Amazon poses threat to Singapore retailers but may help grow readership

Amazon staff preparing orders at the Prime Now facility at Mapletree Logistics Hub in Toh Guan Road East on July 27.
Amazon staff preparing orders at the Prime Now facility at Mapletree Logistics Hub in Toh Guan Road East on July 27.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

While the giant retailer could pose a threat to local retailers, it might also help grow readership by building awareness of books

The entry of Amazon into the Singapore market has booksellers here on edge.

While the United States retail giant has yet to declare concrete plans for book sales here, some booksellers are concerned because of its long history of dominating the market here, even without a local presence.

But, they say, it could also be an opportunity to grow the local readership pie.

Amazon launched its Prime Now service, which delivers purchases under two hours, in Singapore two weeks ago.

Booksellers here have yet to feel the effects of this development, but are keeping tabs on the situation.

A check on Tuesday showed 641 products in the Books department on the Prime Now app. These were largely children's and self-help titles.

Singapore Book Publishers Association president Peter Schoppert says: "The fearsome logistics and big data skills of Amazon brought to bear with great focus on the Singapore market will certainly increase the pressure on our brick-andmortar booksellers."

 

MPH Bookstores merchandising manager Matthias Low says that while Amazon's selection may seem narrow now, it "will be a force to reckon with" should it choose to expand it.

"Retailers should be jittery as the retail market in general is still licking its wounds," he says, adding that bookstores here have yet to find answers for dealing with Britain-based online bookseller Book Depository, which offers high discounts, promises free worldwide shipping and is also owned by Amazon.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, an Amazon spokesman said she had no details to share about engaging with the local book trade, adding: "We're always looking for ways to expand our selection to give customers even more products to choose from."

Even before it entered Singapore, Amazon already loomed large.

Mr Schoppert quotes a 2011 survey of the Singapore book trade by the Britain-based The Publishers Association that showed overseas e-commerce players had a share of at least 22 per cent of the local book retail market.

Mr Edmund Wee, founder of local publisher Epigram Books, has expressed concern that Amazon is muscling in on the buzz created by graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Singaporean artist Sonny Liew.

Epigram owns Singaporean and Malaysian rights to the book, which is published elsewhere by American imprint Pantheon.

Epigram's stock of the book has sold out since Liew pulled off a hat- trick at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards last month. It has entered an eighth print run of 4,000 copies - twice that of the book's earlier print runs - but Mr Wee is worried it will make a loss if Singaporeans turn to Amazon, which is selling the Pantheon edition at discounts that it cannot match. Epigram sells the hardcover at $42.90 before GST, while Amazon has priced it at $21.29, with free shipping to Singapore on orders over $125.

Intellectual property lawyer Joyce A. Tan says such online sales cannot be legally prevented despite publishing rights, as they count as parallel imports. "The law in Singapore generally favours them as they provide consumers with choice and are pro-competition."

Mr Wee says: "It's cheaper to buy from Amazon, but if Singaporeans do that, it will kill us. This is a dilemma for local publishers who want to support their authors in going international."

That said, the Amazon incursion is not all doom and gloom.

Some booksellers hope that Amazon's reach can get more people interested in reading.

Books Kinokuniya store and merchandising director Kenny Chan says: "Hopefully the size of the pie will grow as book awareness through Amazon grows. Though their selection is not there yet, eventually, it will get better. Hopefully, by then, we will get better too."

Ms Julie Hyun, co-founder of LocalBooks.sg, a one-stop online store for local titles, adds: "Amazon's large-scale delivery capacity also means a game changer for the logistics industry - hopefully for the good of small businesses like us."

Most of LocalBooks.sg's costs stem from logistics, as its books are delivered by courier.

Mr Schoppert, who runs National University of Singapore Press, says that Amazon could even boost local publishing if it decides to accept and export books from Singapore to other countries through its system.

"US and British publishers have been able to leverage Amazon's logistics skills and sales savvy to sell their books efficiently in Singapore and South-east Asia for more than 20 years. Were Amazon to source books locally for sale globally, that would be good news indeed for the local industry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Amazon: Boon and bane for local booksellers'. Print Edition | Subscribe