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UK book sales down, gift purchase up

22 March 2010

At the report back from the annual UK Books and Consumers report this week, Book Marketing Limited's Research director Steve Bohme pointed out some interesting changes in consumer behaviour relating to books.

Nearly half of all book purchases were gift purchases, an increase from one-third in 2005, a stunning proportion which shows that books have not lost their attraction as gifts. Adults do of course buy books for children and there's some evidence that this has held up particularly well in the recession, but even so this is a remarkable figure.

Purchases were down 4% in 2009, compared with 2005, but this is not a bad performance considering the economic conditions and the poor figures for other entertainment items. DVDs were down 5%, with CDs ad LPs down 13% (perhaps explained by music downloads being up 139%) and computer games, which many would have considered a boom area, down 17%.

Between 2005 and 2009 there has actually been growth of 10% in volume, but because average price has fallen in each of the last four years, spending on books has dropped 4% over the period. Two-thirds of books bought in 2009 were either bought at a perceived discount or for under £5.

Seeing the book whilst browsing is still the main reason given for purchase, with previous readership of the author or series a strong secondary factor. One in ten books was bought in response to gift requests.

Only thrillers and sagas did better in 2009 than in 2008, so 'Popular', Science Fiction and Fantasy, Romance and Historical Fiction are all down, which is not what one would expect.

Children's books show a 26% increase in volume from 2005 to 2009, but prices have been going down, so value is level. Although the figures are skewed by both J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer making huge contributions, it's also difficult to separate out the considerable adult readership they have both had.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion to draw from these numbers is that the market has been more robust than might have been expected. Books have held up well and perhaps even increased their currency and perceived value as gifts. The e-book phenomenon has not yet eaten into these figures and the number of e-books sold, as a proportion of the whole, is currently very small.

The consumer appears to have been conditioned into expecting discounts and low prices, but at this point the genie is out of the bottle and it seems very unlikely that it can be tempted back in. Low prices and discounts are here to say. There are indications in the research that heavy book-buyers are the most likely to have been affected by discounting, which makes sense as they are the ones with most to gain from buying books more cheaply. There's at least a suggestion that they may then also buy more, as they are avid readers.

So the picture emerges of a business which is doing better than it might have been and which has survived the recession thus far with less damage than might have been expected. It's a pity about the relentless discounting though, as consumers will have been conditioned into expecting, to borrow a phrase, 'everyday low prices'. Anyone who has ever been tempted by a three-for-two offer will recognise how insidious this can be.