Book sales hit as consumers turn over new leaf

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We're going to the cinema more often, listening to more music, but reading fewer books and buying them from different places and in different ways. According to a study to be published today, our shopping habits are changing as never before and nowhere more so than in the previously predictable world of the bookshop.

Further evidence emerges from Corporate Intelligence's UK Retail Report of the supermarkets' assault on the traditional high street, with figures showing sales of books by the giant grocery chains have reached pounds 100m a year.

Although restricted in scope to best-sellers and children's books, the supermarkets have already stolen around 6 per cent of the market and are expected to reach a double-figure share soon.

The threat to local bookshops, the latest in a series of attacks on familiar local stores such as chemists and dry cleaners, has been exacerbated by a twin threat from Internet retailing. Bookselling in cyberspace is growing apace at the expense of sales in the real world.

Despite the growing threats posed by supermarkets and the Internet, however, Corporate Intelligence believes the greatest challenge to traditional booksellers is the competition posed by other leisure goods such as music, videos and, most dramatically, the cinema. All have left book sales behind during the 1990s.

Consumer expenditure on cinema tickets has doubled over the past six years, while the amount we spend on CDs, tapes and videos is up by 60 per cent. Having outstripped magazine sales in the first years of the decade, books have even been left behind by periodicals.

Last year consumer spending on music, video, computer games and other software rose by 10.4 per cent while cinema admissions increased by 24.5 per cent. Books, by contrast, declined by 4 per cent.

The latest figures confirm the difficulties facing the industry since the demise of the Net Book Agreement in September 1995 opened up the trade to discounting for the first time. Extending stores, introducing new facilities such as cafes and reading rooms, as well as price promotions, have failed to halt the decline.

WH Smith remains the country's largest bookseller with an estimated market share of 16 per cent, but it too is having to contend with the entry of Woolworths into the popular end of the market, where its sales are thought to have reached pounds 50m.

On the Internet, sales of the only UK specialist, The Internet Bookshop, rose five-fold last year.

According to Corporate Intelligence, books are far better suited to Internet retailing than many other product categories. In contrast to clothing, customers do not need to touch or try them on prior to purchase, while the sheer volume of books available means the type of search facilities available on the Net can save much time in finding a particular title.

With the Internet growing rapidly and other electronic channels such as interactive television developing, many retailers are still attempting to stand in the path of the electronic marketplace, but experts say it is an unstoppable tide.

Retail sales on the Internet were valued at just $500m last year but are predicted to rise to over $6bn (pounds 3.2bn) by the end of the decade.

Hoskyns, the business and information technology consultant, foresees electronic revenues of pounds 21bn - that is 30 per cent of the UK market - within nine years.

The Nintendo generation, more comfortable with computers, is growing up and entering the job market. They will be much more at ease with shopping on-line than today's 40-something technophobes.