Bookselling in Tough Times: Marketing

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This week, Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store, Casey Coonerty Protti of Bookshop Santa Cruz, and John Hugo of Andover Bookstore share their tips for marketing when money is tight and the holiday season is fast-approaching. Key among their recommendations is getting the message out that books are a great gift value.

Take Advantage of Inexpensive Marketing Methods

No surprise here. Most booksellers agreed that, when the economic outlook is clouded by uncertainty, it makes sense to take advantage of less costly marketing methods when you can, such as e-mail newsletters and public relations campaigns. However, that's not to say that booksellers should panic and immediately start slashing their marketing budgets. Books make great gifts, and now's the time to get that message out.

"There's always the temptation to cut marketing expenses in tough times, but if we possibly can, we keep them the same, or even increase them," said Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Books are a great value when people are watching their spending, whether you consider their lasting value compared to more impermanent purchases, the cost-per-hour of pleasure, or simply the psychological comfort books can give. For people looking for a special gift, a high-priced book can seem as luxurious as other things that are more expensive. We need to get this message to our customers."

That's not to say Harvard Book Store doesn't use less expensive methods to reach customers when it can -- relying more on e-mail newsletters and in-store fliers than print advertising. "We do, however, maintain our NPR underwriting, especially during the holiday season," said Horne.

"This year, we are going to hold our marketing steady until after the holidays and then address the economy at that point," said Casey Coonerty Protti of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California. "We think there is a good chance that books will provide a great alternative to high priced electronic gifts so we don't want to prematurely cut our advertising. However, our advertising message may shift slightly [to tout the value of shopping locally]."

For those booksellers looking to cut marketing expenses, Coonerty recommended that they "start gathering e-mail addresses and sign up for Constant Contact so that you can send e-mail newsletters instead of paying for mailings." In addition, focusing efforts on a public relations campaign is a great way to get free advertising. (To help booksellers start their own public relations campaign, ABA offers a handy Bookstore Publicity Kit, which includes: Media Alert for Author Signing; Calendar Listing for Author Signing; Sample Fact Sheet on Your Bookstore; Pitch Letter; A Publicity Primer; and Feature Release.)

At Andover Bookstore in Andover, Massachusetts, there will be "no extra dollars spent on the more expensive marketing avenues, such as radio, local newspapers, and charitable ads," said John Hugo. "This is where we cut back -- we use more e-mail and in store promotions that cost us no money." Although he believes that "most of the traditional marketing dollars end up being a waste," Hugo suggests that booksellers "use coupons if [they're] on the fence and see what the response is.... When things are great you can use extra cash just to promote your name; when times are tighter stick to things that bring in more dollars."

Get the Message Out: Books Are a Great Value

An Xbox 360? $300. An iPhone G3? $200. A beautiful, well-written book that will entertain you for anywhere from a couple of days to a week or -- in the case of books such as War & Peace or Ulysses -- for years? Priceless. Well, okay, not priceless, but how about a Great Value. As both Horne and Coonerty Protti previously noted, books are a great bargain. With the holidays coming and consumers keeping an eye on every dollar, it's crucial that booksellers get this message out to their customers.

"In affluent communities where we are located, books seems to be a really good value for the money, and thus we have seen sales actually ahead of last year for three months running," said Andover's Hugo. "People aren't vacationing or spending as much on luxury items, but books provide a lot bang for your buck."

Horne said, "I always remember the tag line I heard from Neal Sofman, now the co-owner of Bookshop West Portal: 'Give a book, because no one ever talks about the tie that changed his life.' We always stress that our knowledgeable booksellers can find the perfect book for any taste, and in the current economic climate we might add that books come in a wide price range."

"We are ... focusing our marketing efforts on areas of the store that promote value such as used books and sale books," Coonerty reported. "Those sections are really doing well in this economy."

Horne concurred: "If a store sells used books or remainders, it may be the time to advertise them more heavily."

Tout the Value of Shopping Locally

Now is the perfect time to promote the benefits of shopping locally, noted Horne and Coonerty, and both said they would be taking advantage of the IndieBound campaign to do so.

"When economic times are tough, it's more important than ever to keep your dollars in your community," Horne said. "IndieBound is a more compelling idea than ever."

Said Coonerty, "We think it is important to focus our marketing on the benefits of shopping locally. We are launching our IndieBound campaign now, and are contributing heavily to our Think Local First movement over the holidays. I think the message that local business support local jobs and that spending money locally ensures that the money circulates locally will really resonate in this economic climate."

Invest in Community Relationships

In many communities, indie bookstores already have strong ties to the community and booksellers should take advantage of this. "Focus on efforts to make your store the community center," Horne recommended. "Create some free authorless events that give people an inexpensive way to have a night out. For example, one of our most popular events around the holiday season is a presentation by our buyers of the best books of the year."

"Independent bookstores have an advantage in these times because they have such strong relationships in the community," said Coonerty Protti. "If the going gets tough, you can shift some of your print and media advertising to instead focus on conducting outreach to the local community groups where you already have connections."

Target the Right Customers in the Right Place

"Use your loyalty program to market to those customers that are continuing to buy in volume," Hugo recommended. "And take a look at big spenders who have cut back -- enticing them with a $5 gift card, a personal note, or a free ARC in the mail reminds them you are in town, [and your] return percentage is higher because they have bought in good volume before."

"Survey your customers to find out where they get information about events and promotions," said Coonerty Protti, "and then focus your attention on those outlets."

Trust in Your Frontline Booksellers

Bookshop Santa Cruz's Coonerty Protti noted that a store's frontline booksellers are its best marketing tool. "If they provide excellent service, are enthusiastic when things look dreary, and put the store's best foot forward, word of mouth will help draw customers to your store," she said. --David Grogan

Read last week's BTW column on Bookselling in Tough Times, focusing on Inventory Management.