While millions of shoppers flocked to Amazon’s Prime Day deals, Bookshop.org saw six times its usual sales.
During one of the biggest sales periods of the year, Bookshop.org ran its own promotion, offering free shipping and a tote bag with purchases over $100. Another selling point? The knowledge that profits weren’t padding the margins of the world’s largest e-commerce business.
“Independent bookstores need your money more than Amazon does,” one promotional Instagram post said. “Keep your money in your community so these stores can be here for years to come.”
Founder Andy Hunter launched Bookshop.org in 2020 as an alternative place for people to buy books online, that would share profits with independent bookstores. Hunter told Modern Retail this year’s anti-Prime Day promotion (which is an annual affair) generated 600% more sales than a typical Tuesday and Wednesday. In total, nearly $160,000 was generated for local bookstores in those two days alone.
Prime Day, now in its eighth year, is a fixture of the retail calendar along with events like Black Friday or back-to-to-school shopping. Competitors hold weeklong sales events. It generated the biggest single-day e-commerce sales of 2023 so far. But the Bookshop.org promotions show how some shoppers are willing to spend a little more on a brand that positions itself as an anti-Amazon alternative. While Adobe Analysts data shows that Amazon users spend nearly 6% more this year than they did last year on day 1 of Prime Day, Bookshop.org spend was up nearly 30% compared to last year’s promotion.
“Some of our prices are the same as Amazon. Some of our books are a little more expensive,” Hunter said. But, he said, Bookshop.org’s customers are willing to spend with the website “because of their beliefs.”
A tailored strategy
Brendan Witcher, vp and principal analyst at Forrester, said Amazon is singular in its ability to create a sale that triggers a response from other retailers.
“You don’t see that going in reverse, or happening with any other retailer,” he said. “It’s evidence of the influence Amazon has overall on the industry and commerce.”
But the majority of retailers can’t compete on price the way Amazon can. In turn, they must formulate their own strategy. Target, for example, offered deals all week online and in-store, with QR codes to help shoppers sign up for its Circle discount program.
“Each brand has to determine the consumer that they are serving,” Witcher said.
For Bookshop.org, that meant going back to its origin story. Hunter launched the site in January 2020 as a direct response to how much market share Amazon had taken from local bookstores. By giving a portion of sales proceeds back to local bookstores, Bookshop.org could help the small business owners establish a revenue stream without having to set up their own online operation.
Shoppers can designate a specific store to receive proceeds from their purchase, or they can allocate it to a pool that’s divided up among roughly 1,700 U.S. bookstores. To date, Bookshop.org has sent nearly $27 million back to local bookstores, or about 80% of its gross margin.
The brand has always run promotions around Prime Day, Hunter said, typically advertised on its site and with organic social media posts. It was the first year that it offered merch — a tote bag that says “I Love Bookstores” that Hunter hopes will double as an awareness tool.
Hunter said that in addition to Bookshop.org’s own posts on social media and its website, authors and local bookstores advertised the sale.
“For a small bookstore, it’s hard for them to compete with Prime and it’s hard for them to do an effective promotion around Prime,” Hunter said. “But this way we kind of do it for them.”
An alternative platform
About 78% of Bookshop.org shoppers switched to using the platform to buy books instead of Amazon, Hunter said. Kimberly Snead, chief marketing officer at Bookshop.org, said many shoppers make the switch because they want to see a portion of their sale go toward their local bookstore. The site also appeals to those don’t want to spend at Amazon because they disagree with the company’s business practices, she said.
“We’re not going to win on price against Amazon. So really, it’s about nailing home the message.”
Snead said Bookshop.org is also a more community-oriented sales experience. Bookshop.org selections include favorite picks from some of the independent stores in its network, and more selective topics, like “True Stories of Triumph and Struggle in Sports.”
“Amazon, while they dominate book sales, they don’t really have any affinity for book culture,” she said. “If you go to Amazon, you’re most likely going to end up buying one of the best sellers, one of the well-known authors. But it doesn’t allow that same sense of discovery and passion and love for books that you can get in a community.”
Hunter also credits the growth of the site to more shoppers seeing how small businesses can struggle in the competition against Amazon. Those shoppers are willing to wait an extra day or pay for shipping to “support a more ethical company,” he said. Bookshop.org’s A/B testing shows that “anti-Amazon” performs well.
Moving forward, Bookshop.org’s growth strategy includes getting the participation bookstores to refer more business to the site, as well as adding more features for the website for readers to interact. Bookshop.org also plans to get into selling digital products to compete with Amazon’s Kindle and Audible.
“Adding digital products is going to be huge, because we want parity with Amazon,’ he said. “We want people to buy eBooks to be able to support their local independent bookstore.”