Choosing reading books can be a serious undertaking. Even the choice of a novel or a detective book may not be taken lightly by readers. There are different ways in which consumers may get into choosing a book; some search and selection patterns in the decision process carried out by consumers can be observed in bookstores. It is possible to infer from observations, with some limitations, styles of shopping for books, involving certain tactics or rules utilised in the process. Book fairs especially offer an interesting and vibrant venue for book shopping with options not regularly available at stores. Such events may also provide an opportunity to detect new or distinctive patterns and styles of shopping that arise from the dynamic happening and busy environment.
The open-air Hebrew Book Fair has been taking place in a main central square in Tel-Aviv for over forty years in every June. Originally the book fair was held for a week but in recent years it has been extended by three more days due to its high popularity. It must immediately be noted that the book fair is an event reserved for publishers. It is a kind of ‘direct-sales’ event in which publishers meet face-to-face with readers to present their book collections to them for purchase on special discounts (the main bookstore chains run their own parallel competitive events with discounts in-store or near their stores). Visitors at the book fair can find Hebrew-native books and books translated to Hebrew from English and other languages; topical categories cover, for instance, prose, poetry and novels; detective and thrillers; history, science, and other areas of knowledge; and last but not least children & youth books. Such an enormous selection of books is not available ordinarily at bookstores in the country. The larger publishing houses may occupy ten or more counters in-line.
The visitor traffic at the event, as in this year, suggests that print books are still highly desired by people. Nevertheless, to attract even more visitors, particularly families with children, the organisers added in the past few years food and drink stands and a sitting area with tables in the square’s centre. It may help to increase the convenience to visitors and festivity of the event though it could sacrifice a bit the respectability of this literary event. However, it may be a matter of necessity or priority to make the event more popular and vibrant so as to bring larger reader audiences back to books.
As suggested above, this book fair is a busy event with tens of thousands of books of numerous titles on display from different publishers and across a wide range of topics. It retains also a long tradition wherein Israeli authors attend to sign their books for visitors-buyers. Some book counters may become crowded with shoppers during certain hours through the afternoon and evening (i.e., after work and school hours) which can make it harder to access books and check them out more deeply. Hence it may require shoppers to apply tactics for choosing books of their interest and taste a little differently than they would while shopping in a bookstore. Yet visitors find their ways to browse books, sometimes more loosely, sometimes more meticulously; it seems to happen overall in an orderly manner, each visitor getting his or her place at a book counter or desk.
Visitors can be seen walking along counters of a given publisher, staying at a counter for a while to observe its books, then moving along. After selecting a few books from separate but adjacent counters of the same publisher, the visitor often returns to a previous counter to pay. However, visitors-buyers are also offered the option to keep books already selected behind the counter (a combination of convenience and security for both sellers and customers).
Three forms of browsing candidate books of interest can be primarily noticed: Firstly, eye-scanning the front covers of books from top. Secondly, lifting a book, turning it over and reading its back cover — an abstract, short review recommendations, or a brief biography of the author(s). A visitor may examine a few books from a counter this way, but being able to do so comfortably may truly depend on how many people are already at the counter. Hence, visitors who cannot find a free spot at a counter are often seen looking over a counter-top quickly, moving to the next counter, then coming back if perhaps there was a book that had caught their attention previously to check on the book more closely. But visitors generally do not have to wait too long to find a free spot at a counter. Thirdly, one gets to open a book and sample-read sections from its pages, or looking at photographs, charts or maps inside the book. Instances of reading inside books were observed much less frequently.
Examining a book’s content more deeply to form a better founded impression or opinion of it is more difficult and hence is less likely than would be seen at bookstores. Yet, if time and space at the counter allow, it is possible to find a visitor examining a book more meticulously. It appears to be particularly relevant and appropriate for ‘knowledge books’ such as in history, sciences and technology, the social sciences, economics and business. For example, a visitor in his ~70s was leaning over an open book on the history of WW2 by Max Hastings, appearing concentrated in reading and observing maps and photographs (‘Inferno/All Hell Let Loose’, translated). He seemed interested overall in history of the two world wars of the 20th century, judging from other books he browsed; after nearly ten minutes he handed three chosen books to keep, and continued searching [A].
Please be advised that the age estimates of visitors are based on observation alone in best judgement of the author.
Comparing books on a given topic can be an even more difficult task to perform at a counter. It is hardly practical to hold two books open simultaneously for comparison, but visitors may examine books sequentially in attempt to evaluate and choose which one is more suitable to their objectives. For instance, a visitor (male, ~60) looked into a book — its introduction, inner pages, and content — on the history of the state of Israel (by Michael Bar-Zohar), but he apparently did not find what he was looking for as he asked the seller if there were books on the period preceding the establishment of the state. The seller brought him two books (concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict): he opened one of them, went through its pages, and put it aside, then browsed at greater length pages in the other book and looked at photographs. Eventually he chose the first book on the state of Israel, after looking into it again, and the third book (total time 15 minutes, [B]).
The search and examination of books sometimes involves moments of deliberation. In some cases, as above [B], the visitor may ask for advice from a seller. Alternately, as in another case observed, a seller who noticed a visitor (female, 30-35) hesitating, offered her help with recommendations. The visitor-shopper was already holding two books and the seller brought her more books the latter thought may suit the shopper accordingly in prose or novels by Israeli authors. They continued talking about the books as the shopper browsed loosely inside some of the books or read from the back cover [C].
Deliberation can take some additional forms. For example, a female visitor (~45) was considering the purchase of a book on equity investments. She was checking in particular a book purporting to be adapted and designated for women. The visitor went through some book pages, being unsure it was a good choice, and seemed recoiled upon noticing the book was from 2011 (i.e., ‘Is it still valid and relevant?’). But eventually, following a short exchange with the (female) seller, the visitor-shopper decided to take it anyway [D]. A visitor (male, 25-30) at another publisher has shown an intriguing shopping process with deliberation to the last moment: He was already holding a book when moving to another counter to look over books of prose, selected one of them, then browsed some science and knowledge books (e.g., by an Israeli scholar, lecturer and prolific writer on sciences and philosophy, Haim Shapira), but collected none. Subsequently the shopper moved to a more remote counter where he picked-up instantly a book, came back to the previous counter of science and knowledge books to purchase three books. However, after he had already paid and the books were put in a bag by the seller and handed over to him, he took out one of the books and picked-up instead a different book in front of him on biblical philosophy (by Shapira, 10 minutes, [E]).
Shopping patterns can range from exploratory, looking for opportunities with little idea pre-conceived in mind, to being pre-minded, that is, having a goal to find a particular book. Moreover, visitors-shoppers may mix styles at different levels of search, examination and choice while shopping from the same publishing house. Mixed tactics could be seen above in the shopping of visitors [E] and [C]. Following are two more examples of this kind: (1) A young visitor (female, ~17-18) was browsing prose or fiction books, going through pages and reading inside some of the books or reading from the back covers of others, then passed to looking from top at books in adjacent counters of the publisher (a more haphazard quick scan), finally returning to the first counter to buy [F]; (2) A visitor (male, ~45, at a counter of books on history and politics) took a cursory look over a biography of one of Israel’s prominent leaders of the past, kept searching and shortly after found a book on the history of Sephardic Jews (‘Marranos’, Yirmiyahu Yovel) and looked into the book more dedicately; the visitor, who seemed overall interested in Israeli and Jewish history, picked up a book at the last moment by an Israeli historian on the commanders of the Nazi concentration camps (‘Soldiers of Evil’) and purchased it with the book on Marranos [G].
In a curious brief episode, demonstrating an apparent pre-determined choice of book, a visitor in his mid-40s approached a counter, stood pausing or looking over the books, then instantly extended his hand to pick-up three copies of a book on the Bitcoin, which he purchased; one of the sellers seemed so impressed that she asked to take a photo of him holding the books with her mobile phone to which he smilingly agreed [H].
The main publishing houses presenting at the book fair offered deals of ‘3 for 100’, that is, three books for 100 shekels (~$28 in June). One publisher even offered five books for 150 shekels. These deal offers were displayed on signage boards above counters. A fourth book could be purchased for 50% of its list price, but this offer was not displayed. Visitors-shoppers who had already selected three books enquired whether there would be a discount for additional books, and were replied with the 50% offer. For instance, visitor [A] so enquired before continuing his search. Another visitor (male, ~30) who was holding four books by Ken Follett seemed unable to make up his mind which three to buy, posed the question about a fourth book discount, deliberated a little longer while shuffling the books in his hand, and finally passed all four to the seller to purchase [I]. In some cases, however, it was the seller who initiated the offer of discount on a fourth book in hope to increase the sale. Visitor [C], for example, accepted an offer as such and bought four books, probably in appreciation of, and perhaps feeling obliged to reciprocate, the advice she received from the seller. Conversely, another visitor (~30), who selected three books in history and politics on his own refused the offer by the seller when submitting his books to purchase [J].
Visitors were induced by these deals to buy more books from any single publisher. A single book could usually be bought with a 20% discount but this offer was not made public, proposed by a seller only on request of the visitor. This policy makes it simply unworthy economically for visitors to cherry-pick the books they most require or desire from different publishers (consider that many of the books cost 80-120 shekels each!). The greater problem, however, is that it may drive consumers to buy books they do not care for or do not have time to read soon. Henceforth, visitors could end up buying a pack of books, collected from several publishers, for the whole year to read. It puts quantity before quality in buying books. The ones standing to suffer from this policy are of course the book retailers who will likely see fewer shoppers at their stores in the coming months. From a publisher’s viewpoint, they may see it as only a reprisal to similar deals offered at bookstores throughout the year.
Visitors-shoppers at the book fair appear to use composite decision strategies for choosing books at the counters of a publisher: a different type of rule or method may be fitted to choose among different books (e.g., picking-up a book planned ahead to purchase, using book titles or author names as memory cues for books they have considered recently, examining inside books with greater scrutiny to evaluate them). Furthermore, the book shoppers are searching for informational cues, starting from the front cover of a book, going to the back cover, then getting inside the book. They could be extending the search for cues about a book as they feel is needed (e.g., cut the search short if sufficient information has been retrieved) or are stimulated to learn more about the book (e.g., intrigued by information on the back cover to look inside).
The difference in shopping for books at the book fair compared with bookstores seems to be not so much in the types of rules or tactics used as in the extent and frequency they are used. Book shoppers may feel at greater ease to search for a book at a store with a print of a book review cut from a newspaper (as observed in a store) than they would in the book fair (surely the same applies if one seeks guidance from his or her smartphone). One may also feel more comfortable and free to browse inside a book at a bookstore, at a quiet corner to stand or perhaps on a couch or sofa to sit and read, than at the book fair. Yet, visitors of the book fair seemed to adapt quite well to the conditions at the counters; they appear to use rules or methods similar to those that can be seen at bookstores, only adjusting them to search and choose more efficiently, particularly by restricting deeper examinations to situations where a book demands it.
Additional research methods can aid in identifying and verifying more accurately the book images and information viewed by visitors and the decision rules they use. Those methods include particularly eye-tracking and a real-time protocol of the shopping decision process (‘think aloud’). But executions of such methods may be inconveniently intrusive and interfere with the natural course of the shopping trip for visitors. Another method to consider with less intervention is an interview with a visitor-shopper after concluding a shopping episode.
Gaining greater insight into shopping for books and understanding the decision processes visitors-shoppers follow at a book fair can help in devising new designs of book displays (e.g., better organise books by topics or themes, easier-to-find) and improved practices to accommodate the visitors at the event. The organisers and publishing houses may also come up with a new co-operative scheme that would allow visitors to accomplish more effectively their objective in selecting and buying the books that interest them most or they desire to read.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)