IN ARLINGTON, VA, a few weeks back, attendees of the Winter Institute—a consortium of independent booksellers—gathered together to meet with their vendors, and each other, in order to assess their current and future roles in the book retailing world.

Now numbering a mere 500 (the group apparently was four times that size just five years ago), they brainstormed and discussed ways in which they could compete with the big chain retailers and more significantly, the online crowd which now dominates the book category.

Ideas flowed. Some discussed how they added wine bars or knitting circles to their stores to create more traffic and more distinction. Others talked about using social media to promote their stores, and even going the e-commerce route.

“We have to figure out how to stay in the game,” said one New York City bookseller. “You have to rethink your whole business model…” Significantly, the independent sector now accounts for only 10% of total book sales.

But one veteran bookstore owner from Kansas apparently stood up and said something very compelling. “Maybe we just need to do a better job of selling books,” he said.

No doubt this all sounds very familiar. It was an industry once dominated by independent providers, first overrun by behemoth retailers and then the all-powerful Internet. Now their businesses are reduced to mere commodities and their profit margins stifled by more formidable competitors.

But while the gimmicks and business model adjustments do have some merit as one tries to create distinction for one’s business, the words of that guy from Kansas really do resonate—let’s do a better job at what we do.

In the case of booksellers, that may mean having a wider selection or being sufficiently informed to recommend and discuss specific books with one’s patrons. It may mean creating a stimulating environment where a person can immerse themselves in books and truly have a pleasurable experience.

In the optical world, it can mean being an expert on new ophthalmic lenses, and being able to talk the tech with your patients in a way they’ll understand. Alternatively, you can feature some unique frame styles, a sports eyewear clinic, or a fashion consultant.

There are many ways to be better at what one does. And in a day when the ultimate quality of the product is a given for the consumer, it’s the best way to maintain one’s distinction.

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