Bookstores were among the retail establishments shuttered when the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Metro Manila on March 16, with the ripple effect shutting down bookstores across the country. When the ECQ turned into the modified ECQ on May 16, with other areas now on general community quarantine, bookstores were once again allowed to open—but with precautions in this “new normal.”
Major chains National Book Store (NBS), Fully Booked and Pandayan Bookshop have reopened select branches under strict safety protocols while also beefing up their delivery capacity.
The ECQ had hit the stores hard, but the full effect remains unknown, and will remain so for a while.
“To date, we have no clear estimate of lost sales in our book category,” said Gerardo Cabochan Jr., managing director of Pandayan. “Sales were at a standstill during the lockdown, except for the few occasions when local government units and hospitals requested that we open a store for an hour or two to serve their needs. As expected, sales were and continue to be weak because of the prolonged school break and strict constraints on the movement of people.”
NBS has now opened more than 100 stores, Fully Booked 24 of its 31 branches and Pandayan almost all of its 134 branches nationwide, with store hours varying from location to location, particularly for those in malls.
Proper queuing distancing
“We are committed to providing a safe and sanitary environment for everyone,” said Xandra Ramos-Padilla, National Book Store Group managing director. “The floors, surfaces and shopping baskets are regularly cleaned and disinfected. To ensure that proper social distancing is maintained, we are limiting the number of customers inside the store. Floor markers are installed every 2 meters inside and outside the store for proper queuing distancing. We also require all employees and customers to wear face masks and encourage them to use the alcohol bottles provided at our cashier counters.”
One can see the plastic sheets that separate the books and other items from the customers; NBS offers contactless payment options such as GCash and PayMaya.
Nicole Sun-Balmaceda, Fully Booked marketing manager, said they were “also taking into consideration the welfare and capacity of our front-liner employees in their respective branches. We don’t know how long this will last, and management of resources will be vital in any company’s success. But while there is still a demand for books and conditions prove safe for our employees, we will try our best to remain open in as many branches as we can.”
Thus, branches are operating on a skeleton workforce, with physical events, workshops and shoots postponed until further notice. Customers will tread on sanitizing mats before entry. High-risk individuals, those who do not have quarantine passes, are not wearing face masks or are exhibiting flu-like symptoms will not be admitted.
Insights on reading, buying habits
Cabochan said, “Until the thermal scanners were delivered to the stores, store teams conducted over-the-counter transactions set up near the store’s glass doors. Customers formed a line outside the store and were not allowed to enter the selling area. Store signs posted for customers to see indicated each store’s enforcement of pandemic protocols required by the government.”
The bookstores have gained insights on the reading and buying habits of Filipinos during the quarantine period. “We have seen Filipino bookworms revisiting old favorites and classic reads,” Padilla said. “Parents invested in books and supplies to facilitate learning at home for their kids, young professionals stocked up on their work-from-home essentials and artists found time for creative pursuits.”
In Fully Booked’s case, Balmaceda observed: “This pandemic has also brought to light what our customers deem important in sustaining their lifestyles. We see that people seek out books for knowledge, entertainment and health, and we’re happy to be able to provide these for people’s physical, mental and emotional health.”
The quarantine has led to an exponential increase in online and non-brick-and-mortar traffic. “While we have taken a hit during the ECQ, we are fortunate to have had our e-commerce operations in place,” Balmaceda said.
Aside from Fully Booked’s website, they have also taken full advantage of their Shopee and Lazada operations. “With people staying at home for the past months, the demand in our e-commerce stores has definitely increased significantly. Perhaps because of the uncertainty surrounding this period, we’ve seen customers buying more than usual, both in quantity and in value, and spanning all genres.”
Padilla noted that, for NBS, “Sales and visits have increased exceedingly when we resumed operations of our e-commerce platforms. One week’s worth of sales now is comparable to a month’s worth of sales before the quarantine started. Volume of orders significantly increased, as well.”
Not only can you can shop online through NBS’ e-commerce site and official stores in Lazada, Shopee and MetroMart via social media, or via text messaging, but their Text to Order service allows customers to either pick up their prepared orders or book a delivery service. Pandayan’s Cabochan said, “Our digital orders have definitely increased. Mostly, we do Bopis, buy online-pick up in store. We need to improve the online side of our business because the pandemic accelerated the use of online transactions in retailing, even in the countryside. And from the looks of it, the online portion of our sales will continue to rise even after the pandemic. The savings in time and effort will fuel online transactions.”
Children’s books specialist Adarna House, for example, is handling online orders even though their Quezon City and Baguio City stores remain temporarily closed.
One can assume that everyone wants to go back to prequarantine habits of just going to a branch nearby and browsing through the shelves without worry, even with the explosion in the usage of online bookstore access.
Still, Cabochan said he believes the bookstore experience may have forever changed. “I believe fewer people will look for the physical bookstore shopping experience—not because it is less pleasurable than browsing online or reading with a tablet, but because going to a bookstore is more time-consuming compared to a digital experience.
“The twin calls of efficiency and convenience, compounded by pandemic precautions, have gained priority in our time-conscious world. Who can tell if this trend will last forever? Perhaps, the more vital question we need to ask is, ‘What are we saving time for?’”
Adaptation and innovation were required to keep everything running, Padilla said, but it is a developing situation. “While the shopping experience has changed significantly, we remain passionate and committed to providing Filipinos with everything they love from National Book Store,” she said. “As more of our stores reopen and new sales channels are made available, we will continue to bring them books, school and office supplies, and tools for creativity and productivity as we move into the new normal.”
“Bookstores have always had it tough, given the rise of digital and the presence of e-books and audio books, but we are hopeful there will always be a place for us,” said Balmaceda. “Bookstore shopping is something most of our customers prefer to experience physically—the smell as one flips through the pages, the warm and welcoming ambiance as one browses a book’s contents.
“There’s a degree of care in choosing a book, and it’s unfortunate this pandemic asks us to put these wonderful tactile experiences on hold, but the essence of seeking out stories remains strong. We’re grateful that customers have been patient with us in processing and delivering their orders given the country’s condition. Regardless of wait time, it’s refreshing to see how important reading is for Filipinos.” INQ