Why is the used book market booming?
For years, market analysts predicted the end of the book. With the rise of Kindles, the Internet and TV streaming, who still needs it?
“Everyone thought the physical book was under threat and thought it was going to disappear 20 years ago, that never happened,” says Ian Falkingham, head of strategy for books, music and articles housekeepers at Oxfam.
Oxfam sells 60,000 books in 400 stores, with 130 stand-alone bookshops across the UK, as well as in Paris and several locations in Ireland; all sale items donated by the public.
Book sales are Oxfam’s largest sales category with 30% in-store, a figure which has been stable for half a decade, while since the pandemic their e-commerce business has doubled book sales by 20-40% opportunity.
The centrality of e-commerce to Oxfam’s business model has sparked enthusiasm from their large team of volunteers.
“I remember…the shop manager in Cheltenham phoned me one day and said I was in my shop and I’m going to list all the books I have in the online shop,” says Fakingham.
“People have looked at the success of stores like that and said, oh, I get it. There is a real opportunity here. »
Is the circular economy the key to second-hand success?
It is often said that e-commerce is all about price, range and service, without achieving a high standard in these areas you cannot succeed in the competitive world of online selling.
“That’s what we do really well,” says Graham Bell, managing director of World of Books (WOB).
“But now there are four things that people expect from our company, and that’s the sustainability angle.”
From humble beginnings 20 years ago, buying unwanted books by the kilo from charity shops and reselling them on Ebay, WOB now sells a book every 2 seconds, reaching 18 million sales a year. Their business grew by 30% in 2021 with an expected growth rate of up to a quarter this year.
Their business model is focused on ecology; a registered B-corp, they’ve pledged to send nothing to landfill, recycle tens of millions of pounds a year, and save half a million trees in the process.
This is particularly important for young people, who see the climate crisis looming in their future, with the 18-35 bracket making up WOB’s largest group of online shoppers.
“For this group of people, sustainability is a very important factor,” says Bell.
“The circular economy is our raison d’être.”
“We wouldn’t even have thought of it 20 years ago when we started to develop our business,” adds Falkingham.
“But that’s a big part of why people support us now.”
Emotional links with the written word
A kind of comparison can be drawn between books and music. Sales of physical music plummeted with the rise of streaming, with only vinyl sales rising, due either to its superior sound quality or its role as an aesthetic status symbol.
However, while physical music seems to be in inexorable decline, e-books – which were to be embraced wholeheartedly by millennials – have stabilized at 20% market share.
Meanwhile, second-hand books have become a booming business internationally. Oxfam ships from its UK stores internationally and WOB recently opened a warehouse in the US for its North American buyers. Nor is their reach limited to the anglicised world, with 9% of sales going to continental Europe.
But why did the writing not follow the same path as the CD? Is there anything special in the books?
“Without a doubt, there is a connection between people and books, they are thought of differently,” says Bell.
“Very few people will throw their books in the trash, because of what they represent.”
Perhaps the psychology of books as symbols of knowledge, learning, and power is too deeply embedded in our social fabric for any of us to truly understand. But the positive emotions linked to books, in the form of reading pleasure, emotional revelations and childhood memories, are evident.
Bell has a plethora of anecdotes about shoppers who sought out beloved childhood novels to read to their own families, including a woman in Australia whose order only arrived to have her own name written on it ever since. that she was young.
“It might even be like I lent it to my buddy at the pub. And he never gave it back to me, so I bought it back from you, and then lo and behold, you know, it had my name in it,” Bell said.
There’s a beautiful poetry to the circular economy that brings sentimental items back to their long-lost owners, and it’s something that symbolizes the two driving forces behind the booming second-hand book market.
A new sustainable way of thinking and modern e-commerce combined with an age-old reverence for the written word.