Booksellers See Opportunity in Business-to-Business Sales

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Independent bookstores are looking toward business-to-business sales to increase revenue and bring in new customers on top of their regular, in-store business.

When a bookstore engages in a business-to-business sale, it establishes a relationship with a company or organization that is looking to purchase a large quantity of a title that it will give away as a gift, use for training purposes, or bring in for a special event. Organizations purchasing titles in large quantities include hospitals and medical offices, large corporations, educational institutions, religious organizations, governmental agencies, community groups, and local businesses.

Publishers usually offer a discount on B2B sales that is typically greater than a trade discount, often more than half off the cover price, which gives stores the option of passing a portion of their savings along to their customers. However, booksellers must almost always purchase the books from the publisher on a nonreturnable basis.

Many booksellers find that the B2B discount from publishers offers them an alternative revenue source that often requires a relatively small time investment once a B2B relationship has been established.

The number of B2B sales for bookstores can range from one to two a month to many throughout the year, and order levels that can range from 50 copies to anywhere in the thousands.

Breaking into B2B sales

“B2B allows booksellers to turn the strong ties they have developed with their local community businesses into bulk book sales,” said Deb Lewis, manager of B2B trade sales for Penguin Random House. “Booksellers ‘see’ the newest books first — they are the natural conduit to vet and recommend books to be used in training, development, or as gifts. Why should a bookseller be limited to handselling books one at a time? B2B allows them to sell many books to one customer and keep revenue within their community.”

Lewis, who works with independent bookstores to help them develop techniques for generating leads and sales for their stores, recommends that booksellers get the word out to business owners and their employees by advertising the store’s B2B capabilities in store newsletters and catalogs; with window, counter, and shelf signage (especially in the business section); on the store’s website and social media sites; at offsite events; and with fliers stuffed in customers’ shopping bags at checkout. An e-mail blast or snail mail campaign to local businesses mentioning the B2B program can also bring in customers.

Booksellers can also identify new customers through in-store events. Lewis suggests hosting business book clubs at lunchtime, chamber of commerce mixers, educator nights, and networking events. All staff should be trained to discuss and promote B2B sales at these events  as well as with customers in-store.

Lewis also recommends taking copies of topical books to local establishments, such as a book on effective sales pitches to a car dealership or a children’s book about medical checkups to a doctor’s office.

Once a B2B title relationship has been established, it is important for bookstores to follow up and to find ways to keep in touch with their customers. Lewis suggests sharing galleys or new titles that might be of particular interest to a customer, or offering an incentive, like a gift certificate, for placing an order. Stuffing a coupon in each B2B book sold can also bring new customers into the store.

Developing B2B sales on the homefront

Left Bank Books co-owner Kris Kleindienst oversees B2B sales for the St. Louis bookstore and is mindful that the relationships she has built with local organizations are critically important. Kleindienst said that key to successful B2B sales “is to be incredibly well organized.”

Like many bookstores with limited staff, Left Bank is unable to allocate a staff person to focus solely on B2B sales.  Kleindiesnst handles much of the work and focuses on relationships the store has already established with its customers. “When I first tried to do this, a mistake I made was looking outside of my backyard,” she said. “When I turned my attention to the people already supporting my store, that’s when I started getting my business.” Kleindienst makes an effort to discuss B2B opportunities with community members in her stores, especially people from local corporations. 

Former Inkwood Books co-owner Leslie Reiner continues to work part-time at the store and helps new owner Stefani Beddingfield stay on top of B2B titles by checking in with sales reps and publishers to find books that are likely B2B picks for the upcoming season. Reiner will also ask them if they have heard of any nearby businesses that are buying large quantities of books and keeps her ear to the ground, discussing opportunities with customers in the store.

Books Inc. in Mountain View, California, is in a lucky spot, said store manager Glen Robbe, who handles B2B sales to the area’s large social media and technology companies. Being the only bookstore in the area, Books Inc. picks up two to three sales per month and many return customers. “I think anybody can do it if they just spent some time on outreach,” said Robbe. “If you do one [B2B] sale, it can basically be a day’s worth of business. And it doesn’t take that much time.”

Robbe makes an effort to discuss B2B options with customers in the store, “so they won’t think right away of Amazon,” and invests time in reading the local business journal to identify new companies and startups in the area. When a bookstore learns of a new company, he suggests staff “make a phone call and ask who is responsible for buying from outside vendors.” Robbe has found that this is most often someone in human resources or employee development, or an executive assistant.

Harold Winters manages B2B sales for Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado. The store has a staff of four people dedicated to B2B, library, and educational sales and maintains ongoing relationships with several companies.

Winters stressed the importance of promoting the bookstore and B2B sales out in the community, while also listening for opportunities both in the store and on his own time. He has found success working with local authors on reoccurring sales. The best situation, said Winters, is “when you have an author who lives in the community, has a relationship with the store, and has a book they’re going to use in seminars or workshops. They go through hundreds — sometimes thousands — of copies over the course of the year.”

Laura Deutsch of Books & Books said that the Miami-based indie sells to a variety of companies, with many on cyclical or seasonal schedules. Deutsch finds sales by networking with current B2B customers, as well as by attending community functions and business networking events. However, she said, “Our best form of advertising is word of mouth. I have often been contacted by a new client who was referred to me from a current happy client.” Books & Books’ booksellers are also great at letting customers know about B2B services, Deutsch said. 

Establishing the discount and negotiating the sale

Publishers frequently have a set discount plan for B2B sales, depending on the quantity being ordered; however, Kleindienst recommends talking with publishers and sales reps to maximize profits on the sales. Because publishers want to see their books out in the community, she noted, “if you have a chance to sell a lot of copies, they are very accommodating.”

When quoting prices to B2B customers, Kleindienst said bookstores should be sure to take into consideration their time investment and balance their customer discount against the publisher discount in order to keep the sale profitable. “Every additional minute it takes to work on a B2B sale is lost profit,” she said.

Competition for the sale can come from other independent stores, chain stores, online retailers, or the publisher. Companies looking for a bulk item may choose to pursue the lowest-cost option, but, Kleindienst said, “Some companies are starting to value localism more and are starting to have company policies that require that they source things locally first, if possible; so they are willing to pay slightly more.” Though, she added, Left Bank has been able to undersell online retailers in the past.

Setting the discount for B2B is tricky, said Inkwood’s Reiner, “because you want to make it worth your while, but you have to meet your competitor’s price.” If she finds stiff competition for a B2B order, Reiner will note the advantages of buying local and will mention that Inkwood can match or come close to matching a competitor’s price, if the company is willing to buy through an independently and locally owned business.

Robbe has also found that the local aspect helps with Books Inc.’s sales. “They’re in our town, our community, and a lot of the employees want to support us. They want our bookstore to be here. They want us to survive,” he said. “Not that they’re doing it out of philanthropy, but if you give a good deal and you give them good service, there’s no reason for them to save an extra few percent.”

Kleindienst recommends staying very organized when it comes to cash flow — including knowing when you have to say no to a purchase that’s just too big. “It won’t work if you rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said, so don’t accept an order that can’t be easily paid for upfront.

Left Bank decides the terms of a B2B sale based on the customer, be it a specific payment window, what payment types will be accepted, if a deposit or upfront payment is needed, and what needs to go in writing. If a customer is brand new, Kleindienst suggests bookstores take a deposit to ensure the sale and put in writing that the sale is final and nonrefundable. When the payment comes in from the sale, turn it around and immediately pay the publisher’s invoice, she said.

As bookstores are generally able to place the bulk order directly through the publisher and have the items drop-shipped to the proper location, all of the booksellers emphasized that it is crucial the publisher is provided with the correct shipping address and the hours of operation of the delivery location.

Customer service as a critical element

“The biggest advantages indie booksellers have in the B2B marketplace is their extensive knowledge of books and their exceptional customer service — customers continually tell me how nice it is to work with an indie bookseller who values their business, suggests new titles, and goes the extra mile for them,” said Penguin’s Lewis.

Reiner strongly recommends following up after a B2B order ships to ensure the books arrived on time and undamaged. “I would recommend anyone to do the follow-up courtesy that makes your store stand out,” she said. “Ask if there’s anything else you can do, ask them to use you again, and thank them for supporting indies.”

Stressing the need to address the customer’s order in a timely manner, Winters said that being available to the customer is critical because the customer does have other options. “We force ourselves to stay on top of it and to not disappoint the customers and to deliver exactly what they want, when they want,” he said.

Building a relationship with your customer and being available and responsive is extremely important, agreed Deutsch. “Understand that your client’s needs are time sensitive, that they have deadlines and a budget,” she said. “Ask lots of questions, listen, take notes, and really understand your client’s needs.”

“No matter what you started with as your to-do list on any given day, when you come in the door and you get a call form a B2B customer, that’s what you do first. Don’t ever drop the ball,” Kleindienst said. Being accommodating and helpful impresses customers, she added. “It’s surprising how rare that is in the world today.”