Canadian bookseller Indigo enters the U.S. market

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Given a collective love affair with e-readers, streaming, convenience, a time crunch and what some believe is a consumer with the attention span of a goldfish, it might not seem like ideal conditions for a bookstore business to flourish.

Canadian chain Indigo sees things differently. The business, which opened its first store in Burlington, Ontario, in 1997, is looking to the United States as a prime market for expansion; the company operates 85 superstores under Chapters and Indigo banners and 120 small-format Coles, Indigospirit and The Book Company stores.

Small-format stores are typically located in retail shopping centers, street-front retail areas, major airports and central business districts. The superstores average more than 20,000 square feet and are designed to be “cultural department stores,” offering an environment conducive to browsing and community-building and representing the most ambitious capital investment project in the company’s history.

“We live in an increasingly digital world. But we are hearing from consumers that are craving ways to unplug in a meaningful way,” says Samantha Taylor, senior vice president of marketing for Indigo.

“We see ourselves as a community gathering place with an unparalleled in-store experience that focuses on human connection. People visit Indigo to be inspired and to indulge, and to connect with likeminded individuals, whether that’s fellow booklovers bonding over a new title or families meeting during kids’ story-time or a Saturday craft activity,” she says.

The company opened its first U.S. store in November in the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey, a 30,000-square-foot space that includes books, toys, fashion, home décor, stationery and electronics and hosts in-store events for children and adults — a format that has successfully worked for the chain in Canada.

LEARNING FROM CUSTOMERS

The evolution is the start of a new chapter for Indigo, according to company officials. Not only is entering the United States a milestone for Canada’s largest book retailer, the store is also a new concept that gives the brand the flexibility to evolve and experiment across a number of product categories.

“The Short Hills store has similar products, merchandising and footprint to what you would find in any of our Canadian flagships. But with each of our stores, we tailor our events and our products to the communities we’re in to ensure we’re responding to what our customers are looking for,” Taylor says.

“We’ve heard from our Short Hills customers that they are really interested in events focusing on family, wellness, fashion and cooking, and we curate events highlighting books, products and experiences specifically focusing on these themes,” she says. “Kids’ events such as costume character visits and story times have been extremely popular. The buys of items are also tailored — for example, we see cooking and kids’ items as key sections, so buys are tailored to ensure we have the right amount of product to meet our customer demand. This is a test-and-learn process, and we’ll continue to grow as we learn what our customers are most excited about.”

Taylor is confident that the concept will attract U.S. consumers. “We wanted to test our concept here for quite some time. Our unique approach to retail resonates with customers in Canada, and we are hopeful it will be successful in the U.S. as well.”

A consumer-friendly retail environment that goes beyond traditional bookstore retailing is key to that success.

“Retail is an ultra-competitive business and everything moves at a very fast pace. But you can’t lose sight of your mission. At Indigo, our top priority is always ensuring that our customers have a joyful experience when they visit our stores or interact with our products,” Taylor says. “Every decision we make is with the customer in mind and whether the experience and products will enrich their lives in some way.

“We often hear from our customers that Indigo is their happy place, and a huge part of that sentiment is due to our in-store experience, from our expert staff and curated assortment to in-store events and the design and aesthetic of the store itself.”

Indigo is still in the process of creating a cultural community hub centered around books and ideas. “The concept originated with predominantly selling books and music, and for the past few years we’ve been on a journey of transforming our Canadian stores into what we refer to as a cultural department store for booklovers,” Taylor says. “This new concept is warm and inviting and organized around a number of ‘shops’ in categories that we believe in, such as wellness and kids, with books remaining at the heart of our business.”

‘JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY’

What form these new stores will take is unknown; the Short Hills store indicates the shape of things to come in what has been a radical new design. The design revolution is largely the result of Indigo’s partnership with design firm Burdifilek.

“The design for Indigo is radically different than other retail designs,” says Diego Burdi, creative director and co-founder of the firm. “As a unique brand, Indigo carries a unique promise and product assortment. Since no two brands are exactly alike, every design must communicate to the market why it is different.

“There is currently nothing comparable to this Indigo experience. Unlike a traditional bookstore, the lifestyle component of Indigo’s unique product mix that marries gifting with books encourages a different journey of discovery.”

Every department carries a strong visual identity, creating multiple opportunities for an evolving narrative linking back to books. “As the number of competitors in this category continue to decline, Indigo has set a benchmark globally for the perception of what a bookstore could be,” Burdi says. “The principles of design should be applied to all retail categories. Compartmentalizing a large product assortment into an easy, enjoyable and comfortable experience for consumers to shop, navigate and explore is about creating engagement to drive sales. This is important for all retailers.”

“With many digital brands and heritage brands investing into physical stores, the value of stores is evident,” says Paul Filek, managing director and co-founder of Burdifilek. “As the most tactile, the experience can appeal to all our senses, which confirms our purchases in a reassuring way. Brands recognize that environments are the best way to connect with their ideal customers, discover what they’re looking for and what makes them engage with the brand. Time and time again, it’s an invaluable resource for a brand when a sales associate can speak directly to the customer and get immediate feedback. Beyond making a sale, you can build meaningful relationships that give customers a reason to come back again.

The focus on design and in-store environment is only part of the story for Indigo, which has an educational program that provides textbooks and other materials to schools in Canada. The Indigo Love of Reading Foundation was founded in 2004 to address the problem of underfunded public elementary school libraries in Canada.

“The Foundation is equipping teachers, librarians and principals with the books and resources that are critical for promoting educational success and inspiring a love of reading in their students,” Taylor says.

The Foundation’s Literacy Fund grants $1.5 million to a high-need elementary schools that lack the resources to build and maintain strong library facilities, and its annual grassroots Adopt a School program unites the Foundation with Indigo, its employees, its customers and their communities to raise funds to support elementary schools across Canada and put even more books into the hands of children.

In November, the Adopt a School program provided $1.1 million for books to over 600 elementary school libraries, Taylor says. To date, the Foundation has committed $29 million to more than 3,000 schools serving over 900,000 children.

Len Lewis is a veteran journalist and author covering the retail industry in the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

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