(Published in Aurora, March-April 2009)
From humble beginnings as a small kiosk in 1952, Liberty books has established itself as a formidable force in the book retail business, battling steadily against the local competition, while fighting the slow erosion of a book reading culture caused by the booming electronic media industry.
With nine franchises under its belt, the brand’s operations include both retail and the lesser-known, but increasingly lucrative trade business which provides books and magazines to numerous smaller bookstores across the country.
However, for most book lovers in Pakistan, Liberty Books is synonymous with providing high standards of service and a vast range of reading material.
“Our customers are aged between three and 80, which says a lot about what we have to offer,” says Sharmeen Hussain, Marketing Head, Liberty Books.
“We try to provide the best possible aesthetics, selection, services and prices to give customers a complete retail experience.”
This strategy has seen Liberty Books explore new platforms to reach its audience. The bookstore maintains a website which highlights available book titles with the option to purchase them online – a first for Pakistani bookstores. They have also stepped up their direct marketing activities by means of a book club which serves to build their client database and promote a book reading culture.
Besides evolving on the retail front, Liberty Books is one of the first book stores in Pakistan to utilise the services of a PR agency (O2 Communications), which has served to build the brand since as early as 2001.
The close relationship maintained with O2 Communications has seen the brand communicate through multiple platforms and avenues, including extensive focus on outdoor marketing, PR activities and direct marketing.
Irfan Aamir, director, O2 Communications believes the book club and activities such as high-profile book launches are central to turning the tide on how book reading is perceived in Pakistan:
“There is a whole generation of educated, affluent Pakistanis who choose not to read to the extent that they will gladly spend up to 1,000 rupees on a meal, but will not spend a similar amount on buying a book because that is considered to be expensive, and these values are being transferred to their children.”
To change such attitudes, Liberty Books has worked to develop strategies which serve to sell books and encourage reading simultaneously. As Aamir describes it, building a client database, offering bargain books, giving discounts to schools and lowering profit margins on best selling books is just a small part of the stream of activities which this business requires.
However, at the end of the day, perhaps the biggest threat to the brand comes from the massive pirated book market which flourishes in Pakistan.
While precise figures for this illegal segment do not exist, Hussain estimates that there are at least two pirated books sold for every one original copy that crosses the counter. However, she believes this is one battle that Liberty Books cannot win without government support and the enforcement of copyright laws. In a business where revenue is low and resources tightly allocated and managed, this issue may be central to what the future holds out for Liberty Books. – JH