Booksellers Ramp Up Strategic Marketing Plans: Part Two

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With retailers sharply competing for fewer consumer dollars, holiday bargains are being trumpeted early and everywhere. While many booksellers are adding discounts to the marketing mix, they're also emphasizing creative and community-minded campaigns.

Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, a founding member of Local First Vermont is underscoring its local bona fides with a new Vermont-centric promotion. When Northshire's customers spend $50 or more, they can enter a raffle to win $500 towards their heating oil bill. Another $500 will be donated to Shared Heat, a Vermont-based home heating fuel assistance program.

Northshire's Chris Morrow said that taking a sizable chunk out of someone's heating bill is a "big deal" in Vermont. "The idea was conceived when the cost of heating was quite high. A lot of Vermonters were choosing between heat and food and medication," he said. "It ties the bookstore into the community in a different way." Morrow also added that no purchase is necessary to enter the raffle.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, Nightbird Books and other local merchants, including jewelry stores, galleries, and clothing stores, will treat their customers to a neighborhood-wide "progressive shopping" event on the first Thursday of December. From 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., customers will be chauffeured from business to business where they can shop, socialize, and graze on holiday treats.

"Customers choose a starting location and park their car," said Nightbird owner Lisa Sharp about the annual event. "The limos are on a continuous circuit and should stop at each location about every 20 minutes. If the customers are ready, they grab a ride to the next stop, if not, they catch the next limo." Each of the 12 participating merchants is also responsible for providing holiday food and drinks.

This year, Sharp plans to create a display of the cookbooks she'll use to produce her "tasty treats," and will collect co-op money to defray the small outlay (usually about $75 per store) for the night. The event usually doubles a typical pre-holiday night's sales, and is very popular. An additional benefit is that merchants share their regular customers, introducing them to other stores.

At Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Catherine Weller said they've instituted a "Good Neighbor Sale," a holiday event borrowed from Chuck Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. Village Books hosts a party for its top customers, but the Weller's version focuses on the employees of the many businesses that surround the bookstore.

Weller explained that downtown Salt Lake City is currently undergoing a lot of construction that has resulted in a loss of parking, loss of other area retailers, and loss of foot traffic as shoppers seek out other retail areas. "Last holiday season, the Weller's management team decided to reach out to our remaining neighbors, the businesspeople that are downtown day in and day out. So we came up with the Good Neighbor Sale," said Weller. "It's a sort of rip off -- expansion upon, if you will -- of Chuck Robinson's idea to provide a special holiday sale for his best customers. The response was wonderful."

The bookstore sends invitations offering a 20 percent discount on purchases made during the event to area office buildings. Last year "all owners and managers were expected to be on the sales floor during the sale and to look spiffy, too," said Weller. "We provided drinks and snacks, and, of course, superlative service to those who took us up on the offer."

Weller's overall approach to customers during the holidays balances savings and substance. "It's my impression that most of this season's holiday shoppers will be looking for value, quality, and a little discount won't hurt," she said. "We'll be emphasizing great gifts for the people you love from those you know and trust. That's a pretty good value, I think." --Karen Schechner

Read last week's article "Meeting the Struggling Economy Head-On," about booksellers who are using neighborhood promotions to create a detour from Big Box to Main Street.