Tips for Maintaining a Customer Base During the Low Season

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Winter Institute 11 in Denver, Colorado, will showcase more than 30 education sessions, including the January 24 panel “How to Keep Seasonal Customers Year-Round.” The panel, moderated by Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, will feature Amanda Zirn of Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach, Delaware; Matthew Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan; and Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Book Partners in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Successfully maintaining a seasonal bookstore requires focusing on local residents and adjusting finances and inventory during the slow months, and keeping in touch with seasonal customers who have returned home to promote long-distance sales and get them back into the store during the high season.

Bethany Beach Books is a general-interest bookstore located just off the boardwalk in a community that grows from 2,000 residents in the winter to tens of thousands in the summer.

“Our customers throughout the summer are primarily tourists who are down for the week at the beach, so we have a brand-new set of customers every Saturday, as that is the turnover day for most beach houses,” said Assistant Manager Amanda Zirn. “What we sell in an entire winter day is what we would do in about 15 to 30 minutes in the summer.”

To prepare for the summer rush, Bethany Beach Books triples its inventory in the few weeks before Memorial Day and places orders each day throughout the summer to keep up with demand.

“Since our sales come to a screeching halt as soon as summer ends, we are extremely mindful and reserved when ordering during the last few weeks of the summer. We slowly start to transition into our winter mode by returning stock, weeding out things that weren’t successful during the busy season, and preparing for the holidays. We also switch to reordering just once or twice a week as opposed to every day,” said Zirn. “Running a store this seasonal is like running two separate businesses.”

Throughout its slower season, Bethany Beach Books works to maintain sales among local readers by hosting Women & Wine book clubs, celebrating Small Business Saturday/Indies First, promoting sales throughout the holidays, including the store’s annual anniversary sale, and other initiatives.

Just after Thanksgiving, Bethany Beach mails out sale postcards to customers who plan to be in town during the quiet season. The postcards give customers 20 percent off their entire purchase, but it must be used in the store or over the phone — not online.

One of Bethany Beach’s most successful strategies for retaining seasonal customers year-round has been The Book Drop, its monthly book subscription service, which launched in February this year and has caught on with customers near and far, including those who have never visited the store, following a mention on Buzzfeed.

“The point of The Book Drop is to make it easier for people to get their hands on great books they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. We know that, sadly, everyone doesn’t have an independent bookstore in their town, so we are bringing the independent bookstore to them,” said Zirn.

The store currently has more than 200 active subscribers across 45 states and nine countries. Subscribers pay $15 for each box, plus shipping. “We’re getting the same profit margin as if they bought the book in the store, but that’s 200 books we wouldn’t have sold otherwise in-store,” said Zirn.

McLean & Eakin, located in the northern Michigan town of Petoskey, has a community of 40,000 in the summer, which winds down to 5,000 residents in the off-season.

“Despite the change in our town’s size, we try to stay open for the community during the year,” said co-owner Matthew Norcross, who added that the store only closes three days each year. “The reality is, the store loses money every day we’re open from January to May. We’re digging a hole all winter long and we need to run really fast in the summertime to fill that hole back in.”

During the summers, staff at McLean & Eakin focus on maintaining sales and keeping seasonal customers loyal to the shop once they’ve returned home. In the winter, staff members keep in touch with those customers as much as possible.

The bookstore’s weekly e-mail newsletter drives significant sales and traffic to the store’s website, said Norcross. “It keeps the store in the customer’s mind every Monday morning, whether they’re in the area or not.”

Creating the bookstore’s newsletter — which highlights new titles, lists upcoming events and signings, and gives the inside scoop on the bookselling life through photos and commentary — is the responsibility of store co-owner Jessilynn Norcross, who spends four to six hours developing each edition.

A critical element to encouraging online purchases from out-of-towners during the off-season is McLean & Eakin’s 99-cent shipping rate, which the bookstore initiated in 2012 and is clearly advertised in each newsletter. “It changed the volume of orders from these e-mails overnight. People went from looking at stuff to hitting the buy button. It’s a discount you can offer, and it’s not nearly as painful as discounting the book,” said Norcross.

Booksellers at McLean & Eakin also actively reach out to customers when books come in that they might enjoy, regardless of whether the customer is local or far away. This adds an important personal touch that customers really enjoy, said Norcross. Books sent out to customers during the quiet season also include a hand-written note of thanks from the staff.

McLean & Eakin works hard to manage its finances throughout the slow season by tightening expenses, carefully purchasing and returning inventory, and finding more outlets for sales.

The store’s New Year’s Day sale has been a particular success. Everything in the store is discounted by 25 percent for the entire day, and customers enjoy celebratory mimosas. This gives McLean & Eakin both a boost in income and the opportunity to clear out inventory before proceeding with returns after the holiday rush.

Nantucket Book Partners encompasses Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner, the two independent bookstores on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, which has about 12,000 residents in the winter and swells to more than 10 times that in the summer season.

“It’s hard to support two bookstores on this tiny island year-round,” said co-owner Wendy Hudson, but both stores remain open throughout the entire year — Mitchell’s because of its lease agreement, and Bookworks because of the strong support it sees from the community during the quiet months as a holiday and birthday shopping spot.

Hudson noted the importance of taking action during the off-season, rather than remaining passive, and said she focuses on the bookstores’ local customers during the fall, winter, and spring by offering special sales and promotions.

During February, dubbed as “Love Month” at the bookstores, 10 percent of each day’s sales go to a different nonprofit. This year, funds went to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the Nantucket Food Pantry, the Firemen’s Association, and the Nantucket Arts Council, among other organizations. While the program doesn’t drive huge sales, “people like what we’re doing,” said Hudson.

To attract customers beyond the island, Hudson has made the inventory at both stores available for browsing through Alibris. This can bring in several sales a day from customers around the country, said Hudson. “It’s easy. You can sell something odd, something you have on your shelf that someone’s looking for.”

Hudson has also put an emphasis on hiring skilled hand-sellers, who establish strong connections with customers all year long. Event programming, such as author signings and book club meetings, which continues throughout the year at both stores, keeps customers coming in during the winter.

Nantucket Bookworks recently underwent a total renovation, so Hudson hopes that the new digs and coffee and juice counter will keep the bookstore front and center for fall and winter shopping, while also enticing new customers. The newly built apartment above Nantucket Bookworks will be opening next month as the Second Story Loft — a book-themed vacation rental for customers any time of year.

The Winter Institute 11 education session “How to Keep Seasonal Customers Year-Round” will take place from 4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Sunday, January 24, 2016, in the Governor’s Square 12 Room at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.