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Amazon launched in the UK 25 years ago as a bookseller – today it’s a jack of all trades but bookshops have paid an almighty price

Bookshops are a bit like record stores these days; heritage outlets run by passionate people but facing such insurmountable market forces you wonder how they make ends meet.

They have been mercilessly bullied by the big boys of retail for years now; their lunch money swiped every day, their appearance shrivelled – a shadow of when they once stood so tall; when they were popular.

Bookshops limp on – but they are now few and far between
Bookshops limp on – but they are now few and far between

And I mean that kindly. I like a bookshop as much as the next man (or woman). But, like nine out of 10 of those metaphorical people stood beside me, the chances are we’ll ultimately end up spending our money with the bullies. It’s cheaper, after all (or, in my case, my eyesight is in such decline I’d rather read the Kindle version with the text size hiked up).

It is, of course – as I have written before – our fault. We turned our back on the once sprawling bookstores of yesteryear. We thought nothing of their decline if we could save a few quid by buying in a supermarket or online, until it was too late. That’s market forces for you; they’re hard to resist and will continue to shape our habits going forward.

When the fixed price for books – a decades-old agreement between publishers and booksellers – disintegrated in the 1990s, independent bookshops were always going to struggle.

Undermined by price-slashing supermarkets, it was Amazon’s arrival on the scene which would hammer discounted nails into the coffin of the old bookshop business model.

Because when Amazon’s UK website first went live – 25 years ago next month – it specialised in books. Many may have forgotten that. Anyone under the age of 30 will almost certainly not remember it.

We might not love it as much as we did Woolies or Wilko, but chances are we use it much more
We might not love it as much as we did Woolies or Wilko, but chances are we use it much more

Bookshops found themselves unwitting shop windows for Amazon. I cannot have been alone in looking at books I liked the look of, only to then buy them cheaper courtesy of Jeff Bezos’ fledgling outlet.

But then it grew. Somewhere along its trajectory, Amazon added other lines to its offering – books remained a big deal, but suddenly it morphed from online book shop to sprawling megastore.

Today, it is most people’s first port of call for anything from shower heads to dog snacks.

It makes most supermarkets look understocked and over-priced. Which is the most remarkable achievement.

But with all influences on our shopping habits, the reason we switched was made on sound economics and convenience.

There remains, of course, a strong demand for second-hand books – which may explain the attraction of charity shops
There remains, of course, a strong demand for second-hand books – which may explain the attraction of charity shops

Yes, it is extraordinarily handy. Yes, its delivery is swift. Yes, it is often the best deal you’ll find. But never lose sight of the fact it has played a major role in changing the consumer landscape beyond all recognition.

Our high streets will never – despite what old folk like me might wish for - return to what many of us remember them being in the 1980s. That model is dead; its funeral service conducted by representatives of supermarkets and the likes of Amazon.

Not to mention, of course, our desire to ‘shop local’ generally stretches only as far as when we actually need something right now – as opposed to waiting overnight for it to be delivered via a man in a van. Hence the proliferation of vape and coffee shops, nail bars and barbers.

Bookshops are, of course, not alone in reflecting on the demolition of their once dominant high street position. Just look at the likes of Woolworths, Wilko, BHS, Debenhams and a wardrobe full of fashion brands which fill the same cemetery.

Amazon was in the right place at the right time – a fledgling business launching as we all started accepting online shopping was ‘a thing’. One which offered us savings and which then rolled that same model out on pretty much anything else you can think of. It worked because we wanted it. And used it, again and again.

Amazon is now omnipresent – its range too huge to comprehend
Amazon is now omnipresent – its range too huge to comprehend

Twenty-five years on from its launch in the UK, it is now omnipresent. It even delivers on-demand movies and (occasionally) live Premier League matches.

As for books? It’s still the go-to option for many, while its Kindle devices have transformed the way many of us consume literature; courtesy of its purchase of Audible they’ll even read the things for you if you can’t be bothered to use your eyes.

Bookshops, of course, still have a space in the real, bricks and mortar world...but they’re always going to be relatively niche.

Amazon, on the other hand, will continue to evolve. But it, like the bookstore owners before it, will no doubt be aware that somewhere in the future, there is a corner around which we will all turn and another shift in the way in which we spend our money will arrive.

Who knows, perhaps in 25 years’ time, someone will be writing a column asking if anyone remembered when we used to all shop at Amazon.

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