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Used Book Shops Undergo Image Make Over

September 7, 1999

These new-wave secondhand bookstores can hardly be told apart from regular retailers. (Bookoff Corporation)

In the suburbs of Tokyo and near train stations of regional cities, secondhand bookstores that might easily be mistaken for new-book retailers have been springing up. These stores differ from traditional shops that mostly handle old, rare, or limited-edition volumes in that their selections comprise recently published works, including hardbacks, pocket editions, and even comic books. They are therefore known as "new-used" or "recycled" book shops. These stores' strategy of offering a well-stocked collection of books in excellent condition at low prices is paying off with rapid growth.

A Unique Sales Approach
The largest of these retailers, Book Off, was started in 1991. This store initiated the new wave of used-book retailing by overhauling the traditional image of secondhand bookstores. Unlike the dimly lit, gritty, and unpleasant shops commonly found in the industry, Book Off's outlets are clean, orderly, and--thanks to glass storefronts--brightly lit. Customers entering the shops are greeted with a hearty welcome. Many of the staff are young, contributing to the upbeat atmosphere.

But how are these relatively inexperienced workers able to accurately judge the value of incoming books? Assessment of the books' value is completely systemized at these stores. Basically, any book brought in by sellers that is relatively new, in good condition, and not already sufficiently in stock is bought in at 10% of its list price. Factors like the book's title and whether or not it is still in print are irrelevant.

All books initially retail at half their original list price, and those that do not sell within three months are discounted all the way down to 100 yen (0.91 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar). For example, a 1,000-yen (9.10-dollar) book, which is purchased from the seller for 100 yen, is initially retailed at 500 yen (4.50 dollars)--yielding a high return of 80%, or 400 yen (3.60 dollars).

Good News for Consumers
Book Off is a franchise operation with about 400 outlets throughout the country--and the number is still growing. And following the opening of a store in Hawaii in May 1998, additional locations are being planned for New York and Los Angeles, to be opened by the end of 2000.

Several other companies that have taken note of Book Off's success are jumping onto the bandwagon and heating up competition. Many traditional used-book retailers are bitter toward their new rivals, especially criticizing the system of discounting all non-selling books down to 100 yen. But as the recession lingers on, consumers seem fascinated by the prospect of being able to purchase a nearly new book at half price, with the possibility of even finding one that might list for ten of thousands of yen at traditional used retailers being sold for a mere 100 yen. It looks as though the bargain-shopping trend has permeated even the readers' market, but these recycled-book stores are also garnering attention for the serendipitous role they play in conserving forest resources.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.