Ci7 Education: Buying & Selling — Subscription Boxes

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Booksellers attending the “Buying & Selling: Subscription Boxes” education session at the seventh annual Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh received some advice from their colleagues on how to offer a subscription box program to customers that stands out from among the hundreds of others available.

Booksellers Lauren Savage, Kathy Burnette, Kim Tano, and moderator Sami Thomason
Bookseller panelists Lauren Savage, Kathy Burnette, and Kim Tano with moderator Sami Thomason

Attendees heard from three booksellers whose stores have successful subscription box programs and received tips and tricks regarding the process for creating and executing such a program, including best practices for marketing, inventory control, options for special services, how to select categories, fulfillment management, and order tracking. 

At the Friday, June 28, session, Sami Thomason, a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, moderated the conversation between Lauren Savage, owner of The Reading Bug in San Carlos, California; Kathy Burnette, owner of The Brain Lair in South Bend, Indiana; and Kim Tano, a book buyer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

Tano said Powell’s has run an adult subscription box program for the last 10 years. When starting their kids’ box, the store looked to its pool of newsletter subscribers and employees for suggestions. The store then created a designated panel of five to seven diverse booksellers, who developed a mission statement for the ongoing project, which reads in part: “We include the best new picture books with diverse characters, inventive storylines, exquisite illustrations, and charming prose.”

The Powell’s program operates on a one-size-fits-all basis, so when the boxes are shipped every other month, all subscribers receive virtually the same items: a frontlist picture book, a companion book that goes with that month’s box theme, and some non-book items, which have included stuffed animals, activity books, and story cubes, as well as a hand-drawn postcard listing all the items inside.

“Sometimes we’re able to get things from publishers, such as stickers for the featured title, and that really highlights the featured book more. When we place our order, we ask the publisher what they can offer us, and we also have our past boxes online so they kind of know what we’re looking for,” said Tano.

Burnette, who opened her store last year, told booksellers she got into the subscription game after a friend suggested it, since she had always been so good at putting together book selections for gifts. The Brain Lair’s children’s book boxes, which are sent bimonthly, monthly, or quarterly, do not include any titles below a middle grade reading level; she also does adult boxes, which are, surprisingly, even more popular than the ones for kids.

“I have it themed out every month, and I have some boxes that are customized/personalized and some that are curated, and you sign up for that,” said Burnette. “When you sign up for the box, you tell me which one you want and so even though they have the same theme, they have different books if it’s personalized. And I always include a bookmark and postcard that I make.” Burnette recommended booksellers use Canva to design and produce items like these.

In addition to books, Burnette’s boxes have included handmade items from local merchants such as customized chocolates with her store logo, homemade candles, and felt flowers; in the June box, she included a special South Bend Pride flag.

“I also read every book I send because I write a letter to the person in the voice of one of the characters of the book,” Burnette added. 

Savage’s Reading Bug Box program, which is a separate business from her store, started three years ago with a Kickstarter campaign that achieved full funding within the first 30 days. They started out with 100 subscribers, a number that has steadily increased over the last three years with help from online marketing.

“This is not something you want to go into lightly, no matter how big or how small you want to make it,” Savage told booksellers. “I would create a solid business plan for it first, just like you did when you opened your stores. Whether you’re doing it in-store waiting for people to pick up, or you’re dealing with customers across the whole country, it’s a big undertaking.”

The Reading Bug has two monthly box options for subscribers: a curated board book box for up to age two-and-a-half, and a second option for up to age 13; each are highly personalized boxes by the age and interest of the child. She recommends that booksellers find their own unique niche by researching other companies, such as OwlCrate, which currently rules the YA market, as well as the market at-large.

All three booksellers said ensuring their book selections are inclusive is extremely important to them, and they always make sure to include books featuring people of color, differently abled individuals, and LGBTQ+ representation, and/or Own Voices books.

“The name of my box is ‘Exclusively Inclusive,’ so they already know what they are getting. I look at themes so I can look at what books go with that theme and make sure I am also myself being inclusive,” said Burnette. “My store is an inclusive children’s bookstore; we have very few classics or anything like that unless I, of course, love them.”

Tano said that at Powell’s booksellers on the store’s designated subscription box panel use Edelweiss to find diverse titles they think would be good picks for the program; then she makes a spreadsheet and gathers all the examples they have.

“We keep track of the books we’ve included in the past and make sure they are inclusive and have all types of characters. The boxes need to be put together within a certain time frame since we need to make the fulfillment, but all titles have to have literary and artistic merit for us, too,” said Tano.

Powell’s handles fulfillment via USPS, with the $4 shipping price included within the price of the box; internationally it’s an additional $12, Tano said. The boxes are prepared two to three months in advance and shipped out all at once in custom 14”x14”x3” boxes. And it takes about two to three days for employees to assemble them in the store’s warehouse.

Burnette said she creates spreadsheets for order tracking and fulfillment, and uses the free USPS shipping software Pirate Ship. To keep things easier, since she is the sole employee at her store, Burnette caps her monthly boxes at 50, and has a volunteer come help put them together.

Savage also uses USPS, but tracking is hard, so she also uses UPS Mail Innovations, but it isn’t available everywhere. Since her operation is so large, she has three people helping her pack the hundreds of boxes, including several teens who come in after school each day, and a shipping manager.

Because they scale so big, “our number-one problem is shipping,” said Savage. “We all know that the A-word ships for free with their Prime (at least it seems like it’s free to those customers), and we can’t offer free shipping since we know the margins on the books are hard enough as it is. You can make it sound a little better by putting the amount of money in shipping into your box price, but we still need to go over the value and make sure they get more value than they’re actually paying.”

When it comes to payment, Savage said her customers do pre-paid monthly subscriptions or take the six-or 12-month option. This prepayment system is useful in that it helps sustain the store during the summer months when things are slow, she added.

Burnette does her transactions for everything mostly in cash and keeps separate checking accounts, so she doesn’t end up spending money she doesn’t have, while Tano said Powell’s subscribers pay using their credit card and are charged every other month but can cancel anytime.

Finally, when it comes to marketing, Savage she does mostly targeted ads on social media, which costs money but can be worth it if it fits into your budget, she said.

When Powell’s first decided to do the subscription box program, Tano said, the store sent out a press release that reeled in 150 subscribers, which doubled when the second box went out.

Powell’s also places postcards at the kids’ information stand; records employees’ children opening the box and posts the videos on Facebook and Instagram; and sends comp boxes to social media influencers hoping they will review it.