Booksellers Talk Navigating Returns

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On Thursday, March 11, the American Booksellers Association offered an educational session on Operational Workflow: Returns.

During the session, booksellers discussed the returns process and how best to navigate the what, when, and how of returns. Guest speakers included: Rebecca Fitting of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York; Brad Johnson of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California; Alyson Turner of Source Booksellers in Detroit, Michigan; and Consuelo Wilder of BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

Booksellers can view a recording of this session on the Education Resources page on

Here are some of the key notes from the session:

  • Each of the panelists noted that 2020 was an unconventional year regarding returns, which meant their operations and schedules have slightly changed.
  • Turner said that there was a huge learning curve to handle the surge in online sales in 2020. Wilder agreed, noting that it’s changed the way BookPeople does business. And Fitting noted that it’s made her less secure as a buyer — her analytics are not as solid as they once were since incorporating new e-commerce shipping options.
  • Wilder said that as a large store with a large inventory, BookPeople does returns with bigger publishers and Ingram three to four times a year each; smaller publishers are done one to two times a year each. She keeps track when frontlist buying — if a paperback for a title comes out but the hardback hasn’t sold, she’ll mark that title for return. She also tries to ship back to the publisher as much as possible; if she purchased the book through Ingram, then she would send it back to them.
  • Source is a smaller store, Turner said, so returns usually take place when they speak with their reps; it can take some time to notice that books need to be returned. Source also buys remainders, so they have to make sure they don’t send any of those titles back.
  • East Bay tends to handle returns by necessity based on how long titles have been on the shelf. Johnson said it’s a collaborative process with his staff; each bookseller is in charge of their own section and will make a judgement call about when to generate a return.
  • Johnson also said that he views the returns process as an extension of the buying process — both require judgment calls to be made, and those calls depend on a store’s unique, individual situation.
  • It’s important for booksellers to take their customer base into consideration when making judgment calls for returns. Turner said some books move better in hardback than others, and she typically knows what needs to stay. Source also specializes in nonfiction, which means those titles need to stay, even if they’re not selling right away.
  • Budgeting freight and shipping costs will not only depend on the store, but the publisher a title is being returned to. Johnson said as a smaller store, he sometimes sends returns via media mail because it isn’t cost effective to return via UPS. It’s a good option for smaller packages. For practicality’s sake, East Bay will only ship media mail up to 20 pounds, otherwise it’s difficult to get to the mailperson.
  • For small publishers, Fitting tends to go non-returnable with those titles, since it’s usually not cost effective to return — if they don’t sell at full price, she’ll place them in Greenlight’s markdown section.
  • Wilder said BookPeople tries to consolidate outgoing shipments as much as possible. She uses the PartnerShip program, which offers ABA members a discount on FedEx.
  • Fitting said that she prefers her returns percentage to be anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, which includes event returns. When lower than 15 percent, she assumes that she’s underbuying.
  • Johnson, Turner, and Wilder said they all tend to keep their returns around 20 percent. Turner and Wilder tend to get return percentages through their reps.
  • Johnson said many booksellers are likely behind on returns right now due to the pandemic. In normal times, East Bay does schedule staff for returns, but for the past year they haven’t been able to.
  • Overall, the panelists noted that for both big and small stores, managing returns and inventory can be difficult to stay on top of. But the new year brings an opportunity to re-examine operation processes and get back on schedule.