Browsing the Book Biz: E-Commerce Is Not Just for Dummies

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Eric Frazier

Because BTW became an exclusively online publication in January, I can safely assume that if you are reading this column, you have Internet access -- or at least, you have a friend or associate with computer access. You probably send and receive e-mail messages every day, and, if you are a bookseller, your store probably has a computerized inventory management system. Based on information in the ABA database, most stores have computerized their inventory control systems, but ABA statistics show that only about half of all bookstore member have reported that they have sites. How can this be? Even my part-time high school janitor has his own Web site!

If you are among those ABA member stores that still have no involvement in electronic commerce, you undoubtedly have your reasons. Unfortunately, all too often the reasons include fear of the unknown, unrealistic expectations, incomplete or erroneous cost estimates, or even an attitude that technology is endangering books and bookselling as we know them.

As a bookseller with a small store and not a large staff, and with only rudimentary computer skills, I have maintained a BookSense.com Web site since the original beta testing period. I believe every store today can benefit from a Web presence, and I especially believe that the larger the network of BookSense.com sites, the better our ABA staff can provide services and content for us at an economical cost. So, I want to encourage your participation in the program by addressing the objections above. I will take them in reverse order.

Technology as the Enemy

Microsoft launched an advertising campaign two years ago for its ClearType software that featured a timeline projecting the eclipse of bound printed books by electronic books in the year 2012. It sent shivers down my spine to think that Bill Gates had put out a hit contract on paper books. But, of course, those were the heady days of the dot-com revolution, when it seemed that companies could find ways to deliver everything we buy, except, maybe, haircuts, over the Internet.

Since then, many dot-com companies have disappeared, publishers have scaled back their e-book ambitions, and digital print-on-demand technology continues to focus on delivering to consumers those old-fashioned bound paper books that they continue to prefer. Our giant bookselling competitors are still around, and they are still online. However, they have scaled back their discounts, as the imperative to earn a profit has reasserted itself.

What has emerged is a more realistic vision of technology’s impact on books. Just as television did not kill radio, paper books are not likely to be entirely replaced by electronic versions any time soon. Each new medium tends to cultivate its own types of content, and consumers tend to use multiple media to access information.

Similarly, the initial rush to set up every type of business as an Internet company has been tempered by the realization that most retail businesses work best with both Web sites and bricks-and-mortar stores. While independent booksellers should try to differentiate themselves from the chains -- and that may include an emphasis on personal service, store environment, title selection, etc. -- I would caution booksellers with the example of Kodak. Their stubborn adherence to a "film only" strategy, long after it became apparent that digital photography would become a major category, led Kodak into a decline from which the company has yet to recover.

We independent booksellers can and must differentiate ourselves from the chains in progressive ways that retain our traditional strengths, while also taking advantage of new technologies.

Expectations

Like any other enterprise, your Web presence requires a long-term commitment, on-going maintenance, and patience to see it grow. Some people assume that they will put tremendous time and effort into it, yet get no sales from it, and others envision a scene not unlike the television commercial where the employees are gathered around a monitor as the site goes live, and the orders roll in making the counters spin wildly. Your results are likely to be commensurate with the efforts you put into it. I have seen a slow-moving category in our store transformed by one bookseller with a passion for that subject and marching orders to make something happen.

If you start a BookSense.com site, you will probably get some sales even if you do little or nothing on your own to promote your site. That is because your association is actively promoting the BookSense.com network nationally, and nearby customers will be directed to your site. We have seen a steady increase in orders that come in from fairly distant towns, undoubtedly a result of the national BookSense.com marketing efforts. These usually involve special order titles, sometimes out-of-print, sought by customers who are searching for some bookseller willing to take the extra time to help them get what they want.

I am happy to oblige them. If you give good online service (prompt e-mail communications) and execute your orders with care (prompt shipment, excellent gift wrapping, inclusion of Book Sense 76 flyers and business cards with each order) your on-line customers will become return shoppers just like your physical store customers.

Sales are not simply online or in-store. A Web site, for a traditional bricks-and-mortar store, is just another means of access -- a piece of the infrastructure for delivering your product to market.

My store has two physical entrances, two regular phone lines, a toll-free phone number, a fax line, an e-mail address, and our Web site. I have customers who use the Web site to search for titles, then e-mail orders that they will pick up later. I have had customers call us on our toll-free number while online and give us the order. I asked a school librarian who brought in paper printouts from Amazon.com and bn.com to try our search engine instead. She had not known about our Web site. Now, instead of driving 12 miles to bring her order or making long phone calls or faxes, she searches our site and logs orders of 50+ titles at a time! For her, it is simply more convenient.

Avoid the temptation to worry that the Web site will "cannibalize" your regular store traffic. Doing what works best for your customers is almost always what is best for your business. Include your Web site address on everything. Redesign it into your store logo. Collect e-mail addresses from customers and send them a newsletter or even just a quick announcement about a store event with a link to your site in the e-mail.

Our Web site has helped us enlarge our market. We linked our Web site to that of a school in an adjacent county (outside our market area) where we did a bookfair so we could offer any title, not just those we hauled to the school. As a result of that linkage, the school is considering our proposal to offer a year-round affiliate program on their site. Any business we receive from them will be new business we would not otherwise have gotten.

Cost

Many independent booksellers aren’t sure if their sales over the Internet justify the cost. And exactly what measure should be used? If the Web site is treated like traditional advertising, the sales would have to be so large that the Web site costs average perhaps between two percent to five percent of sales. But, is that an accurate role to assign your Web site? Traditional advertising is not interactive. Should your Web site be treated like a sales associate -- willing to work around the clock for modest wages -- at a cost of, say, 15 percent of sales? The answer is somewhere between these two. You will have to decide what you are willing to spend, over time, to develop a new source of business.

BookSense.com costs $175 per month. I consider it a fair price for the services offered, but for any small store, as ours is, a monthly expense of that size cannot be entered into casually. Also, ABA is now continuing its free trial offer for BookSense.com. [Click here for details, e-mail staff@booksense.com, or call (800) 637-0037, ext. 1234 to find out more about the free trial offer.]

When I compare the content and reach of our Web site with that of, say, yellow pages advertising, it is obviously a better option. To absorb the cost of our Web site, I re-structured our advertising budget, cutting out yellow pages advertising in a secondary phone book. That alone covered half the cost. Also, it is possible to cover all or most of the cost of a Web site using publisher co-op funds that are readily available to independent booksellers.

I believe a more relevant cost to the small store is the investment in time that is required to be successful with a Web site. Someone must commit time on a regular basis to maintaining the site. Otherwise, the hard dollar outlay is for naught. Getting more store staff involved with the site will lessen the demands on any one person, though it is important to center overall responsibility in one person -- a store Web master, if you will.

BookSense.com provides the underlying search engine, secure server, infrastructure, and national marketing that no independent could duplicate on its own for a comparable price. With the templates and national content available, BookSense.com makes it possible to maintain your Web site in as little as three to five hours on average per week. That includes checking the site routinely for orders, updating lists and national content, and managing local text and images. Keep in mind that the time you spend customizing your site and writing newsletters should include the content needed to qualify for co-op funds, so it really pays for itself.

Fear of the Unknown

So, all this e-commerce stuff sounds intriguing, and it seems like everybody else is selling online, but how do you begin? You don’t know HTML from a cryptic vanity license plate. How do you get a Web address? What equipment do you need? Relax! First, as a bookseller, you have an advantage over anybody else just getting started – ready access to information. Go to your computer books section and pull a title that matches your level of knowledge. Do a little homework. Then call the BookSense.com staff at ABA.

They can take you step-by-step through the process, and you will find it relatively easy. If you are attending BEA, be sure to stop by the BookSense.com "Getting Started" session and talk to the staff and other booksellers in the Book Sense Lounge. You can also contact BookSense.com customer service to schedule a one-on-one appointment at BEA.

If you look through many publisher catalogs today, you will notice that the Book Sense program has put independents back in the minds of the industry marketers who use "Book Sense Bestseller" or "76 Pick" as accolades. BookSense.com is a vital part of the overall strategy to make independents competitive. As more Book Sense participants join the online community, the entire program will gain strength. If your store has not yet tried e-commerce, the time has come to turn on, log-in, and upload. (My apologies to the late Timothy Leary.) Happy online bookselling!


Eric Frazier is the owner of Frazier’s (www.fraziersonline.com) in Lexington, North Carolina. Comments are welcome at fraziers@lexcominc.net.