Competing as smarter retailers has become a key strategy for independent booksellers, and the almost 400 independents attending a full day of ABA special educational programming at BookExpo America filled panels and seminars to hear the latest on everything from marketing and inventory control to the "best ideas" in newsletters and staff development. In addition to the panels on business operations and personnel issues, there was an extensive offering of programming on children's bookselling and African-American bookselling.
ABA Marketing Strategy Session
For the over 150 booksellers attending, the day got off to a good start with what many called an outstanding seminar on marketing. The two-part session, moderated by Michael Hoynes, ABA marketing officer, offered attendees energetic and passionate speakers, discussing in detail the many ways booksellers can use innovative marketing strategies to stay competitive in an ever-changing industry.
In the first half of the seminar, the panelists were Robert Spector, a consultant and the author of Anytime Anywhere (Perseus Books Group) and The Nordstrom Way (John Wiley & Sons), and Doug Hall, founder of the Eureka Ranch for Business Consulting and author of Jump Start Your Business Brain (Warner Books). The second half included a Q&A between three booksellers -- New Hampshire's Donna Urey of White Birch Books, Michael Tucker of Books, Inc. in San Francisco, and Mary Gay Shipley of That Bookstore in Blytheville in Blytheville, Arkansas -- and Hall and Spector. The seminar ended with questions from the audience.
Highlights of the session included Hall's boisterous presentation, in which he outlined his six laws of marketing. One of the key concepts of effective marketing is "you have to be clear and blunt," he said. "Nothing grabs a customer's attention more than telling them what you will do for them." He also ended his speech by going through 10 unique marketing ideas culled from a meeting with a number of independent booksellers the night before.
Spector gave an in-depth talk on the importance of good customer service and creating an inviting place for customers. He brought these concepts to life through the real-life examples of Nordstrom's, Square One Books in Seattle, and even his father, who owned a butcher shop in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. "My father was an expert in customer service, because he knew what it took to take care of his customers," he said.
At a morning session on inventory management, John Bennett of Bennett Books, Wyckoff, New Jersey, and Carole Horne of Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts (winner of this year's PW Store of the Year Award) led a wide-ranging, lively discussion, covering such topics as inventory turn, buying budgets, returns, and shipping policies. Presentations ranged from the specific -- formulae for calculating a store's return on investment in inventory (ROII) to the more theoretical -- considering which media sources influence sales in any particular community, and emotional buys versus rational ones. The session structure offered opportunities to hear from both large and small stores, seasoned booksellers as well as prospective owners. Participants broke into small groups to discuss analyzing inventory reports, buying philosophy, criteria and schedules for returns, and inventory control systems.
ABA Bright Prospects Business Panel
Following on the heels of the marketing session was the "Bright Prospects Business Panel." The session, which discussed the future role of small business in the economy, was opened by incoming ABA President Ann Christophersen of Chicago's Women & Children First, and moderated by Connie Brod, C-SPAN moderator and executive producer of BookTV.
The panel included Tom Ehrenfeld, author of Start Up Garden; Doug Hall, founder of the Eureka Ranch for Business Consulting and author of Jump Start Your Business Brain (Warner Books), and Robert Spector, a consultant and the author of Anytime Anywhere (Perseus Books Group) and The Nordstrom Way (John Wiley & Sons).
Brod led the seminar by posing questions to the panelists regarding the challenges facing small businesses, most notably, independent booksellers. The format of the session, and the insights of the panelists, gave attendees different perspectives about each issue. Topics in the session ranged from the reasons for starting a small business and being true to your identity while still being profitable to how to remain motivated when you "run out of gas."
Overall, the panelists were optimistic about the future of small business, especially independent bookstores. Spector urged booksellers to "be true to who you are." And, as Ehrenfeld said at the seminar's conclusion, "When was the last time you went to a good event at Wal-Mart?"
At an afternoon Large-Store Roundtable, moderated by Carla Cohen of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; Nancy Olson of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Bob Sommer and Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands in Tempe, Arizona, approximately 50 booksellers discussed seven key issues relating to "What Makes a Great Independent Bookstore -- Community Building."
Topics included staff training and retention; buying with customers in mind; written communication, including print and e-mail newsletters and Web sites; developing classes and in-store events; defining the store by what is purchased and how it is displayed; fostering special customer relationships through loyalty cards and reward programs; and special programs that have kept customers interested.
Attendees were exhorted to keep trying new things and to develop their individual business identities, rather than give into the temptation to simply copy competitors. Buying from university and small presses; developing activities such as arts and crafts classes (which bring potential buyers into a store and keep them there); and developing techniques to know your customers (including tracking customer-buying habits and a variety of customer loyalty cards) were also discussed in detail. As moderator Cohen noted, "What we have to offer is our uniqueness."
Finding Comfort in Books
In a full afternoon of programming, co-sponsored by ABA, the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC), and the Children's Book Council (CBC), Sheilah Egan of A Likely Story in Alexandria, Virginia, and Dara La Porte of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., facilitated the discussion of helping customers select the right book for the right time. Close to one hundred booksellers brainstormed about specific titles for an array of social issues critical to today's children and parents, including bullying and cliques, cultural diversity, divorce, sexuality, war, and peace.
Attendees were also treated to entertaining presentations by two celebrated speakers: Author Russell Freedman and illustrator and author Mark Teague. Newbery medallist and honoree Freedman delivered the keynote speech and spoke about the particular pleasures of sparking children's interest in history through his nonfiction accounts of notable and colorful personalities. Books such as In the Days of the Vaqueros: America's First True Cowboys (Clarion), Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion), and Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (Clarion) have prompted fan mail from even the most reluctant readers.
Mark Teague, who won the Christopher Medal for How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? (Scholastic), regaled the group with his slide show recounting the journey of a concept, through development, to a single illustration in his new book, debuting at BookExpo, Dear Mrs. LaRue from Scholastic.
African-American Booksellers Conference
Thursday's African-American programming, moderated by Clara Villarosa of The Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, was a spirited discussion by both authors and publishers focusing on the future of African-American bookselling.
A packed afternoon luncheon (sponsored by AOL Time Warner Book Group) featured speakers Walter Mosley, author of Bad Boy Brawly Brown: An Easy Rawlins Mystery (Little, Brown), Toure, author of The Portable Promised Land: Stories (Little, Brown); Deborah Mathis, author of Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home (Warner); John Ridley, author of A Conversation With the Mann (Warner); and Mawi Asgedom, author of Of Beetles and Angels (Little, Brown & Co. Children's).
Following the author panel, famed attorney Johnnie Cochran praised booksellers adding that he understands the importance of what booksellers do: "You have to read to lead." He spoke about his new book A Lawyer's Life, and the many cases he has tried.
Two panels rounded out the day. "African-American Bookstores and the University Presses" was moderated by James Fugate of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, who noted that university presses can fill out a store's inventory especially when things get slow.
"We Are Survivors: Strategies for Successful Booksellers," moderated by Dr. Rosie Milligan, saw panelists from bookstores across the country sharing their ideas about how to bring customers into their stores. She concluded by adding, "It's important to maintain a bookstore so that they don't just survive, they thrive." -- Reporting in New York, Dan Cullen, Elizabeth Fabian, Dave Grogan, Rosemary Hawkins, Stephanie Shea, and Nomi Schwartz.