Hundreds of struggling indie bookstores used Amazon's Prime Day to launch a national campaign against the retailer. Here's how owners are fighting the e-commerce giant and its stranglehold on sales.

  • Bookstores around the country are banding together to speak out against the impact Amazon has had on their businesses, as part of a new campaign called "Boxed Out" led by the American Booksellers Association.
  • According to the ABA, 20% of locally owned book shops across the country are in danger of closing, and several have already folded due to temporary closures and plummeting sales during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Amazon continues to thrive.
  • "I've never felt that guilting people would ever work, but suddenly things are so dire right now," Sarah McNally, the founder of McNally Jackson in New York City, told Business Insider. "Our sales are down more than 50%. It's terrifying."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

For independent bookstores, the coronavirus has served as a breaking point after years of facing crushing competition from Amazon. Now, booksellers nationwide are taking the fight directly to the online retail giant as it continues to dominate retail sales during the pandemic.

Local bookstores across the country banded together this week to launch "Boxed Out," a campaign organized by the American Booksellers Association to raise awareness of the e-commerce giant's role in squandering sales at mom-and-pop shops. The push — which includes educational public displays and social media posts — was strategically timed to rollout alongside Amazon Prime Day on October 13 and 14. 

While Amazon has long threatened the livelihood of local bookstores — as well as played a role in shuttering large national chains like Borders — the pandemic has intensified this disparity as Americans increasingly shop online.

According to the ABA, 20% of locally owned bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, and several have already folded as a result of temporary closures and plummeting sales. Further, a report released by the antitrust subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee last week found that Amazon handles more than 80% of all e-book sales, as well as more than 50% of print books in the US.

"The stakes are the highest they've ever been," ABA CEO Allison Hill told Business Insider. "People could wake up after this crisis is over, look around and everybody's gone. That's the fear for small businesses in general right now. That definitely motivated us to do something different."

To help develop the concept and creative materials for Boxed Out, ABA teamed up with DCX Growth Accelerator, an agency known for buzzy campaigns, including the 2018 "Palessi" fake luxury shoe store prank for Payless Shoes. Hill said the primary goal of the campaign is "to start a conversation around consumer choice and the value of bookstores to their communities." 

"This will be an ongoing campaign through the fall to remind customers how important it is to support their independent bookstores, especially during this critical fourth quarter, when so many small businesses depend on their sales from the holidays," she said. 

Several bookstore owners told Business Insider that participating in Boxed Out is the first time they've ever publicly spoken out against Amazon. For booksellers like Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson in New York City, the hesitation to speak in the past was tied to not wanting to shame customers or make them feel guilty for using Amazon. 

"I've never felt that guilting people would ever work, but suddenly things are so dire right now," McNally told Business Insider. "Our sales are down more than 50%. It's terrifying, the way online purchasing encroached and caused complete destruction of the fabric of our communities." 

McNally was one of several bookstore owners forced to temporarily close stores and furlough staff members at the onset of the pandemic, alongside beloved companies like Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. McNally said the subsequent impact on the business ultimately served as turning point for how to approach the impact Amazon has had on both her stores and New York City at large. 

"When you look at Amazon's role in our communities, it has been so utterly destructive," McNally said. "We're sending all of our money into this organization that doesn't even pay f****** federal taxes. We're just sending all of our money out of our city and out of the communities to the richest man in the world. And we're going to lose what makes New York wonderful."

Meanwhile, other Boxed Out participants like Janet Geddis — founder of Avid Bookstore in Athens, Georgia — haven't been shy about speaking out against Amazon in the past. Geddis told Business Insider the current economic, political, and social climate has ultimately served as a galvanizing force to empower community members.

"People feel so disenfranchised by the government and by the pandemic and this is something they can do," Geddis told Business Insider. "Most Americans have an Amazon account, and a lot of Americans have access to a bookstore either in their community or via the internet. This is a concrete step they can take to make the world better and to make sure we wake up from this pandemic, living in cities and towns that we truly love and have a sense of community." 

Amazon did not immediately response to Business Insider's request for comment. 

Dear New York, Our stores are hurting. Sales remain down over 50 percent, and we need more customers to keep this bookselling gig going. Please, come back to our stores. If you are worried about lines or crowding, come early in the day or order online or by phone for pickup in stores or curbside. We are open 11:30-7. We have so many books, we have wonderful booksellers, the only thing we need is for you to come back. #BoxedOut #ShopIndie

A post shared byMcNally Jackson (@mcnallyjackson) on Oct 14, 2020 at 12:34pm PDT

 

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo — co-owner and director of events and marketing at Greenlight Bookstore in New York City — said her stores have similarly suffered during the pandemic. Though Greenlight celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, she said the coronavirus outbreak caused sales to plunge by 40%. 

"As people are becoming more politically aware, there is also a larger degree of awareness of the dark sides of capitalism," Stockton Bagnulo said. "People are becoming more aware of warehouse conditions at Amazon and how Amazon avoids paying sales taxes and how they end up causing net job loss for local communities."

Stockton Bagnulo added that the biggest concern for local booksellers across the country is how the pandemic may permanently shift the way consumers shop, which has already long been leaning towards e-commerce. By joining Boxed Out, she said the goal is to remind shoppers of the larger consequences of leaving local businesses behind. 

"It seemed like a good time to come out a little more strongly and explicitly about the harm that Amazon causes to small businesses, especially in a moment where people are rethinking the ways that they've always done things," Stockton Bagnulo said. "People's shopping habits are changing. We felt like it was the right moment to take part in this project and sort of make a statement about what it means to shop at Amazon."

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