Meeting the Struggling Economy Head-On: Booksellers Ramp Up Strategic Marketing Plans

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In light of a significant decline in consumer spending in the weeks leading up to the holiday season, retailers nationwide are creating proactive and strategic marketing promotions to ramp up their sales, cash flow, and visibility. Last week, a report in the New York Times noted that "seven weeks before Christmas, stores are offering eye-catching bargains as they struggle to move merchandise."

Many booksellers, too, have adjusted their holiday plans, implementing such steps as one-day storewide sales, discounts on volume sales of gift cards, and e-mail blasts with subscriber-only coupons, all in the hope of creating a detour that goes from Big Box to Main Street.

Changing Hands Bookstore has launched a tactical blitz of creative marketing both to bring in the regulars and to build its customer base. The Tempe, Arizona, bookstore recently distributed a one-day, 15-percent off coupon to its e-mail subscribers only. "We saw that other stores were already selling things at a discount," said Changing Hands' co-owner Cindy Dach. The coupon was designed to bring people into the store before the holiday season and to help staff get an early bead on hot holiday titles and sidelines. One early front-runner for gift items was the Scrabble-like, irresistibly packaged, game Bananagrams. ("One woman bought nine," said Dach.)

The same storewide promotion ran at Changing Hands last year, but a bit later in the season. It did prove a good prognosticator of bestsellers, but it also had a negative sales impact the following day. To reap the positives without the negatives, this year the sale was held on a day before a crowd-drawing event, said Dach.

Changing Hands is also trying something new on the Friday after Thanksgiving. "Black Friday has historically been a bad day for us. People go to Best Buy instead," Dach explained. But this year, to create a detour from the chains, the store will be offering "bagels and mimosas, a gift card sale, and a '15-percent off one item' coupon. Anyone who uses the coupon is automatically entered into a raffle for gift cards of different denominations." Raffles are popular with Changing Hands' customers, so the store also offers them at offsite events, where attendees provide their e-mail addresses for a shot at the raffle, said Dach.

Changing Hands' marketing campaign will also emphasize the Shop Local movement. "We're using all the ABA IndieBound materials, like the Here's What You Just Did flier, but we're making them our own."

Gift cards gain market share each year, and 73 percent are purchased in the stores where they're redeemed, according to the National Retail Federation. Changing Hands puts additional velocity behind that by offering flexible promotions. Charities can buy at a bulk discount -- 10 gift cards of a $25 value are sold for $20 each -- and then the charities can sell them at face value, keeping the difference. Other businesses can also buy them to distribute to employees and get more value for their money. "People are really trying to support local businesses," noted Dach. "We just have to help them figure out how."

At Island Books in Middletown, Rhode Island, Judy Crosby said that she doesn't usually discount, but she was weighing her promotion options in an unpredictable market. "I'm thinking about having a pre-holiday sale for the weekend before Thanksgiving. Not a drastic discount, but something to be sure to get enough cash flow for the holiday season -- and to give good customers a bargain in these tough times."

Crosby was considering a storewide sale of 15 percent off with certain items tagged 25 percent off so the promo could be marketed as a sale ranging from 15 to 25 percent off all merchandise. "It's about cash flow now more than ever," she added.

Crosby also plans to make discount coupons available at offsite events, and, as at Changing Hands, she's using IndieBound materials to emphasize the importance of shopping within the community. "We're sending a message that shopping local is about neighbors helping neighbors."

Although Crosby was bracing for some rough weather, business at Island Books has been good. "I'm cautiously optimistic," she said, "but I need to be proactive is my thought. We want our customers to come here before they go to the malls and spend it all."

At Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, Chuck and Dee Robinson are also making some changes in anticipation of an especially competitive holiday season. They traditionally host a holiday after-hours party to reward their VIP customers on the Sunday before Christmas. "This year we're moving it to the first Sunday in December," said Dee Robinson. "We're trying to move the shopping up earlier." Village Books will donate 10 percent of all sales from the party to a local food bank. The bookstore is also encouraging customers to bring canned goods for the charity.

Other changes at Village Books include free freight anywhere in the lower 48 on online purchases of $40 or more. And the store also plans to borrow a page from Changing Hands and will distribute a coupon for a one-day 15 percent off sale.

"We don't discount and we aren't planning to change," said Robinson. "But we'll see what happens as we get into the season." --Karen Schechner