Shoppers’ contradictory desires are making things tricky for the operators of physical stores.

Pre-tax profits at Foyles, the London bookseller with a handful of provincial outposts, rose by around 1,000% in its latest financial year to £131,447 on sales of £25m.

Good news, although there are of course two ways of looking at things – profits have skyrocketed, but they were distinctly lacklustre in the prior year.

The point, however, is that in both years Foyles has traded profitably and the trend is sharply upwards.

And Foyles is not alone; high-street giant Waterstones has also been shifting tomes and operating in the black.

All this and it’s not so long since dire predictions were being made about the future for books sold in bookshops as the seemingly relentless march of Amazon and the growth in sales of e-readers cast a very dark shadow over physical booksellers.

Peak digital

So what has changed? Not much, other perhaps than the mindset of those walking our high streets. We might just have passed ‘peak digital’ as far as shoppers are concerned.

The days when we would crowd around an ‘interactive display’ in a store, just because it was a screen, might well be a thing of the past.

“There is still little that can better the experience of browsing a bookshelf and dipping in and out of books, rather than scrolling through endless pages on a website”

Instead, we hanker for a simpler shopping life, albeit one posited on a digital backdrop that aims to make this a possibility.

As we move towards the second quarter of 2017, booksellers such as Foyles have sharpened their digital act, but it is the store that matters and there is still little that can better the experience of browsing a bookshelf and dipping in and out of books, rather than scrolling through endless pages on a website.

Balancing act

Libreria, the bookshop in an area of east London that may readily be regarded as digital-central, opened last year and its selling point is that it doesn’t offer coffee, and phone use is actively discouraged.

This is, in short, an old-fashioned bookshop, even if it does rely on a digital sales and stock-keeping system.

The challenge facing retailers now is far more complex than might have been anticipated when screens first started appearing in shops.

Back then it was assumed that screens would be the road to riches. Today, nostalgia and a yearning for how things were are a hot number, but so is the desire to get things done quickly and, just as importantly, almost instantly.

If nothing else, technology has forced retailers to rethink how they do things and to offer shops that look like, well, shops, but with a digital underlay.

It’s a fine balance that booksellers seem to be getting right.