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Lessons from an Independent Online Bookstore

The economy has hit the traditional brick-and-mortar book business especially hard. Even landmark literary institutions like Cody’s have not...

Jason Tan
Jason Tan on January 23, 2009.

The economy has hit the traditional brick-and-mortar book business especially hard. Even landmark literary institutions like Cody’s have not been spared. In contrast, Avalon.ph – a Manila-based online specialist in second hand books – has been thriving. Its founder, Jasper Ong, manages to maintain an independent shopkeeper’s touch by giving customers the chance to close transactions personally in select coffee shops during weekends. We sat down with Jasper to see if we could learn something from his success (which seems to be out-of-print these days).

1. What guides you in your book selection process? Does the weakening economy influence that process at all?

We primarily focus on non-bestseller titles or titles that are not easily available when you walk into any of our local bookstores. We are not anti-bestseller, it’s just that our thinking is that we would rather have an inventory that is “different” from a brick-and-mortar bookstore where bestsellers are heavily displayed. We like to be a venue where ordinary browsers get to find the book they’ve been looking for for the longest time. Identifying authors that are popular in the 2nd-hand or non-mainstream book market is also key.

The weakening economy doesn’t change our selection process at all.  In fact, we see this as an opportunity to further expand our customer base as we foresee people thinking twice before paying full amount for a brand new book when they could get something similar at almost half the price or more after a few months.

2. How do you compete against online auction sites like eBay and Auction.ph?

The shopping experience from online auction websites has changed in the past few years. Consumers have gradually shifted to a “buy-now” mentality from the fancy of bidding and winning an item. Avalon.ph recognized this shift early and was able to adapt to it. This resulted in us totally revamping our website to mainly feature an online shopping website rather than an online auction one.

Online auctions are still attractive for items that we can consider “collectible” as the pricing for it depends on market demand. Items with a certain price ceiling will no longer be attractive for online auctions.

3. Avalon.ph looks completely different now from what it was when you started it. What are the most important things you’ve learned from the ride?

Avalon.ph is currently running its seventh version of the website in ten years. The one thing that we are most proud of is that we still have customers from ten years ago patronizing our website.

Technology is the enabler. Treat it as your partner and not as the headline product.  Just because you have all the latest tools in technology, doesn’t mean you will succeed.  The basic business practices of providing excellent customer service, marketing and ability to adapt to change are all very important.

Also, do not hide behind your website. In fact, I believe throughout the years I have personally met face-to-face and interacted with 30-40% of our customers. With all the social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter – and even through blogs – it is now easier to let your customers know and interact with the people behind your website. It still matters to most people when you are personal with them.

4. Our readers are always looking for inspiration. Any book recommendations?

The book I always push people to read is Charles Mackay‘s Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. This book – first published in 1841 – is still as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. The book discusses manias throughout history and the psychology behind it. Excellent book to gather that additional insight on business, popular culture and even politics.

Thanks, Jasper!

Thinking...