Bookselling in Tough Times: Merchandising

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At any time of year, in any kind of economy, the importance of merchandising cannot be overstated. Offering customers a visually enticing and comfortable spot to shop, with the right product and title mix, can mean the difference between a profitable season and a poor one. Considering most booksellers generally do 40 percent of their business in the fourth quarter ... well, you get the drift. Merchandising is a crucial part of increasing sales and making the most of the holiday season.

With that in mind, Bookselling This Week asked John Evans of Diesel, a Bookstore, which has stores located in Oakland, Brentwood, and Malibu, California; Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks in Nantucket, Massachusetts; Anne Holman of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah; Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas; and Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about their merchandising best practices.

Emphasize the Value & Appeal of Books as Gifts

It's been quite sometime since there has been so much economic uncertainty surrounding an upcoming holiday season, so it's only reasonable to wonder if this is causing booksellers to change how they manage merchandising. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of booksellers who spoke to BTW reported that they have no current plans to adjust their store merchandising.

"We are not changing anything dramatically, since we want to reassure customers, not alarm them," said Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store. "We will work on making the store as warm and inviting as we can. We're continuing an idea from last year -- opening an hour earlier starting on [November] 20. We are being careful with inventory by returning part of unsold event books right away and being cautious with quantities for books we're promoting at the holidays. We're going to promote some small gift packages like a store mug, some chocolate, and a $15 gift card."

Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks reported that her store is taking an optimistic approach to the holiday season. "I think independent booksellers are poised to do well this season, just as we did after 9/11," she said. "Books and bookstore sidelines are moderately priced, thoughtful gifts, and more than ever people want to support community businesses. We need to keep reminding people of all that, though, so we're participating in our Local First campaign, displaying our IndieBound stuff with pride."

Hudson acknowledged that this holiday season won't be one of "egregious excess, but in many ways that might be a good thing. Perhaps it will be a season of people connecting with quality over quantity, and what better description for a good independent bookstore?"

At The King's English, Anne Holman reported that the store will be doing a little more in the way of inexpensive sidelines. "We're going to use [sidelines] to frame books," she said. "You know, buy this book light to go along with that paperback."

Holman explained that, while sidelines can be visually enticing, at the same time, the store doesn't want to overdo it. "You want your customers to know it's a bookstore and not a gift store," she said. In addition, the store will be bringing in items on consignment, such as handmade jewelry, greeting cards, stationery, and piggie banks. "We're also active in our Local First group and IndieBound," she said. Considering gas prices and other factors, "I think our community is so ready for that."

Steve Bercu reported that BookPeople plans to merchandise as it always does for the upcoming holiday season, and Diesel's John Evans does not expect the mix to change much at his three stores.

The current climate "only challenges us to do what we do with even more professionalism and awareness," Evans said. "Awareness of the customers' strain and their concerns, which will affect the cash register transactions, and, for some time, their choice of books to read."

(Read also this week's important message from the ABA Board of Directors about IndieBound's new holiday marketing materials focusing on the lasting value of the book.)

Reducing Inventory? Make Your Shelves Still Look Full

Holman reported that The King's English is reducing inventory "somewhat," though it doesn't have anything to do with the economy. "If you have fewer titles, you can sell them better," she said. This is especially important in the store's children's section, where the plethora of titles can be confusing to adults seeking titles for their kids. To ensure the store's shelves look full, certain books are placed face out and gift items are mixed in among the books. For instance, the store might place a frame with a picture of Salman Rushdie next to Rushdie's books. "We have magnifiers around the stores and candles, too," Holman added.

Though Nantucket Bookworks will not cut pre-holiday inventory, the store does cut stock for the months of January through April, Hudson said. "My favorite trick to make the shelves look full is to put single titles on bookstands in among other books on the shelves," she explained, adding that she picked up the idea during a visit to McIntyre's Books in Pittsboro, North Carolina. "The stands make even one paperback look like a healthy stack of five, keeps the books vertical even when the display copy sells, and lets us feature backlist staff picks in all sections."

"We do the obvious things," Horne said. "More face outs, smaller stacks (but not too much smaller), putting some remainders in displays to fill them out at a lower cost."

At BookPeople, Bercu explained, "We have re-arranged the whole store for many years, so that almost all our shelves have an eye-level row that has only staff selections on it (all face out and on stands). So we have been able to reduce the inventory while still trying to appeal to customers." And, he added, "If we were going to cut more, it would be the bottom shelf since it is hard to shop -- I would recommend facing out some oversize books there to make it look good."

Make the Store Appealing

With so many things in the outside world up in the air, it pays to make sure that your store is a reassuring sanctum for customers, booksellers agreed. This is done in a number of ways: visually, through product and title mix, and through your staff.

"You want your customers to feel comfortable when they come into your store, to feel like they're going home," said Holman, who added that "one thing we've been doing is placing The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferrucci [Penguin] at the front counter" as one way to set the tone for the store experience.

At Diesel, Evans noted that his stores focus on "customer service and displays -- keeping everything fresh and ever-changing, and engaging the customers with informed bookseller recommendations and helpfulness. Our displays are always highly responsive to the needs and interests of our readers and our times, and that will continue. Our selection is always adjusting for the interests, passions, and tastes of our communities of readers."

"We decorate the store for the holidays, we increase the number of displays, we add more gift displays," said Bercu, "and we make sure that we have enough temporary staff so that every customer who comes in gets personal attention."

Nantucket Bookworks responds to its customers' needs with extended hours of operation. "Our long hours are the single most important thing that makes the store appeal to customers," Hudson stressed. "From Memorial Day to December 24, we're open seven days a week until 10:30 p.m. -- by far the only show in this quiet town -- and on average we do about a third of our business after 6:00 p.m. The key to that is consistency -- we've been doing it for decades so people count on us to be there for them."

Other ways that Nantucket makes its store "cozy" include: music and "tons" of decorations. "I have a storage locker full of props, and we do the holidays up in a big way, both indoors and out. People appreciate the effort we take, and we do a sushi and wine party for staff on the biggest decorating night," said Hudson.

Spotlight High-Margin Items & Sidelines

To increase profits, it helps to spotlight higher margin items in your store. As noted before, The King's English places relevant sidelines next to books, among other places in the store. "We love gift cards -- they really work well for us," Holman said. In addition, the store sells a "little more nice used books," which provide a good markup, she said.

At BookPeople, "we put gift cards all over the store mixed in with everything, and put out signage reminding customers how good -- and easy -- they are," Bercu said. "We add gift displays so that we have more than usual."

Bookworks is known for its sidelines, said Hudson. "Toys, cards, gifts, there's pretty much nothing we won't sell," she said. "We bring in a lot of ornaments for the holidays and put them in baskets around the store, all color-coded or themed with displays. Many people come specifically for the ornaments now, but we try to push a few books on them as they shop!" Ornaments have a good markup and make great impulse buys, she explained.

Other items Nantucket Bookworks promotes include ABA gift cards, bags of all sorts, and jewelry. "We're doing really well with peace sign bracelets nowadays, and in most cases, we can triple the wholesale price," she said. "Oh, and this is good: In a brilliant move, one of our managers recently started hanging our store logo canvas bags on hooks around the store -- for years we just kept them behind the counter -- and they are flying! Go figure. So last week I placed a nice big order ... for more canvas bags in festive colors for the holidays. Perhaps book bags will be the new stockings." --David Grogan

ABA Is Here to Help

"It can feel as if each day brings a new economic rumble or dip, but with proactive planning and analysis, you can put yourself in the best possible position to maximize the potential for this holiday season," said ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz in last week's letter to booksellers. "And ABA is here to help. Feel free to contact me, and let's work together to help achieve the best holiday season we can. To help with logistics, please contact ABA's Member Services Director, Jill Perlstein, at [email protected], so that we can set up a time to talk."

A number of articles, worksheets, and other resources are also available from ABA.