Om Book Shop – a division of distributors and publishers Om Books – with branches in Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Mumbai and Bengaluru, may have pioneered the concept of mall bookstores in India. Borrowed from the West, the bookstore-in-a-mall has now become a viable venture as well as a popular hangout for bookworms. In India, stores and chains like Bahrisons, Landmark and Crosswords have all adopted this model at different times.

What does the pandemic mean for the bookshop-in-a-mall, going by the example of Om Book Shop? Managing director Ajay Mago spoke to about the business and logistics of operating bookstores in malls, how the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing government-enforced lockdown impacted sales and operations, and how he and his team are adapting to the new normal. Excerpts from the interview:

How old is the concept of mall bookstores?
Since the initial decades of the 20th century, and with an increasingly marked presence from the 1950s, malls gradually transformed the shopping experience in the West. While it would be difficult to accurately identify the first bookstore to ever exist in a mall, it would be unusual to amble through a mall today without chancing upon bookstores that are not only popular hangouts for readers but also signature meeting points.

Which was the first bookstore to operate out of a mall in India? Is it still operational?
Our first bookstore in a mall was in the MGF Metropolitan Mall in Gurugram. In fact, the MGF Metropolitan Mall was probably the first full-fledged commercial mall to have opened in India. Considering we were the first bookstore to operate in this mall, it would be accurate to say that Om Book Shop was the first bookstore to open in any mall in India. Correct me if I am wrong though.

The store today is not only operational, but we bought it outright. It’s located wonderfully within the mall, and has been doing very well ever since it was set up. In fact, one of my fondest memories of this bookstore is the national launch of a Harry Potter title. At midnight, there was a serpentine queue of over 300 people – adults and children – outside the bookshop, waiting for a chance to grab a copy. We had ordered in three cakes for the customers – the first to be cut at midnight, the next the following day at breakfast, and the last in the evening.

Tell us a bit about Om Book Shop. When and why did you decide to foray into the bookstore business?
I returned from the US in 1996 after completing my MBA from UCLA. My father thought it best to send me, a complete greenhorn, out into the market for gaining a grassroots experience and an understanding of the book publishing, distribution and retail industry. Over the next two years, I visited innumerable bookstores across India, interacted closely with distributors, collected book orders, maintained inventory, etc, and learnt the ropes.

Meanwhile at home, plans were afoot on adding new verticals to our core business of book distribution. After much deliberation, we opened the first Om Book Shop in South Extension Part I, New Delhi, in December 1999, followed by the second Om Book Shop in Vasant Vihar in April 2000. At the time high street was a tried and tested option. But one thing led to another and, with malls beginning to slowly alter Delhi’s skyline, we hit up on the idea of taking our bookstores to malls across major cities in India.

In the course of doing this we realised we would have to let go of our high street bookstores. The outlet in South Extension was sold off about six years ago. It was closed down because of a sealing drive, and then sold when it became untenable to hold on to. In Vasant Vihar as well, the market where our store was located has been closed for the last two years. So as of today, if you ask me if there still exists any functional high-street bookstore owned by Om Book Shop, the answer is no. Instead, we are more focused on expanding our presence in malls across the country.

How did you go about expanding your footprint in malls?
When we set up our first high street Om Book Shop in South Extension, expanding the footprint across India was already part of our plans. But we never anticipated expansion as bookstores in malls. There was never a fixed plan or strategy, it just came about with time and circumstances. Let me explain.

We set up shop in MGF Metropolitan Mall as an investment, and this turned out to be an excellent decision. But it was pretty clear to us that malls were here to stay, and we were going to be a part of them. So, setting up the first bookstore in a mall in India was neither accidental nor experimental, but a well thought-out decision backed by foresight.

We capitalised on this decision when we decided to buy the store in MGF Metropolitan, as well as the store in Great India Place, Noida. However, we decided not to buy high street bookstores ever again. A lot of concerns exist over standalone bookstore. There are security issues, questions of electricity and fire safety, etc. In a mall, those protocols are taken care of for you, so a bookstore owner (and we are publishers as well) can focus on other things. You can continue running your own show, while extraneous administrative problems are dealt with by the mall management. So you do have a certain peace of mind.

When we decide to open a new outlet, we consider a few key points. The first thing we look for is the identity of the promoter of the mall. Second, which key stores are already operating there? The questions we ask here are: what is the combination of stores within the mall? Do they have a food court? What kind of food?

When we started negotiations to open an Om Book Shop at DLF Promenade, we were told that Zara had already signed up for the store space we wanted. But they wouldn’t move in for another year and a half. The management at DLF Promenade offered us a deal: take Zara’s space for a year-and-a-half on trial basis. So not only was the space new for us, but the area in which the mall was located was also new. We didn’t really know anything about the volume of readership we could expect from Vasant Kunj. We knew that high spenders did live there, but it was still a niche area and a niche mall too. When Zara finally took over the space, we relocated downstairs to our original contracted space. So for us, it is important to look at the mix of brands that the mall is going to house.

Third, will there be a cinema in this mall? If there are plans in the works to set up a cinema, this a huge positive sign for us. Why? Because there is a huge swathe of people who come out of the hall and disperse to various restaurants and stores. So those are our first and regular spenders.

The combination of these factors was potent. We never do business with a mall that has no cinema or food court. It’s a strategy that’s been fine-tuned over the years, born from our first successful tie-up with MGF Metropolitan Mall. Simply put, we continue tying up with the same partners – for instance, in Delhi NCR, we have always allied with DLF. So we’re present at DLF Mall, Saket, DLF Promenade, Vasant Kunj, and at DLF Mall of India, Noida.

You see, it’s always prudent to continue working with a promoter if you’ve already tasted success with them for an initial venture. You already know their market expectation, their target customers, and what protocols will be in place once they open. We believe that once you join hands with a promoter, you should grow with that promoter. In NCR, we have a store in Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj. In pre-pandemic days, this particular store was in fact among our top three performers.

What are the intricacies, advantages and challenges of running a bookstore in a mall? How is it different from running a bookstore elsewhere?
Let’s begin with the advantages of setting up a bookstore in a mall. There is a constantly floating customer-base, seven days a week, which leads markedly to an increase in both consciously planned and impulse buys. As I’ve mentioned earlier, when the mall management takes administrative concerns off your hands, then you, as the owner, are free to think more creatively about your business.

This means we can focus on both our identities, of booksellers and book-publishers. We can spend more time carefully analysing new and emerging data on what genres are selling currently, and what customers are buying more or less of. Our managers at our outlets across the country compile this data into weekly, monthly and daily reports, which are then given to us. We channel that data into our publishing wing, and focus on meeting new customer demands.

Then you have the question of amenities that a mall offers. Considering the extreme weather conditions in India, malls offer a comfortable shopping experience. Often we have readers returning several times a day to browse our books, in between other experiences in the mall. Parking is not much of a bother. On the downside, besides high rentals, one must factor in a monthly cost to run the common facilities offered by a mall in terms of its infrastructure and security. Restocking the bookshop (or any other store for that matter) is not possible during regular working hours, and must be done afterwards, which means an additional cost.

Do bookstores operating in malls with high footfalls necessarily see higher sales than those that in less popular malls?
A mall with high footfalls will always bring high revenues. For example, DLF Emporio in Vasant Kunj caters to a high-end, elite niche crowd. If I were to open a bookstore there, I wouldn’t be able to attract readers, would I? If I opened a very fancy art-store instead, it would be successful. But would it be a sustainable revenue model for me? No. So, a more commercial mall, with a good mix of retailers, will always work, even in a less populated area.

This is why we have always paid most attention to the partner with whom we have tied up. It is the mall management, then, that will be looking at factors like profitability, sales, and customer bases. In a sense, it is a collective and symbiotic effort. For instance, I have a store in DLF Promenade. Now, if there is an event there, the footfalls be for the mall, and my store will benefit. But if I have a standalone bookstore, I have to generate my own business. In a mall, the effort is collective.

Which genres sell the most at mall bookstores?
In any bookstore, the top selling categories haven’t changed over the last decade. So this includes self-help, mind-body-spirit, health and fitness, cookery, fiction (with a greater inclination now towards Indian writers), current affairs, and children’s books.

During the pandemic, there has been a greater shift towards reading. Customers are now picking up books on home-schooling (vocabulary building, pattern writing,), mythology, folk stories, history, encyclopaedias etc. There has also been a huge increase in the sales of colouring books. We’ve always stocked them, but I’ve never seen such a surge. In the last 15 years, I’d seen the interest in books about indoor hobbies take a nosedive, but during Covid times, the numbers have improved unbelievably.

How has the pandemic affected mall bookstores across India? What are the implications of the inevitably lower footfalls and unavoidable rentals on such bookstores?
The lockdown has impacted us greatly. A huge chunk of our regular customers weren’t coming to malls at all since restaurants and cinemas were closed. Based on my sales figures across June to October, I can say that we are still struggling. When you are on a rental model, there are fixed costs one must cater to. That usually means an expenditure of 40%-50% of your revenue.

If I compare last year’s sales to this year’s – keeping in mind that there wasn’t much traction last year, with the economy being in the state it was – then sales have just hit about 30%. But I choose to remain positive, because sales figures have gone up to 30% within a couple of months. If we can reach 45% by the middle of November, then we might just make it to 50% in December.

As far as mall owners were concerned, the conversations were mutual, but the existing models (revenue-share or fixed lease are the two main models) were tough to follow under the lockdown. If your revenue is on the higher side, mall owners will choose that over a lease, and vice versa. This is particularly useful when the outlet in question is a restaurant, because revenues will always be on the high side. During the lockdown, most malls waived rentals for April to June.

But there is yet another charge to think of here: the Common Area Maintenance charge. Nobody has waived that. Most bookstore owners have the same concern: why are we paying the same amount for CAM when the mall is, like the rest of the city, locked down? The rent runs to lakhs of rupees after all. How do we pay rent for a locked down property that is not operational?

Our is a family-run business, and I had never thought I would live to see this day. Emotionally and personally, I was hit hard. We had so many plans – which, unfortunately, I can’t disclose – for Om Book Shop in 2020 that had to be put on hold. It was excruciating to digest that whatever we had planned so carefully simply couldn’t materialise, for reasons that we couldn’t control.

A lot of businesses have been forced to go digital during the pandemic. Has Om Bookstore tried adapting too?
Om Book Shop has taken definite measures to stay afloat. We put in place a special social media campaign across Instagram and Facebook. Customers who inquired for, say, cookbooks would be sent customised PDF catalogues of all the cookbook titles that the store carried. If a customer wanted a peek inside a particular book, a PDF of that would be organised and sent via email or WhatsApp. We had never done things like this before.

We also tied up with a couple of courier companies, who would pick up books from the warehouse and drop them off to the customers. These boys would be delivering alongside our own delivery staff, whom we had trained in the proper social distancing and sanitisation protocols. Was this worth it in terms of revenue? No. After all, customers were also going through their own troubles in the initial days of the lockdown. Books were hardly a priority compared to salaries and jobs. So it wasn’t a sustainable model, to be honest.

But what it definitely did do was add to our sales, enough to keep revenue ticking along. We were only delivering across Delhi at that time, and we were receiving about 70-80 orders a day. The other problem was that while we could implement something like this for Delhi, we couldn’t do it in other cities where we have set up shop. In Maharashtra, for instance, things remained locked down for the longest time. So we couldn’t get that model up and running everywhere unfortunately, and that was a big blow.

June onwards, at least fifteen people in the office, including me, began to research, almost 24x7, how to expand our online presence. That meant reading tomes on how to put bestselling books online, how to generate new business online. We had no experience at this – so we taught ourselves the tips and tricks of optimising the digital space. We attended webinars and obsessively watched YouTube tutorials on how to become online entrepreneurs. What we learned one day, we implemented within the next five days! The wonderful thing about the online space is that once you find that magic formula of right price, right audience and right target market, you will begin seeing results almost instantly.

This has been a huge achievement. We began seeing a definite uptick in sales and revenue, and breathed a collective sigh of relief. For the first time in three months, we hoped that we wouldn’t have to dig into personal savings for something as basic as payment of salaries or rent. Now, we’ve made it into a separate business entirely, targeted at improving the condition of both our book-selling and book-publishing arms.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.