Singapore’s biggest bookstore chain diversifies as book market stagnates. Or does it?

 

Stagnating book markets are a troublesome feature of the modern world, where so many different forms of infotainment vie for our limited cash and attention.

In Singapore Cheng Ngok Chou, the eighty year old CEO of Popular, the biggest bookstore chain in the country, believes the book market is stagnating, and he’s experimenting with diversification on a store by store basis.

With 29 bookstores in the city-state of 5.6 million people, Chou feels the need to diversify the product range beyond books to keep the stores relevant.

Nothing new here to those of us in the west, where pretty much all bookstore chains, from Waterstones in the UK to Indigo in Canada to Barnes & Noble and, yes, even Amazon’s bricks & mortar stores in the US, are selling a range of products alongside the eponymous core product line.

Image: Popular Bookstores

But in Singapore this is a challenge Chou is only slowly coming to terms with.

From the Straits Times this week:

Shoppers walking past the storefronts of home-grown bookstore Popular, known for its extensive selection of school assessment books, may be surprised to see smartphones, coffee machines and drones on display … In a bid to keep up with changing consumer tastes and offer a comprehensive shopping experience amid a stagnating book market, Singapore’s largest bookstore chain is customising its storefronts based on factors such as customer profile, locality and the size of the shop … Popular’s outlet in The Clementi Mall reopened in October as its only store with gadgets and IT products, instead of books, displayed in the storefront

Popular is part of Popular Holdings, which operates 180 bookstores across four countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Canada), so Chou’s assessment that the Singapore book market is stagnating is no doubt a fair assessment from his perspective.

But does it tell us the whole story?

Popular has an online store as well as a bricks & mortar presence, and there is very little competition from ebooks, with Amazon and Apple non-players here.

This despite the fact that Amazon has a Singapore store (and just launched Amazon Prime in Singapore this past week, including Prime Video), and despite Amazon running the Kindle India store from Singapore.

Popular also holds the annual Singapore and Malaysia BookFests. The Singapore BookFest kicks off this Friday (December 15) and winds up Christmas Eve, with 600,000 visitors expected.

Which begs the question, is the “stagnating” book market Chou is seeing a sign of growing disinterest in books and reading, or perhaps rather an issue with the bookstore set up itself?

Last month Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives, in discussion with Peter Schoppert, president of the Singapore Book Publishers Association, gave an optimistic overview of the Singapore book market.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

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