Australia’s leading online book retailer Booktopia has withstood enough market cycles over the past 16 years to know book sales can be fairly recession proof. In tough times, people invest in educational books to upskill, and when people have more income to spend they might escape with a good novel.
But what happens during a global pandemic? For Booktopia, COVID-19 triggered a volume surge it could never have predicted.
“It’s been like Christmas every day for the past six months,” says Deputy CEO and CTO Wayne Baskin.
Overall, he says Booktopia’s sales have been consistently up 70% year on year with noticeable spikes during lockdown periods. “When Victoria went into Stage 4 restrictions in July, sales went up 150%,” says Wayne.
And while he describes the phenomenal growth as “bittersweet, because it comes at the expense of local booksellers who can’t open their doors,” he doesn’t expect the shift to online shopping to end anytime soon.
Across Australia, eCommerce grew 72% year on year in the first 20 weeks of the pandemic response1 – and Booktopia has had to adjust its operating rhythm to manage this new normal and continue to meet its customer promise.
Reading tastes adjust to iso-life
At the beginning of 2020, Booktopia had just acquired Co-Op Bookshop and was expecting textbooks to make up a third of its ongoing sales. “Then all of a sudden, textbook sales fell off a cliff. Universities delayed the start date of their courses, and international students couldn’t get here,” says Wayne.
Instead, the online retailer had to adjust to unpredictable shifts in category demand, which chart the highs and lows of lockdown life for Australians.
“It started with things to entertain the kids: colouring books and puzzles,” explains Wayne. “Then we saw people buying fiction for themselves, and then a lot of pregnancy books – which was interesting.”
Perhaps less surprisingly, demand then shifted to cookbooks as people worked on their sourdough and baking techniques. “And towards the end of the lockdown period in June, we saw demand for fitness and self-help books grow,” says Wayne.
Meanwhile, he says international travel guides took an inevitable dive – but more recently, there has been growing interest in road trip books.
A new operating rhythm
Retailers and logistics providers usually spend three months preparing for peak periods like Christmas. “But this year, peak came too early: we all got ‘minus-one’ week notice!” Wayne says. “Our distribution centre in Lidcombe has been working at Christmas levels since March, sending out over 30,000 books a day.”
His team was already well underway with a multi-million dollar fulfilment automation project when COVID-19 orders started flooding in. “We all wished it could have been ready earlier, because it will allow us to send well in excess of 60,000 units a day,” he says.
Getting books to customers fast underpins Booktopia’s obsession with delivering on its promise. But over the past six months, there were days where order volumes just couldn’t be processed within a single day.
“We have hired more staff, but we have to be COVID-safe at the same time so there’s a maximum capacity we can operate within,” explains Wayne. “We’ve had to do split shifts, and have gaps between shifts when all surfaces are wiped down.”
Having operated with this sense of urgency for six months, Wayne says the distribution and customer service teams are now into a new working rhythm. “One of the key things we’ve learned is how to work with this as the new normal. And once we have this mindset, we can plan resources for consistently high volumes.”
Delivering on a partnership’s promise
Wayne also credits an open and honest partnership with Australia Post for helping to managing these volumes.
“It’s been constant communication and collaboration. They have been far more transparent then any organisation of that size that we’ve seen. And they’ve been flat out honest, explaining what we can do to help them, and why that in turn will help us.”
In some cases, this has meant adjusting Booktopia’s usual processes. “For example, we’ve added extra labelling on our cages so when the parcels enter the Australia Post network it’s seamless,” he says.
Wayne also appreciated how available Australia Post’s leadership team have been in supporting his business. “They are doing everything possible to meet their promise to us, just as we are doing the same for our customers.”
Booktopia has added another 3,000sqm to its distribution centre as part of its automation project, which Wayne says should lead to positive environmental impacts as well as efficiency and productivity gains.
“As well as adding conveyors and totes to the line, we have two new packing machines which will let us wrap books in cardboard – so we reduce bubble wrap and can also send smaller parcels, which means they’ll take up less truck space for Australia Post,” he explains. “We will also be able to automate our parcel sort up to 14 ways, and reduce manual handling.”
Wayne admits he never thought they’d be shipping so many books at this time of the year. “But we think Christmas will be even bigger, especially if people can’t visit their family interstate,” he says.
“Our saving grace is that we expect to have all this automation in place, and we now know how to work with this new level of online shopping. And to their credit, Australia Post understands that too.”