October 30, 2007

Canadian independent booksellers respond to strong dollar

Just announced, from Audrey's Books, Edmonton's longstanding (50 years) independent bookseller, via The Edmonton Journal [emphases mine]:
The strength of the Canadian dollar and the complaints of customers have convinced Audrey's Books of Edmonton to cut prices, even if that means selling at a loss.

Co-owner Sharon Budnarchuk said Monday the store is now selling books at their listed U.S. prices and will continue to do so through Dec. 31. The move mirrors a similar discount promotion undertaken a week ago by a major independent bookseller in Ottawa.

"We were very concerned about how the Christmas season was going to go," Budnarchuk said. "We've put a great deal of money into inventory, and you don't want to see the whole thing disappear.

"We're hoping we're going to generate a ton of business that will cover what we initially have to eat because we'll replace all this stock by buying American.

"We've been buying from the Canadian distributor at this stupid price."

Once those Canadian-bought books are sold, the store will replace some of them by buying from U.S. distributors in U.S. dollars, she said.

The prices of many books on Audreys bestseller shelves were set when they went to print months ago. At that time, the Canadian dollar was worth substantially less than its U.S. counterpart.

Canadian booksellers have been badgering distributors to reduce their prices on imported books as quickly as possible, Budnarchuk said, but it just isn't happening fast enough.

With the book industry one of the few that lists its prices in both Canadian and U.S. dollars, booksellers like Audreys have been left on the firing line when consumers demand to reap the benefit of a better exchange rate.

Audreys co-owner Steve Budnarchuk, immediate past president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, flew to Ottawa Monday as part of a CBA delegation scheduled to meet today with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

"The minister needs to understand it's not the retailers' fault," Sharon Budnarchuk said. "We're buying in Canadian funds.

"He keeps saying go and shop where the price is the best. Well, all you're doing is sending them all down to the U.S. and online in the U.S. And that's outrageous."

The spread between Canadian and U.S. pricing is slowly closing, but the gap remains noticeable to any consumer who can do the math. The U.S. listing price for the new Alice Sebold novel, The Almost Moon, is $24.99, $4 less than in Canada. The new Ken Follett thriller, World Without End, sells for $35 in the U.S. and $42 in Canada.

Full parity with U.S. prices may be too much to ask for, given the extra costs involved in getting American books across the border, including shipping fees and customs brokerage fees.

Penguin Group (Canada) has said it plans to sell U.S. books to Canadian retailers at as close to par as possible in the new year. The Canadian publisher is working toward bringing its pricing to within 1.1 per cent of par by January.

Other publishers, such as Random House Canada and Harper Collins Canada Ltd., have been giving discounts of about five per cent to retailers, but only on new titles. Random House has offered a 10-per-cent adjustment on their backlist titles, but they're still selling $21 paperbacks in Canada that sell for $14 in the U.S.

Budnarchuk says these are very nervous times at her store, a fixture in the city for more than 32 years.

"This is a scary thing. We're hoping that the book buyer in Edmonton is going to turn around and say, 'Wow, here are some people who care about customers'."
It's worth bearing in mind, too, that not all Canadian independent booksellers can afford to cut prices. Ottawa's Perfect Books has a letter from owner Pat Caven on its website that reads in part,
The American price you see pre-printed on your book next to the Canadian price is often times close to or exactly our cost. If some bookstores have made the desperate decision to honour those prices, they are either independently wealthy or have been bullied into it by all this specious media coverage. The fact that these bookstores are making the reader choose to keep that money by paying American or support the bookstore by paying in Canadian is an insult to the customer. Putting the decision in the consumer's hands is an ugly choice that I won't force my customers to make even if I could afford to. By turning this price war into a skirmish between those independents that survived the upheaval of Chapters, Costco and Pharma Plus entering the field makes the situation all that much more discouraging.

This situation will not be remedied overnight. There are no quick fixes. The publishers have been passing on some small incentives to us that allow us to alter the prices on the new release fall books and have sent notices that they will continue to do so until the spring.

All we can ask of you is the understanding and patience you have already shown us over the years. We will try our hardest to keep you as informed as possible and thank you for making individual, neighbourhood bookstores possible.
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Audreys Books, Edmonton

Collected Works, Ottawa

Perfect Books, Ottawa

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