Bookselling in an Uncertain World

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By Kristen McLean, Executive Director, Association of Booksellers for Children

Well, Q4 is upon us, and it would be an understatement to say that things seem a little precarious and uncertain. I live in South Florida, where the state of the local economy hasn't been this bad since the Breakfast Club was in detention, and we were all wearing parachute pants and plenty of zippers.

Being a retailer is challenging when the psychology of the market is making people think twice about opening their purses. How can we send our customers a message of encouragement? How can we get them to sit a spell, and spend their precious dollars in our stores?

In large part it has to do with making sure that the psychology of fear isn't reflected in the way your business feels to your customers. Behind the scenes you may decide to be a little more conservative with your inventory and staffing, but make sure that doesn't impact the subtle environmental cues you put out on the front line.

In fact, what your customers want -- what they crave, actually -- is a little relief from the bleak saturation of the 24-hour news cycle. They want comfort. They want nurturing. They want advice they can trust. They want ideas to make it better. They want a warm retreat in a dark, cold world.

They want, in fact, exactly what you have to offer.

Books as affordable luxuries

In her recent opening address at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Fran Dubruille, director of the European Booksellers' Federation made a strong case for why our industry has a better chance of weathering the storm than many others this holiday season.

"In these troubled times, the book is something which is a kind of landmark, which is solid reference and value, which is never, ever, ever going to be obsolete. ...The book is a cheap gift. The book is always affordable. Actually, maybe the crisis is a chance for booksellers to reassert their role in the community as providers of pleasure, of knowledge, for a very, very cheap price."

In fact, dollar for dollar, nothing beats the book when it comes to big value at a very small cost. People may not be able to afford to re-do their kitchen, buy a big house, or retire to their boat, but they can read about it, dream about it, and plan it, all with the help of a book. Use this to your advantage and craft a table, a display, or an ad campaign to pamper your customers with little luxuries.

The message: Forget your worries, take care of yourself, it's a difficult time, and you deserve it.

The display: Pleasurable books about travel, cooking, family time, little impulses, guilty pleasures, and positive outcomes. Dip into your general sections, and make a parent's getaway table in the kids' section.

Books as an investment in the future

Nothing is completely recession-proof these days, but kids are definitely "recession-resistant." When times are tough, parents will often go without before the belt tightening affects what they do for their kids and grandkids.

In these circumstances, books are seen as a long-lasting high-quality purchase, and paradoxically customers will often go for more expensive choices because of the perceived value.

This is an opportunity to capture additional sales by offering customers thoughtful collections of books with an emphasis on quality and classic appeal. That customer psychology makes this a great time for "Classics to Rediscover" or "New Classics" displays, as nostalgia for a happier time will make customers feel good.

This is also a GREAT opportunity to sell subscription services like ABC member Newtonville Books' Reader's Clubs, where customers sign up to receive books for a twelve month period or longer. This is the "gift that keeps on giving," both for you and the customer.

The message: Give the gift of reading, because children are the future. They will make the world a better place.

The display: Classics, and new books that feel like classics. Also paperback gift sets, keepsake collections, and fun poetry anthologies.

Some of our favorites:

  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (Yearling / 978-0440420477)
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (Aladdin / 978-1416927839)
  • A Bear Called Paddington, 50th Anniversary by Michael Bond (Houghton / 978-0547133515)
  • The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry (Simon & Schuster / 978-1416939719)

This list could go on and on ... you get the idea.

Books as problem solvers

Grim as it is, now is the time people look to books for help with everything from money management to depression to family crises. In the kids' section this is a great opportunity to pull together a collection of how-to books that help families make positive change.

These don't have to be heavy handed. In fact, there are many new titles just hitting the market that are tailor-made for just this kind of strategy. The point is to create a display that will create a hopeful, can-do vibe for customers seeking positivity.

The message: Things are rough, but we can fix it. Here's how.

The display: Parenting books, nature books, and how-to books. Anything that helps people take action.

Some of our favorites:

  • Earth Matters by David Rothschild (DK / 978-0756634353)
  • True Green Kids by Kim Mckay (National Geographic / 978-1426304422)
  • 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth by The Earthworks Group (Andrews McMeel / 978-0836223019)
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens by David and Tom Gardner (Simon & Schuster / 978-0743229968)
  • How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl's Survival Guide by Sarah O'Leary Burningham (Chronicle / 78-0811856966)
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin / 978-1565126053)
  • The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections by Amanda Blake Soule (Trumpeter / 978-1590304716)
Using all your resources to create a positive message

Because it behooves us to be conservative this selling season, make sure you are using all of the resources at your disposal to maximize your impact and conserve your outlay.

Over at ABA, they have created a whole bunch of fantastic IndieBound Holiday materials including ad slicks, signs, books marks, gift labels, and much more, all designed to help you broadcast the "A Book: Affordable. Portable. Memorable." message. These materials are stylish, subtle, and customizable so that you can create a unified and consumer-friendly message throughout your store without spending thousands. (Download the guide here; ABA membership required.)

On the business side, ABA has put together a solid series of articles on Bookselling in Tough Times, which will help you focus your decision-making for maximum return this holiday season.

In addition there are many other small things that you can do that don't cost much but which create a big impact on your customers' experience of warmth and comfort this season:

  • Get an institutional coffee urn, and offer your customers hot cider. The smell alone will encourage your customers to linger.
  • Make a big pot of soup and offer it to customers in small cups. They will appreciate the gesture, and it will encourage them to slow down.
  • Make a display of joke and humor books, and get people laughing.
  • Put out chocolate kisses on the counter. Although scientists argue over why, studies have shown that eating chocolate elevates mood.
  • Consider bartering with a local massage business and offer five-minute chair massages on your biggest weekend heading into the holidays.
  • Run a Book Angel program, giving customers the opportunity to buy additional books for your local school or charitable organization. It is not too late to set this up. This is an effective way build your average sale, and it can get you valuable press.
  • Make sure your staff is well cared for heading into the holiday season so that they can care for your customers. A small "Holiday Survival Kit" with nuts, mints, chocolate, painkillers, and hand sanitizer will cost you less that $10, and will give your staff a big lift.
  • Spread out your stock, and make sure your store looks full, even if you are carrying less.
  • Make sure your store is clean and well lit, even if you have to add lights. Make sure there are no burned out bulbs or dark spots. You want your store to feel like a beacon in the night.
  • No matter what, don't let your anxieties about the season infect your staff or your customers. Fear is infectious, and nothing will tank your sales faster.

The key to success this year will come from genuinely caring for your customers this season, broadcasting the message about the value and affordability of books, and letting your customers know that local businesses take care of local communities.

On that note, may you all have a happy, healthy, and profitable holiday season!

This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of the Toolbox, an e-newsletter for frontline children's booksellers published by the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC). For more information about ABC and any of its programs, go to