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Sydney’s newest mega bookstore has defied conventions to create a unique shopping environment for its customers. Stuart Finlayson spoke to Books Kinokuniya’s Lisa Parker to find out what’s in store for Sydney’s booklovers.

Retail is constantly changing, driven by more demanding customer expectations. This trend is particularly evident with booksellers. The industry that once comprised a hotchpotch of small bookshops, packed to the rafters with dusty tomes, is now dominated by huge megastores which are bright and airy and stock every type of book imaginable.

The latest mega bookstores to throw its doors open to the public is Books Kinokuniya. On July 4, the company opened a massive 2,780 square metre store in The Galeries Victoria, situated above Town Hall station in George Street, Sydney.

Kinokuniya, which is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, was established in Japan, opening its first store in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in 1927.

The company made its first foray into Australia in 1997, when it opened a shop in Sydney’s Neutral Bay. That store upheld the company’s tradition of handling artistic and literary works and other ideological and philosophical publications seldom found elsewhere, and this continues in its impressive new location, which is at present its only Australian store.

In keeping with the demands of the modern shopper, Kinokuniya offers its customers a lot more than books.

It has regular in store appearances of authors and live musicians, as well as an art gallery, mostly featuring works that can be purchased by the public. The store also has its own cafŽ, so that customers who want a break from browsing or want to enjoy the first couple of chapters of their new book can do so with a cup of tea and a muffin, without leaving the confines of the store.

Corporate affairs manager Lisa Parker explained why Kinokuniya feels such additional extras are important in a modern bookstore.

“I think it’s all about lifestyle. Nowadays, when somebody buys a book, they often want to sit down with a coffee and have a read through it. We also stock items such as antiquarian books, fossils and world globes to enhance our customers’ visit.”

A vital aspect of making the customer’s visit pleasurable is the appearance and user-friendliness of the store, and area that Parker says has been given great consideration.

“I think one of the things that is special about our store is the way that it looks – the colours, the architecture, the way it is set out all on one floor with one aisle that goes all the way through the store that makes it very easy to shop.”

The impressive layout was designed by Tan Kay Ngee of KNTA Architects. He has had a long association with the company, having designed many of the company’s overseas stores.

“We have the same architect design our stores, and with each store he does he tries to improve on what he has done before,” Lisa said. “In terms of the look and feel, with the timber and the colour scheme, that is something that is a theme of his.

“There are slight differences in each store, but all the stores are easy to shop in, with wide aisles and are very comfortable and attractive.”

Another aspect of the store – unique to Kinokuniya – that makes the customer’s shopping experience easier is the Kino Navi system. Lisa explained how the system works.

“The Kino Navi system allows the customer to type in the book or author they are looking for. It then prints out a little map which shows the customer where they are located in the store and where the item of their choice is located, including the shelf code and price of the book.

“This system makes it a lot easier for people to shop, and with our store being located right in the heart of the city, a lot of people pop in on their lunchbreak and don’t have as much time to browse as they might like, so they need to find what they are looking for quickly. This system helps them to do that.

“In addition to the computerised navigation system, our staff are always available to assist. They are very knowledgeable, love what they do, and they love books.”

So customers have the necessary tools to find books within the store, but when they get there what will they find? Probably the most extensive and diverse collection of books, magazines and comics of any bookstore in Australia.

While the store concentrates largely on the provision of books in English, it also has a very large section, 324 square metres, of the store devoted to Chinese and Japanese books.

It also carries multilingual books and magazines, sourced through their global network of stores in Japan, the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan.

With such a dizzying array of titles available in such a welcoming environment, does the introduction of such bookstores in the retail landscape spell the end for the small, old-fashioned bookseller? Not necessarily, according to Lisa.

“I think there is room for everyone in the market. I think that some people still prefer the small stores, as they build a relationship with the people who run it, and some of the smaller stores specialise in certain types of books. Such stores don’t affect us, as we stock a great range of books, including hard to find titles, but some customers simply enjoy that type of environment and that’s fine.”

Another important element in the modern book business is online book sales, a market dominated by Amazon.com.

While Kinokuniya customers in Japan and Singapore can order their books online, their Australian counterparts do not yet have that avenue.

“That might be something we look at in the future,” said Lisa, “but right now we are focusing on making our store the best in the country.”

Just like smaller and larger bookshops, Lisa feels that online bookshops and bricks and mortar shops can operate successfully in tandem.

“I think there is definitely a market out there for both. Our store is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive, but we do offer value.

“When we first came to Australia, those sites were out there, but it hasn’t done us any harm. I think there is enough of a market for everybody.”

Lisa added that online and traditional bookshops may appeal to fairly disparate types of customers.

“Some people like to browse through a bookstore rather than get on a computer to order a book. For those people, much of their enjoyment is derived from having a good look around and maybe finding something they didn’t know about before, whereas when you go online, you have to know what you want to buy, so it is a different market.”

Choosing a location can be of great importance to the prosperity of a business, a subject which Hands On Retail has explored previously.

Kinokuniya is situated in the heart of the city, but it’s on level two of the Galeries Victoria shopping centre, with only a discrete sign on George Street to direct customers to the store. Lisa insists that the store’s geographically elevated position has not been troublesome.

“The location has not proved to be the obstacle that we thought it might be, even though we’re not in the most prominent position, like Pitt Street Mall for instance, and we’re up on the second level.

“In Japan and Singapore, the shopping centres are often about 10 storeys high and people don’t have any problem going up through the floors, whereas in Australia they seem to like to shop on one level. That was a challenge to us, but one in which we are succeeding in. We are a destination rather than an impulse stop.”

Kinokuniya has achieved this through targeted marketing. Its ongoing involvement with community groups and events in the coming months will also help further establish the store.

Lisa outlined what the store would be doing in the months ahead to simultaneously promote the store and support the arts.

“We are very interested in the arts and culture, so you will find over the coming months a lot of very diverse cultural activities taking place, involving the store, that will br
ing a lot of cultures together.

“We plan to get involved in the Chinese New Year celebrations, and we are also working with Japanese community groups, but it is not just the Chinese and Japanese communities we will be involved with, but all cultures. Our store is multicultural – that is what Kinokuniya is all about.”

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