The first two ABA Booksellers Forums of the year were recently held in California. The first was held in Santa Monica on January 14 and the second in San Francisco on January 15.
In San Francisco, the hot topic of discussion was the upcoming launch of a Book Sense gift card program, according to forum attendees who spoke to BTW. The forum, held in conjunction with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), took place at NCIBA's offices at The Presidio. Other key topics of discussion were Internet sales tax fairness and BookSense.com's new co-op program.
The forum was attended by 28 booksellers, as well as ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz; ABA COO Oren Teicher; Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com; and Neal Coonerty, ABA board member and immediate past president, and owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz in California.
Attending the forum in Santa Monica were ABA President Ann Christophersen, ABA Vice President Mitchell Kaplan, Domnitz, Teicher, Vlahos, and ABA Information Department Director Dan Cullen. (For a related story about other ABA meetings in California, click here.)
"I thought [the forum] was very good," said Hut Landon, NCIBA's executive director. "One of the nice things was that, although there were fewer people attending than in the past, there were several new faces. It was a positive and productive forum. Everyone was on the same page."
Landon said that the Book Sense gift card program, which ABA hopes to launch this year, was the major topic of the forum, taking up nearly half of the 90-minute discussion. Booksellers in attendance were very excited about the prospect of a Book Sense gift card, Landon noted. "I think that everybody was delighted that ABA has continued to pursue the notion of a gift card over the last year or so," he said, "even though there were hurdles to overcome."
During the discussion on gift cards, ABA's Domnitz answered a number of questions regarding pricing, cross promotion, and the cards' business potential. Also, there were inquiries regarding gift card mechanics, and whether booksellers could use gift cards with their existing credit card machines. Domnitz noted that between 80 percent to 90 percent of credit card machines now used in bookstores could easily be programmed to accept gift cards, Landon reported.
"I'm very excited [about the gift card program]," said attendee Tom Montan of Copperfield's Books in Sebastapol, California. He added that the program would help independent booksellers to better compete with chains.
Also discussed at both forums was the Internet sales tax issue. ABA COO Teicher urged attendees in Santa Monica and San Francisco to sign an ABA letter calling on U.S. governors in the 45 states that collect sales tax to enforce existing tax regulations by making sure that retailers with a physical presence in their states collect sales tax on online sales. (For a related story, click here.) The collection of online sales tax is becoming a growing national issue as state officials are beginning to take steps to close massive budget deficits, steps that potentially will affect such key services as police, fire fighting, and education.
California is one such state suffering a budget deficit, and, as a result, attendees addressed the topic with a sense of urgency. "If we could collect sales tax off of the Internet, it might at least put a dent [in budget deficits]," Copperfield's Books' Montan said. "Oren said it might be a good strategic time to sign the letter because of these shortfalls."
In Santa Monica, Tom Ahern of Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, noted that "we have a chance here to finally level the playing field" and encouraged "everyone to sign onto the letter. The power here is in numbers."
Larry Bailey, owner of The Open Book, Ltd. in Sacramento, California, signed the ABA letter prior to attending the forum. He said that his store does a significant amount of business via the Internet. "It's time to level the playing field," he told BTW. "We have a lot of potential customers who order online [from our competitors] because
they don't have to pay sales tax."
There was also discussion of the new BookSense.com co-op program, which is scheduled to test in February and launch later this year. The new program allows participating BookSense.com bookstores to collect exempt co-op.
"I think [the co-op program] is very good," Montan said. "It will help booksellers get the co-op they deserve."
Prior to the ABA Booksellers Forum, booksellers in both Santa Monica and San Francisco who had contributed their store data to the ABACUS industry study were given a sneak preview of the new 2003 ABACUS data. Last year, ABA reintroduced the ABACUS industry study, a proven financial research tool for independent booksellers that offers a wide range of bookselling-specific financial breakdowns and analyses.
Pricilla Ulene of Traveler's Bookcase in Los Angeles told BTW, "For me, the most interesting part of the evening was about ABACUS," especially the chance to see percentages regarding occupancy and payroll costs in relation to different categories of stores. Ulene praised especially the ease of submitting to the new ABACUS program. She said she had tried to submit to ABACUS years ago, "but I got bogged down -- but this time it was very easy."
Montan attended the preview and told BTW that he wants more booksellers to report to ABACUS. So much so, he plans on writing a letter to the NCIBA newsletter urging northern California booksellers to report. -- David Grogan, with reporting by Dan Cullen