Harry Potter price cut sparks war of bookstores

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There is no escaping the fact that tomorrow is Harry Potter Day. At midnight tonight, J K Rowling's fifth book will go on sale. But what should be a party for the whole book trade has opened up a wound that has been festering between the supermarkets and the small high street bookshops.

Since the death of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in 1995 - which prevented sellers undercutting each other on price - independent stores have felt under siege from their big neighbours.

The reason is price. John Murray-Browne, owner of the Angel Bookshop in Islington, north London, will be selling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for its recommended retail price of £16.99. Tesco, which has ordered 750,000 copies, is able to charge 40 per cent less - £9.97.

"That [Tesco's price] is less than we pay for it," observes Mr Murray-Browne.

Tesco is, of course, not alone in offering bargain basement books. Sainsbury's will be selling Harry Potter for £11.99, with a further £2 discount for customers with a promotional leaflet. Asda refuses to disclose its price until the book goes on sale in its 260 stores, but it says its 500,000 copies will be the cheapest on the market. Waterstone's, too, will not reveal its price at this stage. Borders will charge £11.99.

No wonder then that when the previous Harry Potter book went into paperback, 48 per cent of those sold in the first week were bought in Tesco's 759 stores. And no wonder that, since the collapse of the NBA, the number of bookshops has fallen by 10 per cent.

"Let Sainsbury's and the rest of them stick to selling Mother's Pride and Persil, and let us sell the books," one independent bookseller, said. "We have got used to the idea of them competing against us. But we are still far from happy. We can't compete on price."

Another complains: "It's never a level playing field in these situations because the big buyers get a much bigger discount than we do."

Mr Murray-Browne, who declines to say how many books he has ordered, but says demand is 50 per cent higher than it was for the previous title, haspersuaded his wholesaler to provide a free £4.99 book to go with each purchase. "We wanted to show we were trying."

But competing on price is not an option for him. "If people want to go for the cheapest deal, then [the supermarket price] is less than we buy for. We would do better to order from Tesco than from the publisher."

But other independent bookshops have been drawn into the price battle.

Gary McLaren, manager of The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, will be selling Harry Potter for £11.99 "for a limited period, then we will reconsider the price and probably put it up to £13.99".

He has ordered 450 copies and expects to sell more than half of them tomorrow. On the day the previous book came out, turnover trebled. He said price was not always the key determining factor in a purchase. "Most people buy on convenience - locally to where they live.

"Over time they will become aware that some people are cheaper than others, but on a specific day they will be shopping locally. What we have got to do is make sure that we offer some discount."

In keeping with shops across the country, he will be offering face painting and awarding prizes to any children who turn up for the book launch tomorrow in fancy dress.

Mr McLaren said the supermarkets "don't sell the books we sell - they aim at the Jackie Collins market, not our market at all.

"They are just cherry picking the bestsellers - and they don't happen to be the same bestsellers we sell."

Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers' Association, which represents book retailers big and small, said: "The smaller bookshop has always found it difficult to compete against the big retailers. They have to work hard to find other ways to attract customers into their shops. It is not all about price - but price is a very important factor."


* Bookstores all over the country are preparing parties and promotions to mark the release of the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

* WH Smith is recreating the station platform featured in the book outside its King's Cross branch. Children will push a trolley through the wall of the platform, as if they were catching the Hogwarts Express.

* Waterstone's in Piccadilly will hold a party for the more mature Potter reader tonight. Dame Judi Dench, Sting, Meera Syal and Nigella Lawson will be attending, children and grandchildren in tow.

* Asda will start celebrations at one minute past midnight in its 24-hour stores, with a reading of the first chapter broadcast direct on Asda FM. The Derby store is bringing in a replica of the flying Ford Anglia from The Chamber of Secrets while Basingstoke will have a barn owl.

* Half of all Ottakers bookshops are opening at midnight. The Banbury branch will have live owls, snakes and lizards, and a visiting white witch.

* The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, is planning a day of face painting tomorrow, with prizes for all the children who arrive dressed as their favourite Potter character.

Geneviève Roberts