“Customers come to the bookstore to be inspired”

Text: Regula Freuler | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Customer focus – January 2019


Orell Füssli celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2019. It all started in 1519 with a print shop named Buchdruckerei Froschauer – and the Bible. So, what does Orell Füssli Thalia identify itself with in the book business these days?

Still with the book per se, whereas today it doesn’t matter whether it’s in digital or printed form.

Digitalisation has led to significant disruption also in the book trade. To what extent have the ways of addressing and servicing your customers changed as a result of digitalisation?

Communicating with them has become more complex and demanding. In the past, bookshops were mainly quaint points of sale. Today, there’s a greater demand for inspiring experiences, myriad services and personalised advice. Communication takes place via various channels – on-site and digital – all of which need to be coordinated with each other. But digitalisation also represents a tremendous opportunity. It enables us to create new sales channels and touchpoints with our customers. As a result, we can communicate efficiently and in a target-group-consistent way.

“Orell Füssli is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.”

In this digital age, what role do good old-fashioned bookshops play anymore?

They’re still very important. We make the book tangible – experienceable – at our outlets. That’s why we place great emphasis on store concepts that invite you to browse, linger and meet. With events and readings in the bookstores, we create venues for encounters. As digitalisation continues its relentless march, the human dimension has become one of the most important success factors – by this I mean both for our customers and our employees.

How has digitalisation changed your customers?

People are spending their leisure time differently. And they’re consuming media differently – this also applies to books. Their shopping behaviour has changed dramatically: customers today are much better informed, they buy more spontaneously and shift between the different channels more effortlessly. That’s the biggest challenge for us.

Since 2009, turnover in the Swiss book trade has declined by 20 per cent. What has to happen for this trend to be reversed?

We don’t view digitalisation as an obstacle, rather first and foremost as a chance for us to shape the future. And the industry sees it the same way. On one hand, we’re developing new digital products such as e-book systems and new sales channels. On the other hand, with our bookshops and printed books, we also offer people an opportunity to break out of their digitalised daily routine from time to time./

Digital books still account for less than 10 per cent of the total Swiss book market. Is Orell Füssli Thalia actively trying to grow this market share?

We’ve noticed that more and more people are taking a hybrid approach to reading. In other words, although they still like the printed book, they’re increasingly turning to digital devices like the tolino e-reader when travelling or on holidays. We’re therefore expanding our range of e-books and e-readers – not only online, but also in our shops. And e-reading is gaining importance in the B2B area: more and more schools and institutions are seeking digitalised content. With Delivros Orell Füssli AG, we’re the Number 1 supplier in Switzerland for the procurement, distribution and use of electronic content for companies and educational institutions.

Simona Pfister
Born in 1985 in Wil (canton of St. Gallen), Simona Pfister has broad specialised know-how and abundant management experience in the retail sector. From 2006 to 2014, she worked for boesner GmbH, a company active throughout Europe, and then became Head of Sales & Marketing for the M-Outlet format of Migros Cooperative Eastern Switzerland. Simona Pfister was named Head of Sales at Orell Füssli this past October. As a member of the Management Board of Orell Füssli Thalia AG, Simona Pfister bears responsibility not only for bookstore sales and controlling, but also for key accounts and customer service.

In 1996, buch.ch became Switzerland’s first Internet bookstore; today, it’s part of Orell Füssli Thalia. What’s the best way to approach the online customer these days?

Orell Füssli Thalia has 32 stores throughout Switzerland and, with our “tolino Orell Füssli” ecosystem comprised of e-books, tolino e-readers, cloud and reading app, as well as orellfuessli.ch, we’re the Swiss book industry’s largest online player. Only 2 per cent of our customers are pure online shoppers. The vast majority of people who shop at Orell Füssli do so both in the online shop and locally in the bookstores.

What distinguishes Orell Füssli Thalia from other suppliers in the book market?

In contrast to pure online players, we focus on cross-channel solutions and offerings. The cross-channel approach, which we’ve been pursuing and continuously refining for years, allows us to connect our physical bookstores with the web shop and mobile solutions. This results in an admixture of purchasing processes that address today’s changed buying habits – for instance, the customer buys/orders online and then picks up the book at the most convenient Orell Füssli store. This model is complemented of course with a high level of advisory competence on the sales floor and a wide assortment of books on the shelves.

Customers are staying away from the traditional walk-in shop – each year, around a dozen bookstores close in Switzerland. Why do you still plan to open two new outlets in 2019?

At Orell Füssli Thalia AG, we’re keying on an expansion strategy that provides for smaller floorspaces yet in high-traffic locations. We’re investing in the future with clear objectives; however, nothing has changed in terms of our overall strategic orientation. Orell Füssli Thalia AG will continue to focus on expanding its market position in the Swiss bookselling sector. Our goal is quite clear, namely to remain the Number 1 bookseller in Switzerland – be it stationary, online or digital. This year, we’re opening two new bookstores, one on Europaallee in Zurich and one at the Seedamm-Center in Pfäffikon SZ.

Which customer segments will you be addressing at those locations?

On Europaallee, we expect to serve urbanites as well as commuters. After all, the bookshop will be situated a few steps away from the railway station, but also close to downtown work and residential districts. In the new shop at the Seedamm-Center in Pfäffikon, we’ll address a very heterogeneous group of customers who have more time to discover and linger.

Besides books, your shops also sell gifts, stationery, games and films. How do you select these additional items?

They’re always a kind of appendix, if you will, to our array of books. For example, in addition to cookbooks, we also offer high-quality cooking accessories or selected specialities. Here, we frequently work together with partners who provide us with suitable items. The range of stationery goods fulfils a customer need, and it simply fits with a bookstore.

Most publishers today are responding to the crisis in the book market with process optimisation and improved cost structures. What about innovations at Orell Füssli Thalia?

We’re constantly launching new projects. We recently published a personalisable children’s book in collaboration with a start-up company. Last year, together with our reading ambassadors, the Swiss rap duo Lo & Leduc, we initiated the YOUNG CIRCLE, a book community for young people. Orell Füssli is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, and within that framework we’ll soon be unveiling a number of innovations.

The history of Orell Füssli dates back to the 16th century. In 1519, Christoph Froschauer set up his presses in Zurich and started to print, among other things, the works of Zwingli and Erasmus of Rotterdam. In 1780, the company (which was now also a publishing house and bookseller), founded the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”.

In 1999, Orell Füssli became a holding company which today comprises five divisions: securities printing, publishing, books, business information and Atlantic Zeiser (a manufacturer of equipment for digital printing and package encoding). Orell Füssli Thalia AG is the market leader in retail bookselling in the German-speaking realm.


As revealed in the 2018 study “Buchkäufer – quo vadis?” (Book buyers – quo vadis), the number of people who buy books has fallen, but their “buying intensity” has increased; in other words, the individuals interested in buying books are spending more money on them. How do you interpret this?

The study confirmed our own experience. Customers are looking for quality and high value. They come to the bookstore, take their time, and let themselves be inspired to buy several titles at once. I see that in myself, too. The pile of books I have at home and still want to read is getting bigger and bigger – and not just since I joined Orell Füssli Thalia.

According to the same study, the average age of your core customer base is constantly rising. How do you contend with that?

It’s important to us that we’re there for all generations. Our assortments, customer programmes, readings and events in the stores are also based on this credo. The highest degree of diversity is our imperative. We offer our customers a comprehensive range of literature that has something for everyone. Reading knows no age limits.

The proportion of 20- to 29-year-olds amongst all book buyers has halved since 2002. How are you going about dealing with Customer 4.0, i.e. the millennials?

We communicate with them via the appropriate channels. Last year, we expanded our presence on Instagram and introduced WhatsApp as a communication channel. The events at our bookstores are also becoming more oriented towards the needs of youngsters and teenagers. For example, we’re actively involved in the poetry slam trend. And with our Kids Club and YOUNG CIRCLE, we have two customer programmes that specifically target the up-and-coming generations.

How will Orell Füssli Thalia AG look ten years from now?

Over the next ten years, we’ll have expanded our segments, opened even more bookstores, and further widened our lead as the largest Swiss provider of a book-related shopping experience. And meanwhile, digital will also have become even more tightly bonded with bricks and mortar.