store.

> Stuff White People Like

Funny enough, also Canadian (well, written by a Canadian)

The way they layout their stores is also very attractive. It's impossible to pass one of their stores, and not go inside to browse, even when you don't plan to buy anything. Only one other store has the same effect on me and that's Apple Store.

I have two young kids and we probably did 50% of our Christmas shopping in Indigo last year, the rest being on Amazon.

Updating your business model to stay afloat; I don't see anything wrong with this.

I think the major issue currently with books is that most people only listen to audio books or podcasts. As well as books take up physical space. I regret to say that I too have been buying less physical books because of running out of room on my bookshelves! I used to be very proud of my ever growing personal library... Now I'm unsure if the investment was worth it.

> “Cross-merchandising is Retail 101, and it’s hard to do in a typical bookstore,”

This doesn't seem that different from Barnes & Noble. About a third of the floor space in our local B&N is book-adjacent collectables (Harry Potter memorabilia, Funko Pops) and another quarter is stationery.

There's quite a gap between collectables and made-for-use lifestyle items like pans and knives and craft kits and so on and so forth.

They closed the only bookstore they had in my town and moved to a mall (Coles), it's a place now to buy pricey stupid gifts and popular books too I guess.

imo It's the best place to find interesting gifts for family and close friends in my city.

"Last year, all my friends got reading socks" If one of my friends gave me "reading socks" I would laugh in their face. If they had reading socks I would probably rethink my friendship with them.

My girlfriend asked me for them a pair. I bought them. She finds them very comfortable when reading. So it served its function.

Yeah, it's the sort of thing that appeals to one demographic but to another demographic they're disgusting.

Yeah, "reading socks" sounds sort of like "lovemaking hat'. Huh? Why would you need one?

You sound like a great friend.

...by ceasing to be a bookstore.

You could call it a "reading store" now I guess.

So proud of the Indigo team.

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