Mass Merchandisers and Non-Traditional Accounts in the United States – Overview of Diverse Sales Channels

Canada’s largest trading partner, the United States, has the third largest global population after China and India and is still the world’s largest economy. With our shared geographical border, history, and culture, the US is one of the most important markets for the export of English Canadian books, as well as a significant market for the export of French-language books.

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing excerpts of our 2019 market guide, Selling to Mass Merchandisers and Non-Traditional Accounts in the United States: A Guide for Canadian Publishers (3rd edition), prepared by market expert Michael Johnson. In today’s post, we give an overview of the numerous sales channels in the US publishing market, with an emphasis on mass merchandisers and non-traditional accounts.

When a publishing company, especially one from outside the United States, begins to investigate how to sell books within the US, they primarily consider a rather modest set of categories of booksellers. The three most common categories are the major brick and mortar chains, the major online booksellers, and the independent bookstores.

As a basic reference, here are some quick facts and figures on those three categories to help you gain some insight into the state of things.

Brick and Mortar Chains: At this point, there are really only two brick and mortar chains of any consequence left in the USA. They are Barnes & Noble, with approximately 630 stores, and Books-A-Million, with approximately 260 stores.

Major Online Booksellers: While most experts regularly report that there are two major online booksellers, is the truly key force in online book sales. In fact, Amazon is THE force here. Amazon’s total sales for 2017 were $80 billion USD. Media sales were $14 billion (17% of the total). The only other major online bookseller is Barnes & Noble’s e-commerce site. For the most similar year-to-year comparison, Barnes & Noble’s total (retail and online) sales for fiscal 2017 were less than $4 billion USD. Based on these figures, one can see that Amazon media alone outsells all of Barnes & Noble combined by more than three times.

Independent Bookstores: Here the recent news is very encouraging. There has actually been year-on-year growth in the total number of independent bookstores in the US every year since 2009. In 2017, there were over 2,300 bookstores, representing over 1,700 bookselling firms. Those numbers are up from 1,651 bookstores and 1,401 book-selling firms in 2009.

Mass Merchandisers: When we discuss mass merchandisers, the implication is that these are physical stores, typically very large, selling a very wide variety of products to a very wide audience. This is in contrast to a typical bookstore, which carries a very narrow range of products and sells to a narrow segment of the general population. These stores are often referred to as Big Box stores because of their large physical size.

Each of these merchants sells books to varying degrees. The three main categories of books sold in stores of these types are as follows:

  • Fiction: Primarily paperback in Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction
  • Children’s: Mix of binding and packing types, including toys and other branding or marketing tie-ins
  • Informational: Selected to complement the type of store, for example gardening and DIY projects at Home Depot and Lowes, or cooking and dieting at Kroger and Safeway

The price points are typically low, and the copy count turn is typically high to very high. Doing steady business with these stores is a wonderful thing, as a publisher can print and sell books in very high volume. However, even getting an appointment to see the book buyers at these stores is very, very difficult. Working with these stores is almost as difficult as getting that first appointment. There is very little leeway for missed shipments or publishing delays; returns can also be a problem.

Since the upside to being carried by these mammoth retailers is so high, just about every producer in every category, including books, is doing whatever they can to break into these accounts.

For these mass merchandisers, the best path is through a US-based wholesaler, as these firms have dedicated salespeople for servicing these accounts with regular appointments throughout the year. Wholesalers also have practical experience in dealing with the billing, shipping, and delivery systems and processes required by the mass merchandisers. There is a significant opportunity here if you can get your books into these outlets. On balance, there are also significant challenges. The wholesalers can help with both aspects.

Non-Traditional Accounts: Other bookselling opportunities exist beyond the mass merchandisers. Perhaps chief among them would be museum bookstores/gift shops. According to the Federal Government Institute of Museum and Library Services, there are 35,000 active museums in the United States.

This list covers a variety of institutions including zoos, planetariums, and botanical gardens. Although exact figures are not available, it is generally thought that up to 25% of these institutions have bookstores. Further, most museums have gift shops that carry books tailored to a wide variety of interests and collections.

America is a huge country in love with roadways for both commerce and family holidays. Another area where many books are sold—both paperbacks and physical audiobooks—is right along America’s almost 50,000 miles of Interstate Highway. The two major outlet types here are 1) truck stops and 2) Cracker Barrel restaurants and Old Country Stores.

According to the National Association of Truck Stop Owners, there are over 1,700 chain-owned truck stops in the USA. According to the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store website, there are 650 Cracker Barrels in 45 states across the country.

Want to find out more about selling to mass merchandisers and non-traditional accounts in the US? Download your copy of our market guide today!

05/22/2019 | Export, Market Guides