Indigo Books & Music is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a special collection of 28 limited edition books released in September, featuring major titles published over the past quarter century. The collection includes CanLit classics such as those by Margaret Atwood The story of the maidLawrence Hills The Book of NegroesThomas Kings The uncomfortable IndianAlice Munros lives of girls and womenand Michael Ondaatjes The English patient; national non-fiction favorites like Chris Hadfields An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and Orr: My story by Bobby Orr; and a selection of contemporary hits such as Anthony Doerr’s All the light you can’t seeRupi Kaurs Milk and honeyand Tara Westovers Educated. The hardcover books all feature blue flyleaves reflecting the bookstore’s branding and are illustrated with covers designed by emerging Canadian artists.
“Nineteen of the books are of Canadian origin, 15 are fiction and half are by BIPOC authors,” said Rania Husseini, senior vice president of printed books at Indigo. Like many Torontonians, Husseini was born abroad. Originally from Palestine, she immigrated to Canada when she was 16 and eventually joined Indigo, where she worked her way up through the chain’s Coles, Chapters and Indigo subsidiaries to her current position. This experience as a young immigrant working in the bookshops shapes her buying philosophy. “When I first walked into a bookstore, I didn’t see myself represented in the books,” she says. “Now I want to raise underrepresented voices — whether they’re Indigenous, Black, Asian, BIPOC, LGBTQ — so anyone who walks into any of our stores from any community can see themselves in the books on the shelves.”
In order to make the shopping experience at Indigo even more complete, the books must also be available for purchase. Because of this, the anniversary editions all cost $28 CAD, which is a relatively low price for a hardcover in Canada today. “With some hardcover books now costing up to $50 due to inflation, we feel the $28 price point offers great value to consumers,” says Husseini. The print runs are 4,000-6,000 copies each, with a total of 115,000 copies of the limited editions hitting the shelves. “When they’re gone, they’re gone,” she adds.
Another important aspect of the selection is that 19 of the books are Heather’s Picks – titles personally selected for in-store promotion by Indigo founder and CEO Heather Reisman in the past. Reisman’s imprimatur often gives a book instant bestseller status, which then sells much longer than usual. “She only picks books that she personally loves, and when she chooses a book, it makes a difference and really increases sales,” says Husseini.
Husseini calls Reisman “an incredible leader” – one who is “completely committed to Canadian books, Canadian culture and reading”. At the start of the pandemic, Reisman lobbied the Canadian government to consider books an “essential” commodity, saying at the time that “reading is fundamental to the soul.”
This point about Reisman’s commitment to Canadian books is important, because if there’s one problem the store often faces, Husseini says, it’s that even though Indigo has 88 superstores (under under the Chapters and Indigo names) and 84 small format stores (under the Coles and Indigospirit names), employs approximately 5,000 people across Canada and has no competitor that is even remotely comparable in size. Yes, there is an Indigo outpost in the United States — in Short Hills, NJ — but no other plans have been announced to expand beyond that one location, which “provides tremendous customer insight,” says Husseini.
Over the past decade, the chain has experienced something of a reinvention, adding a wide variety of side products ranging from beauty products and yoga mats to mugs and throw pillows. But the focus, says Husseini, is of course on books, which account for around 60 percent of total sales. “We are particularly committed to working with smaller, independent Canadian publishers, many of whom are based in their communities. We want to stock our stores so that when a customer walks in, they feel like the books have been specially chosen for them.”
However, if customers don’t find a title that appeals to them, they can order from a selection of 15 million titles available on Indigo’s website, which is being prepared for a full relaunch this fall. “The most important thing we did was update to ONIX 3.0,” says Husseini, referring to the digital cataloging and metadata standard. Additionally, the redesign gives the store more opportunities to talk about books and merchandise in a way that resonates with readers. For example, books that are trending on TikTok can be front and center.
Last year, Peter Ruis was named President of Indigo, and on September 5 he was named CEO, succeeding Reisman. Brit Ruis has 30 years’ retail experience, having helped turn around several companies including Anthropologie and British luxury department store John Lewis.
Indigo began celebrating its anniversary as it fully recovered from the effects of the pandemic. Revenue for the fiscal year ended April 2 increased 17% over fiscal 2021 to CA$1.06 billion (about $800 million). The chain also posted an operating profit of C$29 million, compared to a loss of C$31.9 million in fiscal 2021. Indigo’s online business had cushioned the financial hit when stores were forced to close their doors to customers, however In fiscal 2022, web superstore sales grew 35% to $595.5 million, while small store sales grew 29% to $93.1 million. Gains in physical stores offset a 13% decline in online sales, which fell to C$321.5 million. Despite that drop, online revenue in fiscal 2022 was 98% higher than in fiscal 2020 — a year that ended just as the pandemic was in full swing.
Indigo embraced its omnichannel approach to retail years ago, and the move continues to deliver benefits. The retailer said it has noticed a change in consumer behavior over the course of the pandemic, with consumers increasingly starting the discovery process on its digital platforms and purchasing books or other items from one of its stores.
As for the future, Husseini says the chain’s mission is simple: to bring the widest variety of books to the widest audience, elevate underrepresented voices, and foster inspiration and connection among readers. According to Husseini, Indigo’s philosophy boils down to one question for each customer: “How can we be a place where they can find inspiration and connect?” After that, the store strives to offer something even more profound: “A sense of purpose and friends.”
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A version of this article appeared in the 09/26/2022 issue publishers weekly under the headline: Indigo Books celebrates 25 years