The Gift Experience

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By Lance Fensterman

When was the last time you stood refueling your car and didn't see, essentially, a convenience store inside the gas station? Have you been to a movie theatre recently that had no concession stand? Did you know that Best Buy is now opening stores where you can get a pedicure and buy organic healthcare products while you learn about the latest iPod innovations?

Industries change and adapt to reach new markets and create new revenue streams when the old standbys begin to disappear -- call it "Market Darwinism." There are far fewer gas stations that only sell gas, because there is a very small margin in gas. Money is made from sales of snacks, car-care equipment, and, sometimes, full-service delis and restaurants. This is a market adaptation that some businesses made in order to survive and thrive, and it has changed the way we shop.

What are we as booksellers doing to adapt to a changing market? How are we changing the way the market thinks of a bookstore? How can we change our identity as perceived by our customers, as well as change our business model, in order to survive and thrive? How do we change the face of bookselling on our own terms -- not those of our competitors?

While I'm currently store manager of R.J. Julia at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut, before that I was general manager of Bound to Be Read in St. Paul, Minnesota. When I joined Bound to Be Read, in mid-2003, we carried a wide array of gift items, but not an overwhelming selection. I was impressed with the shopping experience this selection provided our customers but saw the potential to do more to create a Bound to Be Read identity. The goal was simple: to create a boutique shopping experience that complemented our inventory of 150,000 books. Books are gifts, gifts are gifts, and gift cards are gifts. As Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, put it, "We are really in the gift business." Dropping some of our old labels of what "belongs" in a bookstore can free us to create a truly unique gift-buying experience for our customers.

Since the closure of Bound to Be Read, I've spent a good deal of time considering whether my retail thesis was correct, and the answer is that I still strongly believe that we were on the right track. In fact, one of my regrets is not making bolder commitments and decisions regarding gift merchandise and store identity. Now that I find myself in the competitive shopping mecca of suburban New York City, I'm finding that while steadfast in my philosophy, the practical application of it remains more challenging than ever. However, I've found that the beliefs and practices I honed in St. Paul are just as relevant, if not more so, in this ultra-competitive environment for our customers' attention.

At Bound to Be Read, we viewed our store as a shopping experience. We worked very hard to create an entertaining, informative, and unique experience for every visitor, every day. Gifts coupled with stellar author and non-author events, outstanding customer service, a coffee cafe, digital music sales, and many other tiny pieces created a destination that drew people in for many reasons other than our selection of books. Our customers returned to Bound to Be Read again and again in hopes of finding something new, different, and unexpected. We truly were a boutique shop with 150,000 books on our shelves.

Gifts, properly done, can change the identity of your store in a positive way (perhaps even attract new customers and generate additional purchases from existing ones) and increase your cash flow. Obviously, gifts are just one way that independent bookstores can reinvent themselves. Bookselling This Week often offers examples of other creative ways bookstores are reinventing themselves. There was a time when gifts were only seen as a cash cow -- a way to increase margins. I feel that may be too narrow of a view. I prefer to view them as a bridge to a greater experience for the customer.

For anyone contemplating an increase in gift inventory levels, there are a number of key questions to answer: Where do I get gifts? What do I buy? How much should I buy? How do I receive them? How do I track sales? How do I display them? What do I do when they don't sell?

The funny thing about the independent book business is we tend to separate ourselves from other retailers, and I've never quite understood why. The mystery that surrounds gifts for many booksellers is unfounded. As retailers, you already know the answers to many of these questions.

When you opened your bookstore, how did you figure out where to buy books, or what titles or how many? How did you learn to display books? Many of the answers to the gift-mystery rest comfortably within a bookseller's own head. We just need to learn to open our minds to what a modern independent bookstore is, and can be.

When I lived in the Twin Cities, I browsed through a few small regional chains that specialize in boutique gift merchandise. They had a wonderful, eclectic, creative selection that I both admired and supported (with purchases). They began to weave book displays in with their merchandise (linking the obvious), and they merchandised the titles they brought in creatively (creating a link where it was less than obvious). I admired this a great deal, not only for its subtle diversification of the shopping experience for the customer, but also for the deft merchandising employed.

While browsing these shops it occurred to me that their merchandisers may very well have shopped at Bound to Be Read looking for book ideas. Why not shop them looking for sideline ideas?

After these sorts of scouting expeditions, an easy web search can get you started. Find a product line you like, search online, find a rep in your area and start to discuss what they can do for you. I've done similar reconnaissance here in New Canaan and found that while I don't want to replicate other stores' merchandise, chances are they are carrying it for a reason: It sells! So, having some stock similar to other stores is no crime; however, you also have to ask, What can I find for my store that is unique, exciting, and sought after? The answer to that question has no magic formula. It requires tedious, time-consuming searching for what will work best in your market.

To aid you in the hard work of searching, ABA has recently launched the Booksellers Resource Directory, a wonderful database of non-book vendors and business services and suppliers. It's a great resource.

Go ahead and take the first step. Begin dabbling with sidelines, perhaps the same way you began with books -- by sticking with what you know. Are you an avid gardener? Why not explore some simple gardening products (trowels, herb garden kits, gloves, etc.) that you can pair up with your gardening books. Are you interested in yoga and have a thriving yoga section in your store? Try pairing up your yoga books with videos, yoga mats, and CDs. Sidelines can be received and entered into your POS system in the same fashion as books. The receiving process may take a little longer, but it differs very little from books.

The mystery of sidelines is no great mystery at all! Books are a wonderful canvas for this endeavor. You can pair up books with any related sideline because books are written about virtually everything.

As you grow your selection of gifts, the addition of an expert in the field of merchandising would be helpful. The real key to successfully adding sidelines to your store is in the merchandising. Proper merchandising entails not just the display of the products, but also insights into the proper stock level, when to markdown, and what products are just not successful in your store. Merchandising is an art, particularly with your sidelines. Again, when you opened your bookstore, chances are you played many roles, but as it grew, you found "experts" to take over portions of your business that grew. The actual act of merchandising, particularly if you plan to mesh your sidelines with your books, takes great attention to detail and a lot of patience. It's important that each item is given the opportunity to find a buyer. This means moving the product from place to place in the story, mixing it with other products, and giving the item several chances to find a buyer before deciding that you can never sell that particular type of item.

As independent booksellers, we are well aware of the crowded field of retailers looking to supply the book buying public with the titles they want. Target, Wal-Mart, Costco -- the list goes on. Why can't we turn the table on some of the businesses nibbling at what we once thought was our market and our market alone? Perhaps some customers will skip a book-buying trip to a big chain when they know what a unique and diversified shopping experience awaits them at the local independent bookstore. The chain stores (of all varieties, not just book chains) offer convenience, where we can offer an experience. How will you create an experience in your bookstore?

Lance Fensterman is store manager of R.J. Julia at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut.