When Muneaki Masuda, founder and president of Japan’s Tsutaya Books, saw the threat that internet retail posed to his business, he knew he needed to act to save the future of his more than 1,400 stores. The strategy he came up with was so bold that it’s hard to imagine many other executives having the guts to even consider it. In fact, Masuda decided to delist Tsutaya’s stock from the Tokyo Stock Exchange in order to avoid investor backlash to his plan.
Rather than take the business school approach and scale back staff, close underperforming stores, and cut costs wherever possible, Masuda drew up plans for his biggest and most expensive store yet. Not only that, the store would abandon the conventional big-box model by featuring large numbers of highly trained staff, rare and out-of-print volumes, and beautifully designed spaces for customers to relax and socialize in.
As Amazon continues to push strip-mall mainstays to the brink of extinction, could Tsutaya Books represent a new model for brick-and-mortar retail here in America?
Masuda knew that in order to survive in the internet age, his stores would need to reinvent the way they approached bookselling. If they couldn’t compete with e-commerce sites on price, they needed to provide value in ways that the internet couldn’t.
Tsutaya Books’ newest location in Tokyo’s Daikanyama suburb is a testament to this vision in almost every way. Designed by Klein Dytham Architects to resemble a “library in a forest”, the store is made up of three, two-story buildings connected by sky bridges above and and garden courtyards below. The grounds also include a dog park for man’s-best-friend to run and play in.
The interiors are equally as inviting, with custom-designed spaces that resemble a modern living room or upscale lounge more than a chain bookstore. This homey atmosphere is no accident. Masuda wants his customers to feel welcome “to sit down and read and drink coffee and get inspired,” he says. “I want people to find their friends here. You can’t do that on the internet.”
Beautiful art and architecture help to get customers in the store, but Masuda knew the real challenge was getting them to actually shop while they were there. Rather than stock displays full of the latest bestsellers and teen novels, the Daikanyama store features rare and lesser-known works curated by famous writers and critics. The magazine shelves hold over 30,000 back issues from current and out-of-print publications right alongside the latest editions.
Customers can also browse through the store’s more than 80,000 DVDs and 100,000 CDs to discover everything from foreign-language films to classic rock albums. To help customers find their way through this treasure trove of books and media, a highly knowledgeable concierge staff is always nearby to suggest titles or point out the location of a desired book. If customers want to explore on their own, RFID chips placed in every book, magazine, and movie make it possible to pinpoint the exact location of an item using a smartphone or tablet. The grouping of books and magazines together by topic also means that customers can discover new titles simply by glancing around the shelves.
The combined result of all these extras is a store that is a destination in itself, a place to be inspired, to discover, to share ideas, and to socialize with friends and colleagues.
With so many experts predicting the showrooming trend to put an end to brick-and-mortar retail as we know it, perhaps Tsutaya Books demonstrates a new model for the future - that of the store as a service. By taking such a huge gamble, Muneaki Masuda has been able to show that retail stores can still provide value to customers, even if they can’t compete on price.
Imagine if this model were applied to other big-box chains. Gone would be the bland, warehouse-sized stores staffed by a handful of underpaid and undertrained high school students. In their place would be well-designed stores where you could not only find the items you needed, but where you could go to get tips and suggestions from expert staff.
Wouldn’t you want to shop there?