The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments all over the world to adopt drastic containment measures to fight the spread of the infection. Inevitably, this has had a radical influence on all areas of social and economic life, also affecting the way people use media. As with almost all industrial sectors, publishing has also seen a fast change of scenario, with a sudden mutation of the dynamics and flows that are a feature of it. We analysed this topic with Francesco Riganti, Marketing Director of Mondadori Retail.
The forced social isolation during lockdown has generated a massive increase in media consumption, particularly on-line videos and TV (data shown in the report created by Global Web Index). What has been the impact on the bookshop and publishing sector in general in Italy?
We all found ourselves immersed in a new, unusual domestic daily life, which risked being stressful because of the constant concern about the ongoing emergency and becoming monotonous and demanding because of the enforced isolation at home. Once again in this particular situation, books gave everyone, children and adults, a tool for amusement and entertainment, reflection and personal enrichment, contributing to the spread of ideas and culture.
During the lockdown, we defined new event formats which could exploit the potential of digital and social media to create and distribute new entertainment content to readers and maintain a remote relationship with the Mondadori Store public. We activated the new service ‘Your bookseller’, accessible through a Freefone number, to ask our booksellers directly for advice and reading recommendations. At that time, they weren’t busy in the shop and thus they made their skill available in the service of our customers. We strengthened the home delivery services with remote orders so that people could continue reading and buying from their usual bookseller.
We’re pleased that these new services have had an excellent response and, for all of us, this translated into a three-figure increase in on-line sales of paper books and e-books. The awareness that reading frees the mind, that infinite stories can be experienced in the pages of a book without leaving the house (as the hashtag #IoEscoConLaFantasia (literally IGoOutInMyImagination) of the Mondadori Group project indicates) led people, more than ever, to rediscover the importance and value of reading during the lockdown.
F: How have consumer behaviour dynamics and the flows in your market changed? Is it reasonable to expect a consolidation of on-line publishing’s advantageous position to the detriment of traditional ‘physical’ media?
FR: Basically, we saw three things in our sector during lockdown. Firstly, unprecedented growth of the e-commerce channel, both as the result of more intense usage by people who already used it and its discovery by people who, up to that time, had never bought on-line. What we had always considered the main barriers to the penetration of e-commerce, such as payments, logistics, the impossibility of touching a product before buying it and trust in an on-line retailer, suddenly came down. The emergency stimulated an act of trust. Secondly, the rediscovery of local shops which, for us, means the local bookshop. The restrictions on shopping centres and large surfaces plus the limitations on movement have taken people back to the bookshops ‘round the corner’. This emergency has reawakened a strong feeling of belonging to the local community, it has brought people together again and put the closest relations at the centre. Thirdly, the discovery of digital reading, i.e. people have realised just how handy buying an e-book while sat comfortably at home can be, without having to wait for delivery times which, don’t forget, were especially critical in the lockdown with the added perceived risk of delivery by couriers.
These things will certainly have an adjustment in this phase of reopening but it’s difficult to believe that people will easily abandon this new consumption behaviour and that’s why it makes sense to think that we’re living a ‘new normality’.
F: All the large multi-national groups, just like the small and medium-sized companies which are the feature of the Italian economic fabric, have had to face an unexpected, sudden change, re-organising their work during the lockdown. What was your direct experience in this sphere? What strategies have Mondadori Retail fielded in the current phase of restarting to transform the threats for all on the horizon into opportunities?
FR: The closure of our bookshops, except for about 100 left open during lockdown as they’re in the newsagent category, has forced us to review our business, subjected to strong pressure on the logistics, transport and product stock front, focussing on the strengthening of e-commerce support in response to growing demand. The multi-channel services have allowed the bookshops, even if not physically open, to continue to manage their relationship with their customers through the collection of remote orders (telephone, e-mail and WhatsApp) and the home delivery service. In addition, with the Mondadori publishing house and our partner Kobo, we joined solidarity projects in aid and support of Italian families, making thousands of e-books and paper books available free of charge, as in the case of the initiatives promoted by the Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitalisation and Save The Children.
F: The social distancing imposed to deal with the pandemic has also had a negative effect on collective spaces intended for the enjoyment of culture. Not only museums but also many bookshops had already started the transformation that would have led them to become places of aggregation rather than simple sales points. Can the role of bookshops be rethought as promoters of a new sociability, places where a desirable ‘social reunification’ respecting, for the moment, the necessary ‘physical distancing’, can take place?
FR: Bookshops will increasingly be a social reference point. Today, we keep this function alive, also in a distanced, remote way with, for example, social media. However, we’ll soon come back to exploiting the physical presence because the bookshop is, by its nature, an agora of thought, opinions and discussion. We were among the first to reopen after lockdown, with people who were thrilled to be able to enter our bookshops even on the first day. We’re sure that we’ll soon all return to bookshops again with the same enthusiasm, meeting our favourite authors and artists.
“the bookshop is, by its nature, an agora of thought, opinions and discussion”
F: In your business model, real shops are part of a ‘multi-channel’ network which allows customers to receive services in a unique buying experience personalised to meet individual needs. How will the power relationships between the different sales channels (e-commerce v. bookshops) evolve following the ongoing changes?
FR: E-commerce has certainly accelerated its channel penetration in all industries. Many customers who’ve started to use it in this period will continue to use it because they’ve understood the benefits. The physical bookshop will have to change its operational and service model because it will have to live with a consumer who has changed, who has different attentions and a distinct awareness of the advantages that e-commerce can offer.
Experience always has a fundamental role because it can positively or negatively condition the solidity of a relationship with the retailer, and so trust and loyalty in the medium- and long-term – just like a successful cake, where it’s not only the goodness of the ingredients that counts but also the right combination of them, their weight and originality. To win the competition, bookshops must succeed in finding an alchemy of the ingredients that makes their offer unique. The human factor, through the skill, passion and empathy of the booksellers, and the technological integration necessary on one side to systematise invaluable information and give an increasingly attentive service and, on the other, to offer the greatest benefits arising from digital and omni-channel services.
F: You were recently appointed Chairman of the Jury of the next edition of the ‘Retail Awards’, the event that has become a reference point in Italy for retailers of excellence and a high level of digital innovation. This year, it celebrates the companies and projects that have stood out for creativity, innovation and resilience. What future do you see in the short- and medium-term for the creation of events of this size that mobilised thousands of people pre-Covid?
FR: It’s an honour for me to preside over the Jury at the Retail Awards of Forum Retail 2020, particularly this year, because I’m convinced that we’ll see some courageous experiences and unique projects in response to the extraordinary turbulence that we’ve lived through. Personally, I think that large-scale events will never die out because people need contact, sharing and social relationships. Our history tells us this, and we’ve seen that our nature calls for aggregation since Ancient Roman times and the Circus Maximus.
What will change is the form of the events – the lockdown has accelerated a process of awareness and discovery of the benefits of digital even in events, large or small, and we can’t ignore this.
Initiatives will have an increasingly hybrid character between physical and digital and, if well integrated, the features of the two components will only make them more attractive and successful.