Monday, July 04, 2005

[Blog Entry] The Bookstore Wars part 1: National Bookstore vs Powerbooks

The Bookstore Wars part 1: National Bookstore vs Powerbooks

I’m not paid by either bookstore yet as a bibliophile, I’ve come to a slight understanding on how National Bookstore and Powerbooks are run. For some people, they’re unaware that the two bookstores are owned by the same clan. For those that do know, they might be lulled into thinking that they’re essentially the same, albeit the latter having a facelift. But that’s perhaps too simplistic.

So is National Bookstore the same as Powerbooks? In terms of inventory, perhaps. I’ve even seen Powerbooks books with National Bookstore price tags (and vice versa), and they’ve been caught sharing the same booth in last year’s book fair, but that’s not the whole story. It’s true that both bookstores trace their lineage from the Ramos line, but Powerbooks is a waif that broke off from the norm.

Of the two, perhaps the braver and bolder one is Powerbooks. Why? Just because National Bookstore and Powerbooks carry the same books and sell them at the same prices doesn’t mean they’re identical twins. One merely needs to take a good look at the former to realize that it’s a charlatan. Contrary to popular belief, National Bookstore’s main selling point isn’t in books: it’s in school supplies. Take a moment to think of where you bought your last ballpen, your last notebook, and your last pencil. Then take another moment to reminisce your childhood, and recall where you bought your ballpens, your notebooks, your plastic envelopes, your plastic folders. Yes, I thought so. National Bookstore.

Powerbooks, on the other hand, has few school supplies (if any), on their stores. The closest thing they have to school supplies are the bookmarks, the pillows (why they’re there, I don’t know), and perhaps the small section devoted to PC games and jigsaw puzzles. Other than that, it’s books, books, and the occasional magazine or comic.

Okay, National Bookstore has survived all these decades by working with a successful formula: by selling school supplies. Yet Powerbooks deviates from this and sets out to carve an identity of its own by merely selling books. *Gasp* What kind of bookstore depends on books for its revenue? But wait, there’s more!

Take another look at who the market of National Bookstore is. It’s the common man, the masses, from the public school children to the educated doctors in hospitals. If National Bookstore was a music genre, it’d be pop. Then take another look at who goes to Powerbooks. It’s the middle-class to the upper echelons of society. Their customers are those who don’t want to wait in long lines, and prefer the expedient way of doing things.

Or to take it from another point of view, look at it this way: Powerbooks has couches. National Bookstore doesn’t. Powerbooks has a café inside. National Bookstore doesn’t. Powerbooks has carpets. National Bookstore doesn’t (well, the one at Shangri-La and Podium has, but those are the exception). Need I continue?

Another significant difference is their mentality on books. Honestly, National Bookstore doesn’t encourage readers. The books, more often than not, are shrink-wrapped. Opening them is frowned upon. Okay, let’s stop there and analyze the ludicrousness of the situation. A bookstore’s main customers are readers (but we’ve already established that’s not the case with National “Bookstore”). That means their customers buy books. The only way we can evaluate a book’s worth is by reading it. We even have the cliché saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But when it’s shrink-wrapped and you’re not allowed to open it, how else does one judge a book’s worth?

And then there’s Powerbooks. Admittedly, most of its books are still shrink-wrapped. But they leave a few copies that aren’t, which people can browse through and read. In fact, public reading is encouraged. That’s what all the couches are for. You can even ask customer service for assistance. I mean I’ve seen people lounging there all day, reading books as if the place was a library, and then walking out without purchasing anything. That’s the kind of atmosphere you have in Powerbooks. Whether it’s the economically savvy thing to do, you’ll have to read on.

If there’s anything I’m not privy to, it’s to the financial statements of both bookstores. National Bookstore has to be doing something right if it’s survived this long and managed to spew out a bastard child of its own. Powerbooks, on the other hand, seems to be doing the direct opposite of its progenitor. Yet it’s still here, and even has a monthly magazine that it can afford to give away for free (well, if you make a minimum purchase). Oh, and it’s managed to open a new shop at the Shangri-La.

But let’s say I’m apathetic to either bookstore. What’s in it for me? Well, National Bookstore has this loyalty card of theirs. In the past, I think it used to be discounts. Now, it’s just points. Whenever I buy something from National Bookstore, they just ask me if I have their “Laking National” card. How I’ll obtain one, I don’t know. What the actual rewards are, I don’t know. I suspect it’s like those giveaways at banks. It could be anything from a toaster to a refrigerator. The point is to accumulate points, and exchange those points to get something else. Powerbooks, on the other hand, has a different tactic. You have these membership cards which gives you a 10% discount on most purchases. Some even double as actual credit cards. I don’t even ask how to get one. The saleslady offers me this blank card which I must use every time I buy something from them so that it eventually gets upgraded to their membership card which gives me actual discounts. Right now, they have this wacky promo. They give you back approximately 1% (in addition to your 10% discount) of whatever you spend in Powerbooks. Admittedly, it’s not a lot, but when you’re like me who spends a few thousand every month on books, I can probably afford to get a paperback book for free come Christmas. Of course my only question is since when did Powerbooks start acting like a bank (I mean 1%? That’s like the annual interest rate of a bank… no wonder banks and Powerbooks earn a lot of money; I spend P100, and they only give me back P1.00.)

Okay, so what do we have? We have a bookstore that doesn’t really sell books, but has a large customer base (which is as it should be, considering it’s nearly in every mall imaginable). The other bookstore, on the other hand, actually sells books, and rewards readers (unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of shops in Metro Manila, much less in the country). So which is the winner?

Actually, it depends what you’re looking for. For example, I like the fact that I can buy a highlighter along with my book when I go to National Bookstore. Unfortunately, they tend to have really long lines. Powerbooks, on the other hand, I get my books cheaper. And I also have the luxury of browsing through their inventory, provided I actually had the time to lounge around. They also possess a better ambience which is more conducive to reading.

Which is the right bookstore for you? You tell me. Despite all the conveniences Powerbooks provides, it’s one weakness is the fact that its inventory is completely identical to that of National Bookstore. Whether you buy it from Powerbooks or from National Bookstore, it’ll end up in the same pocket. They have the cheapest brand-new books though, which is a good enough reason for most people to support either. That and you can’t miss them whenever you enter a mall.


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