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Trolley good read

Elaine Williams on the growth of book selling in supermarkets. Supermarkets will tell you they have no more than seconds in which to entice shoppers into making a purchase from the shelves. That applies to books as much as it does to tinned beans and toilet rolls.

Children's books look bright and breezy, attractive enough to stop the trolley on its frantic rounds and persuade harassed parents with infants in tow, or friends and relatives with cheap and cheerful gifts in mind, that a book would be a good idea.

Books, say the sellers, are bought on impulse and the attention of those in the supermarket, unlike in the specialist bookshop where people can browse for hours, has to be grabbed without delay.

But buy they do. Sainsburys now sells about two million children's books every year. Spying a gap in the market ten years ago, the store took the innovative step of producing top-quality own-brand books through an alliance with Walker Books. The aim was to place new titles by some of the country's top-selling authors and illustrators - John Burningham, Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Nicola Bayley, Michelle Cartlidge - on the shelf at half bookshop prices. You can still buy a toddler book from Sainsbury's for 99p, while the average price elsewhere remains about Pounds 2.

The slogan "Good books cost less at Sainsbury's" went down like a lead balloon with the book trade, and there was widespread fear that this would sound the death knell for traditional children's bookshops. Walker Books were banned from certain stores for a while, but on the whole, those fears were unfounded.

Sonia Benster runs the Huddersfield Children's Bookshop, an Aladdin's Cave of literary treats which attracts devotees from far and wide. She had objected to Sainsbury's selling Helen Oxenbury "almost identical to trade editions" at half the price, but she supported fully the wider availability of books. "I just hoped that mothers would grab a book at the checkout and become addicted. Supermarkets could advertise to encourage parents to look at books in a way we never could."

Sainsbury's argued, as do Tesco, Asda and Safeways, who have entered the children's book market with a vengeance, that they provide an essential service, encouraging people to buy books who would never have stepped into a traditional bookshop. Supermarket children's books tend to be slim. Cover designs are bright and bold to encourage a quick sale. Sainsbury's books are clearly labelled "Toddler books", "Puzzle Books", "Fun Books", and age guidance is provided. David Lloyd, Walker's managing director says: "Putting ages on books is deemed a contemptible thing to do because it is exclusive, but if it makes it easier for adults to take that book off the shelf and give it a home then it must be a good thing."

If the overall production quality of Sainsbury's books lacks the richness of texture and colour of more expensive trade books from specialist bookstores, it is compensated by quality of content. For example, Knee-High Nigel written by Laurence Anholt and illustrated by Arthur Robins which retails at Pounds 1.75, is a classic comedy which children will read over and over again. Some of Sainsbury's puzzle books, and its Animals at Risk series are also innovative and challenging, the latter much favoured by teachers.

With a massive turnover in sales, 100 current titles and a backlist of 250 Sainsbury's "own-brand", Walker says it has been able to try out new authors and illustrators, such as Nick Sharratt, who cut his teeth producing a range of toddler books. People who shop in supermarkets don't care whether they've heard of an author before, they go for the book on its own merits "and that's very liberating", says Lloyd.

Like most other supermarkets, Sainsbury's has had to increase its range, adding home learning and activity books, turning to HarperCollins for factual and educational titles.

The children's book market, however, is poised for another great shake-up. The Net Book Agreement, which has fixed the price of new titles for about 100 years, is now as good as dead, with the recent exeunt of major publishers such as Penguin and HarperCollins. Ten years after the turbulence caused by Sainsbury's "own brand" initiative, the prospect of massive discounting of popular titles leaves the future highly uncertain. The supermarkets' ability to turn over vast quantities of cheaper children's books, innovative , appropriate and cleverly produced as some of them may be, is likely to threaten the ability of the small book shops to sell high quality, expensive trade books.

"We believe in offering the lowest prices on all ranges," says an Asda spokeswoman, "and our customers want popular titles. Books are one of Asda's best shopped areas and whenever we discount, sales exceed expectation."

Mothercare has recently embarked on a sale of "own-brand" novelty books through an alliance with Levinson Children's Books, new to the publishing world, with pop-ups, music and things that twirl round and round. With the NBA gone Levinson takes the view that high-quality production, "multi-media" all-singing, all-dancing books are the way forward.

As Sainsbury's celebrates ten years of "own brand" children's books with author events in stores around the country, once again small bookshops believe they have much to fear.

The illustrations are Walker Book titles produced for Sainsburys.

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