Making Marketing Magic with Harry Potter

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

As florists await February 14 and poultry farmers the fourth Thursday in November, this year, booksellers have June 21. The laydown date for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may well be the day a record number of copies of a single book are sold. Advance word from the publisher, Scholastic, is that 8.5 million copies of the $29.99 book, the fifth in the series by J.K. Rowling, will be printed, and bookstores are reporting a panoply of special events, as well as special discounts and in-store distribution programs.

Booksellers interviewed by BTW spoke mainly of the excitement and promotional possibilities surrounding HP Day. Many are planning their events far in advance, and even smaller stores are concocting major events. Many booksellers are working in coordination with other local businesses to create special celebrations.

Marci Russell of Cornerstone Books in Williamston, Michigan, told BTW, "We currently have a HP Five countdown in the window, which generates a lot of interest -- kids will have their parents come by just to see the new number. Our little store [1,800 square feet] is trying to make the most of the upcoming publication date by having an event on the 21st of every month." She said Cornerstone Books began on February 21, featuring the first Harry Potter book. The special programming features trivia contests and games, and, Russell said, "for the second book we'll have a 'potions' contest, with co-op advertising, at our local coffee shop, where kids will concoct their 'potions.'" She noted that April will feature an ice cream contest in collaboration with the local Dairy Queen. "In May, [we'll work] with our local art studio, and the kids will have a Creature Creation Contest," she said.

Russell's pricing plans reflect her perception of the needs of her specific community, a rural area of about 3,500 people. "So far," Russell told BTW, "I've pre-ordered 50 copies and asked for only a five-dollar deposit when ordering. I'm considering selling the book for a flat $25, which is a little over a 15 percent discount." That discount is based partly on an awareness of her competition, a larger independent and a chain store, both within 15 miles, but, she said, "The other part is that most of these orders have come from loyal customers, and it's my way of showing appreciation for their business."

Barbara Theroux of Fact & Fiction, a 1,600-square-foot general bookstore in Missoula, Montana, wants "to recreate the kind of excitement we had the last time," she told BTW. "The anticipation is what the kids want. That's why we'll have a contest for the customer who physically will get their hands on the very first copy." Theroux said that she believes Fact & Fiction's customers will come for the midnight party and the fun. "Staff are all asking if they can work again," she said. Regarding price, Fact & Fiction will be selling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at full price. Theroux noted that "people are buying them cheaper all over. None of our customers are asking what we're charging for it."

In Cumming, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, Ginny Coulter, bookseller and information and research coordinator at Humpus Bumpus Books, is looking forward to June 21. "We'll sell a lot of books, but I'm just as hyped about the new one. I love those books," she told BTW. Humpus Bumpus will offer three pricing levels for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. A limited number of customers who "just can't wait" can have the book in their hands at the stroke after midnight on June 21. They will be part of the group of 60 attending the midnight release party at the store. The first 30 people to pre-purchase the book, at full cover price, can attend the party with one guest. Those who can wait until normal business hours on Saturday to pick up their copy can prepay and receive a 20 percent discount off cover price, and those who reserve a copy but don't prepay will receive a 15 percent discount. Already half the slots for the party are taken, she said.

These booksellers and other independents, aware of the various pricing options, all have their own plans, based on their individual markets and marketing strategies. The same is true of the national corporate retailers. and Barnes & Noble's Web site are pricing the book at $17.99, 40 percent off the announced price. Others are going below that price., for example, is discounting the title 46 percent, with a final selling price of $16.19.

If the booksellers at The Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois, have their way, their quaint street of specialty shops and cafés, called The Avenue, will be transformed into the closest thing to the shopping mall for wizards, Diagon Alley. Starting at 9:00 p.m. on June 20th, the Magic Tree will become Flourish and Blotts. According to staff member Debbie Mitchell, the store will be decorated with magical details including books that scream when removed from the shelves. Professor Gilderoy Lockheart will sign photos, along with appearances by most of the Hogwarts' faculty.

According to Mitchell, The Avenue Association, a neighborhood business development group, has officially approved the Diagon Alley event and has given financial support, including significant newspaper advertising. Mitchell and store owner Iris Yipp envision the Alley filled with The Leaky Cauldron (aka the Café Winberie), serving butterbeer all evening; Quality Quidditch Supplies (aka Foster's Toys), selling quidditch brooms; Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour (aka Oberweis Dairy), serving pumpkin fizzes; and Gringotts (aka U.S.Bank), filled with Gringotts' goblins (bank employees) handing out chocolate galleons.

But that's not all -- Mitchell has been coordinating a writing program for kids called The Owl Post Club. "In the club," Mitchell said, "kids create characters for themselves as Hogwarts students or professors. We have 100 kids -- all Magic Tree customers -- and 100 kids in the U.K. The U.S. kids are matched up with the English kids and will write letters to each other all summer, imagining their adventures at Hogwarts. On June 21, they will turn in their first letters to the Owlery -- an elaborate set up of antique owl cages stuffed with owls decorated by the kids." Mitchell supposes that most club members will come dressed as their characters, toting their owls. The cobblestone alley, adjacent to The Avenue, will also be teeming with a host of wizard-y activities involving, among other things, spray whipped cream and water balloons.

Yipp plans to offer a 20 percent discount on all pre-orders. "Not as much as Amazon," she told BTW, "but people tie it in [the purchase of the book] with the big party. They'll have it in their hands first thing on the 21st." Magic Tree is also supplying a local parochial school with the books at full price, but 20 percent of the cost of each book will be donated to the school.

Hicklebee's in San Jose, California, is donating 20 percent of the full cover price to a school or library selected by the buyer. Its Web site announcement for the offer reads, "After all, budget cuts lop the top off school programs and limit the number of new books on library shelves." According to the posting, "People interested in purchasing #5 can call or come in to Hicklebee's and reserve copies and at that time designate which school they would like to benefit from their purchase. Each customer will pick up their reserved copy on or after Saturday, June 21, 2003, at Hicklebee's Bookstore. Book reservations will be taken until June 20, 2003. The school will earn either 20% in cash or 25% in book credit."

Stores planning events for Friday night are aware that hundreds of highly motivated, exhausted, children of all ages with two or more hours to kill in the bookstore could pose a problem. Those planning midnight parties are lining up games, activities, and snacks. Cornerstone customers will play Pin the Tail Feather on the Phoenix and follow a Marauder's Map Treasure Hunt (with flashlights, in the dark). "We'll have a station in the store set up for distribution only," said owner Russell, "and since we have limited room in the store, I may take full payment for people who'd just like to pick up the book after midnight."

Theroux at Fact & Fiction said that "back by popular demand, the store will have a midnight opening and a countdown." But she learned from previous promotions that traffic flow through the small store can be problematic, and she has devised a solution: Activities will take place outside the store's back door, in a lighted alley. She will use co-op money for "magical" pens and such to distribute. At midnight, with the contest winner leading the way, customers will show their proof of purchase, receive their copies, and leave via the front door. "People then will do what they want to do -- start reading, go to sleepovers," said Theroux. "Anyone involved with kids and reading who doesn't attend one of these midnight events is missing a fabulous experience."

From Magic Tree Bookstore, Iris Yipp told BTW of customers who relish the anticipation as much as procuring the book. The book may be priced at $29.99, $17.99, or less, but the imaginative programs are memorable and priceless -- for the children, as well as some adults, and well worth the effort. For one young Magic Tree customer who waited for the last Harry Potter book at a downtown chain superstore, the midnight purchase was a disappointment. Yipp recalled, "He told me, It was so boring. We just sat there. Then they handed out the books." -- Nomi Schwartz