The Holiday Postmortem Bookselling Blues -- Or, At Least I Didn't Run Out of Books This Christmas!

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By Neal Coonerty

Whew, this Christmas stunk! Or, to be more precise, this Christmas retail season really stunk. As we closed the doors of our bookshop at 7:00 p.m. after an exhausting Christmas Eve, our sales were down 5.6 percent. Not only was the season bad, it was scary. On December 14, our sales were running nearly 10 percent down, and we were wondering if it might get even worse.

This is such an important retail season for any bookseller, and, having put months of effort into getting the store and staff ready for this holiday season, we had to wonder what happened. We worked so hard to get the store in shape, to get the right books in, to make sure that all the staff had smiles on their faces and season's greetings in their hearts, and we did it all so well. Why did it turn out so, so -- well, so nothing?

Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

It is now clear that retail sales were down nationwide this holiday season, which was the worst in 30 years. Why did shoppers keep their money in their pockets? The experts have many reasons for the bad business: a very short holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas; Americans' fear of going to war with Iraq; a drop in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index of about 24 percent in 2002; bad winter storms; no jobs as jobless benefits ran out; Bush changing his economic team, signaling panic with the bad economy; as well as high consumer credit card debt going into the season.

To make matters worse, as the season turned bad, big box retailers started deep discounting early to attract consumers to their stores (and away from ours). E-commerce grew and took more sales away from traditional retailers. Overworked and stressed-out shoppers waited later and later before finally hitting the stores. Last year, the week before Christmas accounted for 34 percent of holiday sales, compared with 23.9 percent in 1999.

Readers of the World Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But the Chains

The bookstore chains had dismal third quarter sales, but told Wall Street that they expected a decent holiday selling season. Then, as the season developed, their reports started to become more realistic. Some of the book chains began to forecast flat or minus same-store sales. Nonbook categories such as DVDs were reported to be the only growth areas in their stores.

But, just to make independent booksellers feel good, here is a little story about Bookshop Santa Cruz and a Borders store one block away. It turned out that five of our top 10 December titles were local books: a couple of children's books, a local history book, etc. When the local distributor of our local presses stopped in in mid-December, he told me that the local Borders manager, unlike other Borders managers in the area, decided not to carry any of his local titles. Independents always favorably contrast their stores with the chains by claiming that the chains are out of touch with local communities. In our case, this was exactly right, and it meant that we had an exclusive on five of our 10 bestsellers.

Keep Santa Cruz Weird

Close ties to your community can pay off in other ways, too. At its December 10 meeting, the Santa Cruz City Council was considering new laws restricting street performing in downtown Santa Cruz. I made a speech covered by our local daily newspaper declaring that street performing was one of the good and unique things about Santa Cruz, and I ended my speech by handing out to council members homemade bumper stickers that said, "Keep Santa Cruz Weird * Support Our Street Performers."

Suddenly, everyone wanted the "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" stuff, and so I quickly printed up more bumper stickers and T-shirts with the slogan. We sold hundreds (with some proceeds to benefit street performers), and it was another exclusive product that the chains didn't have. But, even with this, our sales were off. (However, maybe our chain competitor's sales were even more off.)

When Bad Sales Happen to Good Booksellers

So, what to do now that the bad news has sunk in? First, let your staff know that the tough season wasn't their fault. They worked hard and probably know that the results were disappointing. You want to keep their spirits up. Treat them in some small way. I bought my staff a movie pass to our local art cinema so they could relax after all their hard work. If you can't afford that, an appreciative personal note is a great idea.

Second, share your misfortune with the publishers: Do returns. There is nothing in the immediate economic forecasts that predicts a brighter retail future. Prepare for the worst and get your inventory down. It is critical that you move fast and decisively on returns this year. If nothing else, think of all the great remainders that will be available after returns come pouring in.

Third, think about expanding your remainder tables. If the economy remains bad, having lots of bargain books may help you weather the storm.

Fourth, look everywhere you can to cut expenses. After 31 years of bookselling, it is clear to me that this season's bad news is part of a retail cycle. Sales will improve sometime in the future, and our job right now is survival. Work smart to get through this rough period, and you will be there for the recovery. Hey, you are a professional bookseller and that means you have to take care of business and do what is necessary to keep your business healthy. Some of what has to be done is hard, but it is good for your store.

A Conclusion That Is Not an Ending

Finally, don't sweat what you can't control. My mom always had a saying when things went wrong. She would tell us not to worry because "who's going to know in a hundred years?" This is good advice. Go with the flow. We are in a tough cycle, so use your skill and experience and ride it out. And who's going to know in a hundred years?

And here is the silver lining in the dark clouds: Dismal December sales numbers this year mean easy numbers to match next December. In other words, as Dodger fans used to say, just wait until next year.

Neal Coonerty is the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California, an ABA Board member, and the immediate past president of the association.