A Bookselling Secret You Don't Know

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By Neal Coonerty

As a savvy and experienced bookseller, you should be able to name the best-selling single item in your bookstore in the last 12 months. Until I investigated, I couldn't.

First, I immediately thought about titles of hot books, but our best-selling book sold 845 paperback copies in the last year and wasn't even close to our number-one selling item. In fact, I found out that we sold 4,969 copies of our best-selling item last year, almost six times the number of our best-selling book.

Here are a half dozen hints about the characteristics of your best-selling item that may help you remember what it is:

Hint #1: This best-selling item takes up no shelf space and is rarely even displayed for customers to see.

Hint #2: This best-selling item has one of the best markups in your store.

Hint #3: You rarely spend any money to promote or advertise this best-selling item.

Hint #4: This best-selling item’s price point is probably double the average item's price in your store.

Hint #5: This best-selling item brings loyal customers back into your store and introduces new customers to your store.

And now the hint that should trigger the correct answer:

Hint #6: Your customers help your cash flow by paying for this item long before they take home any books from your store.

Doesn't this bestseller sound like the perfect product? It sounds so good that it is hard to believe that so many experienced booksellers may still be stumped to name this dream item.

What is it?

I found out that our best-selling item last year (and every year) is our gift certificate. It is an item that takes up no shelf space (we keep them in a drawer next to our cash register). Since five percent to 10 percent of gift certificates are never redeemed, they are one of the best markups in our store. Except for a few in-store signs, we don’t promote or advertise our gift certificates very much. Our average gift certificate last year was for over $26, more than double the average sale. In terms of the all-important store cash flow, gift certificates are paid for long before they are used. Finally, gift certificates are often bought by our most loyal customers and then redeemed by brand new customers, who are coming into our store for the first time.

Once I focused on these wonderful characteristics, I fell in love with gift certificates in a big way. Obviously, it is a perfect sale for any bookstore for many great and profitable reasons. I also began to think about ways to increase the sale of gift certificates in our store.

First things first: I told the staff how important a sale of a gift certificate was. It is good to let them know that gift certificate sales are a priority for the store -- a priority that benefits both customers and the bookstore. My bookstore is not the kind of store where our staff will willingly wear buttons saying, "Would you like a gift certificate with that?" It is not usually a great idea to hard sell bookstore customers, but it is good to let staff know how and when it will help to remind a customer of the option and advantages of buying a gift certificate.

Second, I identified which seasons are best for gift certificate sales by checking our sales for past years. Obviously, December and the holiday season are, by far, the best time to sell gift certificates. Our second strongest month is June because of the difficulty in finding gifts for dads on Father's Day, graduation gifts, and teacher appreciation gifts as school gets out. The month of May, with Mother's Day, comes in third and November is fourth. The one gift-giving time that didn't show up in gift certificate sales was Valentine's Day. Maybe it is our store, our market, or just that Valentine gifts are very personal, but we didn't get much of a sales boost of gift certificates during this holiday.

We then decided that it made a lot of sense to promote this high-markup item at those seasonal peaks. It is the old retail adage of "sell more of what's selling" that made us concentrate first on these gift-giving holidays.

We made up in-store promotional pieces to place at our cash registers. We put up seasonal flyers on our doors to remind customers of the gift-giving advantages of gift certificates for specific occasions, such as Father's Day. We added gift certificate signs to our seasonal table of gift ideas, such as our "Teacher Appreciation" display. We also added a mention of gift certificates in our ads and newsletter. In fact, we began to treat and promote gift certificates as the important profit center item they are.

Working off the success of our seasonal promotional efforts to increase the sales of gift certificates, we also tried to raise the profile of gift certificates year-round. Our store is now filled with many more gift certificate reminders for customers. Staff members are also reminded and encouraged to offer gift certificates to customers at appropriate times.

The ABA's national Book Sense gift certificate program is an important part of our promotional campaign. We believe that the Book Sense gift certificate program allows us address an important customer need in a profitable way. Before the introduction of the Book Sense gift certificate program, there were many, many customers who were being driven into the chains when they wanted to send a gift certificate to friends and family out of town. I wanted to capture those dollars and satisfy those good customers. Even if the Book Sense gift certificates are sold in our store and redeemed elsewhere, the markup remains high because of the never-redeemed gift certificates. The most important thing at Bookshop Santa Cruz is creating satisfied customers. Having a nationwide gift certificate program to offer makes that possible.

The Book Sense gift certificate promotional items offered by ABA help keep gift certificates at the forefront of our in-store promotional efforts. We display the Book Sense map in our store and even put one up in our window. Some bookstores have even replaced their own store’s gift certificates and now only sell Book Sense gift certificates with great success.

All this effort worked for Bookshop Santa Cruz. We saw a solid increase in gift certificate sales. That meant that we increased our cash flow, our margins, our sales, and, most importantly, the satisfaction of our good customers. It doesn't get much better than that in the retail game.

Neal Coonerty is the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California, an ABA Board member, and the immediate past president of the association.