E-Candy at the End of the Aisle: Ebooks, Impulse, and Immediacy

There have been many studies of consumer shopping habits and what drives the purchase of unplanned items. Product displays, sales, placement, packaging, signage: These all play a part in driving purchases, particularly for items that were not part of the reason the consumer went to that store. Emotion and instant gratification play a big part too. But do these same rules apply when it comes to ebook shopping?

As the profit margins on paper books shrank over the years, many brick-and-mortar bookstores picked up a tip from grocery stores and began selling high-margin impulse items at the register. At first, there were the usual reading-related items, such as bookmarks and the Itty Bitty Book Light. Then it was music and puzzles. Soon, just like at the grocery store (and I know this all too well), there was even candy.

Pre-digital-era book purchases were made, generally speaking, at bookstores with aisles and aisles of reading material. There were bookstores in many malls, and a quick browse might turn up a book previously unknown to the shopper and result in an impulse buy. As smaller independent bookstores went out of business during the reign of the big-box chain stores, if you didn't have one along your daily route, you'd need to make a special trip.

For most people, that special trip would be predicated by a particular book purchase. Or, as stand-alone bookstores added more items for sale along with cafés, maybe a particular coffee purchase would bring in customers. The large bookstore became a destination, and not just for books. In recent years, the model changed again, and large chain bookstores began closing as online purchases soared.

Before ebooks, online booksellers could offer "similar items" and "people who bought this also bought" suggestions at checkout to encourage impulse buys, but then there was the pesky delivery lag. With the advent of ebooks, impulse shopping took on a whole new dimension, letting online shoppers experience immediate gratification just like someone in a store.

Downloading ebooks allows for an almost instantaneous purchase without ever having to leave your chair. Hear an NPR interview with an author that sounds interesting? You can buy the book right from your desk-or mobile device. Marketing strategies have had to change to accommodate this. If you promote too early, the consumer can be disappointed when they go to download the book and it isn't available yet. They may not be the type to preorder, thinking they'll pick it up later and then forgetting about it. It could very well become a lost sale.

Conversely, marketers no longer have to strive as hard for the simultaneous multiple media push. Press no longer disappears for the average consumer as it did when book reviews were only available in hard copy. In the digital age, reviews are available to the potential consumer in perpetuity and usually lead them straight to ebook websites. So if someone hears that NPR interview long after the original round of reviews came out, no worries.

But for bookstores, people downloading ebooks straight to their e-readers represents a loss, in a way. They are no longer coming to your brick-and-mortar store to have a coffee while browsing, or even to your website for suggestions on what else to buy, so selling more books becomes imperative.

Web links are key to the immediate sale, whether in an interview or a review. Most sites make an effort to list a few different distributors, but for the moment, at least, Amazon is still the go-to for many. An online presence by the author can spur sales as well. An informative or humorous Twitter account, one that isn't just a constant sales pitch, and participation in online groups can turn a new audience into new sales. And in an age of flat book sales, finding new audiences is what it's all about.
For the consumer, immediate online purchases and wireless delivery of ebooks can be great, but when impulse shopping kicks in, it can be a dangerous thing. My e-reader can attest to that. My own purchasing habits have shown that the ebooks I'm buying are the books I "always meant to get" but never got around to buying. The books I've been waiting anxiously for seem to lead me to a store and a paper copy. (Although when it comes to hardcovers, I find I lean toward ebooks if only for the weight.)