View from the C-Suite: Indigo brings its cultural focus to the U.S.

Samantha Taylor, SVP of marketing, explains how the company has entered a new ultra-competitive market.

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While many bookstores have not gotten a fairytale ending, Indigo Books & Music seems to have written itself out of a bind.

The chain’s first big-box bookstore opened in Burlington, Ont., back in 1997 and hastened the demise of indie stores from coast-to-coast. Many predicted its own downfall as the rise of global behemoth Amazon (which started a few years earlier as an online bookseller) made bricks-and-mortar stores seem irrelevant in the Smartphone Age.

Refusing to go gently into the night, the Canadian born-and-bred company has managed to pivot from a bookstore to what it dubs a “cultural department store” over the past few years. That transformation appears to be paying off: revenue topped $1 billion in 2018 (up close to $60 million from the year before), with total comparable sales growth of 6.2% for the year. And the company’s adjusted earnings and net promoter scores have grown consistently since at least 2015.

In addition to opening five net new stores (including Indigo Robson in Vancouver) and renovating nine others across Canada in 2018, Indigo opened its first bricks-and-mortar location south of the border in Short Hills, N.J., last fall. It currently has 89 superstores and 119 small-format stores across Canada, selling everything from a flamingo-shaped pool floatie for kids to a seashell-pink Fuji Film camera for teens to the hardcover Rosé All Day for adults, but has no firm plans on future U.S. locations.

Samantha Taylor, Indigo’s SVP of marketing, spoke to strategy about investing in the in-store experience, providing a respite from our busy lives and entering the competitive American market.

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People can easily buy anything and everything online. Why have any bricks-and-mortar stores in 2019?

We’re now a cultural department store. We’ve shifted from a bookstore to a store that is really centered about the experience for booklovers so that allows all the products we want to bring in and curate to really be showcased in an environment that was created for all of that. Our customers tell us the store environment for them truly is their happy place, whether they’re there by themselves, with their friends, or with their families. We see ourselves as a cultural hub and there’s an opportunity for people to come and lose themselves for a few hours in this highly digital world allows us to come offline as well. It’s very important to have a physical representation of what that looks like. We still do a large portion of our sales through stores.

Indigo got into the online store game relatively early (in 1999). Twenty years on, what’s the advantage of embracing an omnichannel approach?

One in five of our people browsing on our website never end up buying online; they end up buying in store, so people are shifting between channels seamlessly. We see our customer as omnichannel customers. Those who shop both online and in-store are our most loyal customers, so we look at both as complementary to that in the journey. Slowing down is the new luxury, spending time and being present is the new luxury. In this vast digital world there needs to be a counterbalance to that. It’s good for us as people, it’s good for us from a soul standpoint and we feel the time has never been more right for people to respond to that offering as well.

When many bookstores have disappeared, or are barely clinging on to life, Indigo decided to enter the ultra-competitive American market last year. How’s that going?

We’re a little fish jumping into the big pond, but we felt our products would fit on both sides of the border. The assortment is similar to what you’d find in our Canadian flagships. However, as with each of our stores, we [still] tailor buys to the communities we operate in and are dedicated to supporting and highlighting local authors. At Indigo Short Hills, we have curated a local display featuring and celebrating books and authors from the Tri-State area. Our U.S. location is also home to Café Indigo – a beautiful space to unwind, unplug and connect with friends. We’re thrilled that customers seem to be loving the concept. We’ve heard that the community is excited to have a store with books at its core in the mall and they’re very engaged in our in-store events, especially the ones curated for kids and families. Retail is highly competitive, and moving in to a new market is always a challenge, but we are confident that we have a uniquely inspiring retail offering. We feel very lucky that our customers in Canada refer to Indigo as their ‘happy place’ and felt like that could ring true in the U.S. as well.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up here to receive the latest stories.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.