How Bookstores Manipulate Us to Buy More

Is it possible that our literary taste is influenced, not to say dictated, by the retail chains’ commercial considerations?

Customers sit in a second floor window of a Barnes & Noble Inc. store in New York.
Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

If you visited a branch of one of Israel’s bookstore chains in the week before Shavuot, you probably noticed the sudden plethora of cookbooks, especially those devoted to dairy products, on the display tables. Ahead of the holiday, the chains supplied readers with what they seemed to crave: handsome photos of quiches. But if you visit now, after the holiday, you’ll discover that the cookbooks have been replaced with books on dieting. Sometimes the chains know what’s best for you, even if you yourself don’t.

How is book buying influenced by the stores’ interior design, the layout and location of the display tables and the cashier, and even the lighting? Is it possible that the literary taste of the reading public is influenced, not to say dictated, by the retail chains’ commercial considerations?

Large supermarkets and vast fashion stores are built and organized on the basis of long-term research and a precise analysis of consumer behavior and motivations for buying. It’s not by chance that supermarkets are built counterclockwise, faithful to the human propensity to turn to the right at an entrance, nor it is a coincidence that cashiers’ stands, where customers are likely to have a long wait, are packed with items that might otherwise likely be ignored.

But can these immense emporiums, which cover hundreds of square meters, be compared to local bookstores? In the multistory book temples abroad (such as Barnes & Noble in New York or Foyles in London), each floor is devoted to a different genre and has a café. In Israel, not even the largest of the stores is anywhere near that size, a state of affairs that influences design and supply critically. For example, bookshelves that rise to the ceiling and are accessed by ladders. Those shelves, says Avi Schumer, CEO of the Tzomet Sfarim bookstore chain, are a visual contribution to the stores, but their true purpose is to save space and function as an open storeroom. The chain has also switched to oak-colored furniture.

“We understood that lighting is very important,” Schumer notes. “In the past we used regular fluorescent lamps, but today the lighting is soft and warm. The aim is to create a warmer atmosphere, so the client won’t feel alienated. In the past we didn’t give all this much thought, and the furniture was practical. Then came an attempt to create a library atmosphere, with dark furniture and appropriate lighting. Today we are moving away from that sort of dignified aura and trying to be as accessible as in the home.”

“Bookstores will be darker in comparison to the gleaming white of athletic stores or fashion stores with blackened ceilings,” explains attorney Michal Patkin Kadosh, real estate and business development manager at the country’s other major bookstore chain, Steimatzky. “It can’t be hospital lighting, it has to be pleasant and not shimmery. We measure the composition of the lighting, the amount of yellow light versus white light. We also illuminate the shelving but not with spotlights. The lighting has to be pleasant. The cash register also occupies us – in some branches we’ve moved it from the entrance to the middle of the store. It’s important for us to make eye contact and say hello to the customer, because if he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, the advice and recommendations he will get are very important.”

A Steimatzky branch in Tel Aviv.
Moti Milrod

No patience for browsing

The question of the customer’s prior intention and the goal with which he enters a bookstore is crucial in the store’s design. “The customers’ patience for browsing is diminishing,” Schumer says. “We know that 90 percent of the customers buy only from the display tables. People no longer poke about on the shelves, possibly because the price of books has fallen and you can come out of the store with three or four books. And the stores aren’t organized the way they were when I was a boy, when the salesperson stood behind the counter and you would point to the book you wanted. Today’s store is a supermarket of books, and the customer, if he wants, wanders around. We try to have chairs and armchairs in every branch.”

The result is that anything that’s not on the display tables has barely any chance of being seen by the customer. “That’s right,” Schumer says, and elaborates: “It’s all because of space, and the same goes for the giant stores in the United States. If all our stores were 800 or 1,000 square meters, I could display all the books, But we’re limited. About 6,000 books are published in Israel every year, of which about 4,000 are in Hebrew. In most of our stores we can display around 300 books on the tables, and we divide them by subject – children separately, juvenile separately, and for adults one table for nonfiction and another for fiction. We try to make things easier for the customer.” Accordingly, he adds, the bestseller table will be located at the entrance, in contrast to the marketing concept in supermarkets.

The bookstore chains are interested in children as well as adults. In the past few years they’ve started to sell many products in addition to books, including toys. Steimatzky has established a parallel chain of games and toys, and in some of the chain’s branches, particularly in neighborhood stores or those located in areas where large numbers of families live, these products are featured prominently in the show window.

According to Patkin Kadosh, “The neighborhood stores are gift-oriented, and because they are located in areas where there are a lot of children, the children’s corners will be inside. I want the children to sit quietly in a corner and not to wander around. That way the parents will feel free and calm. Everything depends very much on the store’s location and on our prior study of the local population and its characteristics. In terminals and bus stations, for example, everything has to be accessible and frontal, and the bestsellers have to be very prominent, because customers are looking for a book for the flight or trip, and they’re in a hurry. I’ll always place the magazines and newspapers next to the cash register, so that someone who only wants a newspaper can grab one and go.”

‘Prime-time shelves’

If we compare the planning of bookstores and supermarkets, it turns out that not only the design of the supermarket is a masterpiece of maximizing the customers’ potential to waste money – the arrangement on the shelves is also not random. Small manufacturers are pushed onto the “death shelves,” aka “basketball shelves,” because they are above the average customer’s height, or are too low to see what’s on them without making an effort. It’s not by chance that the products of the major manufacturers are located on the “prime-time shelves,” which are at the customer’s hand and eye level. In 2014, legislation came into effect that supervises the arrangement of the shelves in supermarkets. The law, which aims to encourage competition while reducing the space allocated to the big manufacturers, does not allow the food manufacturers to arrange items in supermarkets.

A Tzomet Sfarim branch in Shfaim.
David Bachar

Something similar happened in the book business in the wake of the passage of the Book Law. Enacted in 2013 by the Knesset, the law came into effect at the beginning of 2014. It imposed restrictions on price-cutting of new books but also referred to the displays in the book chains. In fact, that clause was the only one to remain in force – and not by chance – when the law was rescinded about a year ago. For years, the Israeli book market has been dominated by the two large chains. According to the findings of the annual report on the book industry that was submitted to Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev a year or so ago, in 2015 Tzomet Sfarim and Steimatzky between them accounted for 63 percent of all the book sales in Israel. That was actually a fairly steep decline from 72 percent before the Book Law was enacted. But even so, it represents a huge chunk of the market for private bookstores or digital outlets.

Tzomet Sfarim, which has about 100 branches, is owned jointly by CEO Schumer; by the owners of the publishing house Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, Yoram Roz and Eran Zmora; and by the owner of the Modan and Keter publishing houses, Oded Modan. Steimatzky, with about 130 branches, is owned by a group headed by Yafit Greenberg, in partnership with Yedioth Books. For years there were complaints about this marketing structure, notably with regard to the display areas in the stores. It was alleged that the books of the publishers who were also owners of the chain or who were close to the owners received preferential treatment in the display areas, resulting in visibility discrimination and adversely affecting publishers who were not part of the inner circle.

Following passage of the legislation, chain stores now use a planogram – a model for the placement of products – in order to avoid being fined (the fine for an inegalitarian display can be as much as 250,000 shekels, or about $70,000). But clear rules for display must emerge. If, as Schumer notes, most stores can display only 300 titles, and thousands of books are published every year, selection is bound to take place in one form or another.

“We have 3,000 titles in an average store,” Schumer explains. “We redo the table display about once a month, and the principle is to exchange the old for the new. Be that as it may, the choice is free and every new book will get exposure. It’s true that before Hebrew Book Week and holidays, when there’s a flood of new books, the turnover is a bit faster, and in July-August, when fewer books are published, it’s a bit slower. It’s also true that a bestseller will get longer exposure on the table, because it’s a book customers want, and there are also permanent bestsellers.” The identical method of selection and turnover exists in Steimatzky stores.

But is this uniform method of deciding the display appropriate for all customers? Is newness a valid criterion for books? Is the emphasis on the “new,” which is the king of the display and the high turnover, liable to influence the public’s taste? “If you don’t know what you want, you can draw on the assistance of the salespeople, and if you have time to choose you can browse,” Patkin Kadosh says. “But if you’ve entered the store of a chain it’s very likely that you will ultimately find yourself with something from the specials, because their prices are extremely attractive. If you’re a member of our club, you will probably take a book from the current nine-book special.”

Why? Says Patkin Kadosh: “There are few club members who won’t take one, because their price is so attractive. If you’re not a member of our club and you don’t know what you want, then, like every reasonable customer you will go to the bestsellers and you won’t take a psychology book off a shelf at the rear of the store.”

In other words, the assumption that the store's design and your commercial considerations largely dictate cultural taste is fundamentally correct.

“That’s not accurate. We do the maximum to place as many frontal display platforms as possible. The struggle is between what we would like and what’s possible. In small stores I will create another level for the table to display more books, but the amount of merchandise I can place is limited.”

Who decides what will be on the table and what will be exiled to the “death shelves”?

“We learn about the population in the area of the bookstore and try to adjust ourselves. It’s not we but the public who determine the bestsellers. In contrast to supermarkets and their interests, if I don’t know how to talk to the people who buy from me and address what they want, they won’t come back.”