Tue, 15 Jan 2002

A hchallenging business that needs extra patience

Jonminofri Nazir, Contributor, Jakarta

Indonesia has witnessed the establishment of two new book stores focusing on the sale of imported goods, QB World Books and Ak.sa.ra, since the onset of the economic crisis.

Compared with other existing bookstores here, both are relatively bigger and more comfortable. Visitors can more easily browse through the books without the intrusive eyes of attendants, because they are refreshingly free of plastic wrapping.

These bookstores are thriving, and have proven to be commercially profitable, although the business has shown a steady but sluggish growth.

Yet, Winfred Hutabarat, one of the three owners of Ak.sa.ra Bookstore, said that aside from business calculation, a deep love of books and reading should be part of the equation when you set up a bookstore.

Richard Oh, owner of the QB bookstore network, shares the idea.

During the recruitment process, Oh made a point of only hiring people who were clearly book lovers to join his staff.

There can be subtle hints, according to Oh, as to whether or not a person falls into this category. "The way they hold books, for example, will clearly show us whether they love books or not," he said.

Oh is also very strict about his employees' treatment of the condition of the books. Those who smoke must wash their hands before entering the working room, so as to ensure that any possible odor doesn't foul the books.

Although they set up the bookstores with a deep love of books in mind, this is by no means an easy guarantee that business will thrive -- since reading has yet to take off as a popular pastime in Indonesia; many reading materials, for example, are in foreign languages.

So far, QB just has three outlets, while Ak.sa.ra possesses only one -- even though, needless to say, the owners aspire to open new branches.

The number of people seeking imported books still grows relatively slowly, although both Winfred and Oh have been continuously working hard to select some 30,000 choice titles with which to lure the gaze of potential customers.

The same obstacle also hinders operators of other bookstores that focus on imported books and publications.

Yet, the return is not as fast as that in other businesses. "I think, for a long term, this is a good business," said Richard. To set up his own bookstore, Richard recalled having to pay Rp 10 billion in startup costs.

What Richard says is true indeed. To expand the market, moreover, does not necessarily mean attracting more foreigners to buy imported books, but instead bringing in the increasing number of Indonesians who can understand English, while setting prices at a more affordable level.

According to Winfred, the number of English-speaking people continues to increase from year to year, as the awareness of the importance of mastering English is increasingly felt -- not to mention the rising number of Indonesians studying abroad, especially those whose reading habit has been formed for quite a long time.

One of QB's regular customers said that, at the beginning, he was afraid of reading English books, as he felt they would be above his head.

Then he tried to read a light business book and was happy to find it quite digestible. Today, he is addicted to reading imported books and regularly buys them, saying that the quality of the imported books is much better than local ones.

Another obstacle is that an imported books become unavoidably expensive in rupiah. Books priced at US$20 or US$30 will become very expensive in this country if compared with local titles generally sold at below Rp 50,000.

Winfred said that imported books offered here are about ten percent higher than those on display in Singapore's bookstores.

But the total profit margin that traders here enjoy is smaller than in neighboring countries because shipment costs are greater.

What's more, Ak.sa.ra and QB still must attract more customers by regularly by offering a 10 percent discount to their respective 2,000 and 5,000 club customers.

According to Winfred, it is a bit difficult to set a criteria based on profit targets for Ak.sa.ra.

They are not the only foreigners in the country. At the beginning, more foreigners than local buyers patronized their bookstores, but lately the number of local visitors has increased sharply.

In general, as Winfred has noted, there are four types of visitors to his bookstore: professionals, expats, cultural enthusiasts, and children.

The management of Ak.sa.ra and QB, however, has proven adept enough to attract people -- including those with profiles they do not know.

These two well-known bookstores also apply similar tricks of the trade, namely:

* Providing a cozy, big space. QB bookstore in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta, for instance, has some 1,000 square meters of space, while Ak.sa.ra's is about 800 square meters in area. Some sofas and a cafe are also provided to create a homey atmosphere.

"You can stay here all day long," Oh said.

* Books can be perused without having to be purchased. In that sense, these stores are a change from those of the conventional bookstores of Gunung Agung, Gramedia, and many others that plastic-wrap imported books.

In addition, there are usually a notices on the shelves saying that "unwrapping the plastic cover means buying the book."

But browsing is an activity that the owners of QB and Ak.sa.ra bookstores empathize with and encourage, as not everyone buys books spontaneously. Perhaps, the next day or the day after, they will return to make a purchase.

"If we can bring one person into the bookstore, it means that we succeed in introducing books to him; I think this is great," Oh said.

This explains why at QB, the books are not plastic-wrapped: a comfort for visitors to enjoy.

In fact, this country's book sellers can follow the trend India has pioneered to provide cheap reading material. In the country where language has been widely used, and reading is an ingrained habit, many imported books are reprinted domestically -- while the high costs covering transportation and paper, for example, can be eliminated.

Or perhaps, QB, Ak.sa.ra, Times The Bookshop, Maruzen, and other bookstores need to open second-hand, imported-book outlets in an effort to offer good prices and grab more reading aficionados.