Hark -- Bookselling Tips to Bring Increased Joy

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Holidays 2003 -- Will your sales records be filled with comfort and joy or will your store suffer too many silent nights? After a rocky year, booksellers around the country are looking for innovative ways to bring people into their stores or onto their Web sites to maximize sales. Stores may be using holiday promotional techniques that, although they worked in the past, are now failing to bring in customers. People are jamming stores later and later in the season, waiting for big discounts or simply leaving gift shopping to the last minute. High unemployment rates are taking a toll on sales in many areas of the country. What's a bookseller to do?

Experienced booksellers advise flexibility during the holiday season; trying something new may yield great gains. This may be the year to switch the traditional after New Year's storewide sale to Christmas Eve. Customers may respond well to sales only announced to a select few -- mailing list members or those with loyalty cards. For booksellers offering sales via BookSense.com, maintaining and keeping the site up-to-date is more critical than ever. But no bookstore or site can function at any level without staff, and a healthy staff is a working staff.

Keeping Staff Healthy and Energized

Kelly Justice, manager and buyer for the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, described to BTW some of her store's preparations: "We always keep antibacterial lotion behind the counter and antibacterial soap in the bathroom because when people hand you a dollar bill, they're basically handing you a used Kleenex," she said.

"Those folks that lick their fingers to count their bill … those that sneeze in their hands then reach for their cash. Talk about 'filthy lucre.' Don't touch your eyes! We could all use the reminder."

At Fountain, Justice continued, "We have a little pep rally for the staff that covers basic things like health issues -- the owners offer to pay for the flu shots of employees and their partners, if they want to get them.... They are not required. [We talk about] big titles, special promotions, general policies about holiday special orders and the need to watch for burnout."

Burnout is a serious consideration for everyone in retail businesses. Justice told of some ways to keep spirits bright: "We have a rotating coffee fetch in the morning. We suggest walks around the block to one another when things get tough or we just can't take the bells anymore. Frankly, we just try to watch out for each other, bring in food, little things to keep each other sane. I think that this caring for each other translates into caring for our customers."

Veteran bookseller, Nancy Olson of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, wanted to nip burnout in the bud. Rather than have the staff run ragged through the season and possibly provide customers with a less than satisfactory shopping experience, Olson has instituted one major change this year. "We hired temps just to be cashiers for the first time," she said. "We advertised for part-time workers and got people who know the store and who are customers. We're not paying them much but they get a generous store discount. It has worked out very well."

Holiday Marketing

Olson told BTW that her store had experienced an unexpected dip in sales: "In October, we dropped 16 percent. That was alarming." In response, she chose to increase her advertising and marketing for the rest of the year. One fairly inexpensive marketing approach was to pay for the distribution of 25,000 SEBA holiday catalogs in the local newspapers.

Quail Ridge was fortunate, according to Olson, that the management of the strip mall in which the store is located offered all its tenants participation in a well-publicized promotion. The promotion awards one $100 gift certificate every week from November 7 to Christmas. Customers can register for the drawing in any participating store and spend the certificate in any combination of stores. The 20 stores continue to benefit from the mall's two to three ads per week in local newspapers.

Olson also looks forward to offering the store's own Book Sense gift cards this holiday season: "We're on board and that's going to be nice -- it will make us look professional. We'll be able to market them as Christmas gifts."

Many stores point to their front windows as their best form of advertising. At the Concord Bookshop in Concord, Massachusetts, general manager Dale Szczeblowski described how the store uses its four large windows on Main Street to feature a children's book and willing staff and customers who participate individually in a live tableau: "We have it set up like a living room with a chair, a reading lamp, and a fireplace. Volunteers spend some time reading in the window."

Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts, organizes a pre-holiday list of favorite new books of the year. "Because we're a children's store," she told BTW, "we do it by age, and make sure there's at least one 'girl book' and one 'boy book' for each age. But other categories would work just as well in a general store. Then, about December 1, we do our holiday window display of all the books on our list -- or all of them that haven't unexpectedly gone out of stock -- and put a flag in each one that says, 'We especially recommend this book for [a specific age group].' That way, when we're too busy to handsell, the list is doing it for us."

Sales, Special Events, and Coupons

Many stores provide customers with savings opportunities during the holiday season. Maryelizabeth Hart, owner of Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, California, distributes a coupon with every sale made in the month of December. "They bring their coupons to our New Year's Day sale and get special discounts -- buy three or more books, get 20 percent off. And so on. Our long time customers look forward to it. It's festive -- a nice start to the year. Customers without a coupon can come to the sale -- we usually open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. -- but they don't get any discounts."

The Fountain Bookstore is throwing a party on December 17 for customers according to Justice, with "a guest author who really puts on a show. This year we've got George Singleton (The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Harvest), and we just can't wait. That keeps everybody excited."

At Quail Ridge, Olson said that this year "we worked harder at getting people for special events and holiday entertainment. We have musical groups and authors." The store's event schedule lists readings or events for almost everyday from December 1 to December 20. "I took a chance and called Roy Blount, Jr. and asked him to come," she laughed. "He agreed to come on December 23 to do 'An Evening With….' He's lots of fun."

Giving Back

The spirit of giving extends to booksellers as well as their customers. Many stores use this season to coordinate donations of money, time, and books. The Concord Bookshop offers Book Bucks to customers year round: For every $25 spent in the store, the customer is given a Book Buck, worth $1. "Between Thanksgiving and Christmas," Szczeblowski said, "we set up a box and choose a charity. Customers can donate their Book Bucks to the organization. This year it's Partners in Health , which is featured in Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House). We can raise a substantial amount of money and promote the book."

In Raleigh, Quail Ridge serves as a collection center for the Wake County Boys and Girls Club toy drive. According to Olson, it helps bring more traffic into the store and benefits a worthy cause.

BookSense.com

Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, has written a list and advises participants to check it twice, to insure smooth holiday sales:

To avoid unhappy customers, we recommend that you put a note on your site that makes it clear that any item ordered with an inventory status of "Usually Ships in 1 - 5 Days" or "On Our Shelves Now" by close of business on December 17, will arrive in time for Christmas. Customers should understand that books ordered after a certain date may not arrive in time for Christmas.

If you've signed up for the Book Sense Gift Card program, you can now enable the gift card functionality on your BookSense.com Web site. Click on the "Gift Card" link on the lower left-hand navigation bar, choose a gift card image, and click submit. This will allow customers to purchase and redeem gift cards online. (If you don't see any images when you click on that link, let us know.) If you're not familiar with the gift card program, click here.

Update any holiday changes to your store hours on your Web site. Do this by clicking on the "Edit Store & Contact Info" on the left-hand navigation bar of your main admin page.

Use one of our holiday-oriented themes. We have two co-op themes available right now -- Holiday Entertaining and Holiday Picture Books. You can find these by clicking on "Edit National Content" on the left-hand navigation bar on your admin page, and then on "Edit Themes." If you're not familiar with our co-op reimbursement program, click here.

For your store, create a simple take-home piece -- a bookmark, a coupon, or even a plain piece of paper -- to put at the cash/wrap promoting your Web site. It's helpful to remind your customers they can shop your store 24 hours a day, and that you can deliver gift-wrapped presents directly to their loved ones.

Add your regional association holiday catalog to your Web site, if it's available. Contact us if you're not sure how to do this. (Len@booksense.com). -- Nomi Schwartz