Two Bookstores Find a Novel Way to Thank Customers

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This past New Year's Day, two bookstores marked the holiday with successful celebratory sales events as a way to thank their customers. In Tempe, Arizona, Changing Hands Bookstore continued its tradition of holding a Customer Appreciation Day sale on January 1, while The King's English bookstore in Salt Lake City launched its first appreciation day, complete with hors d'oeuvres, champagne, and lots of handselling.

Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona

During one of Changing Hands Bookstore's previous annual New Year's Day Customer Appreciation Day sales, the line to the register was so long that the two-hour wait allowed a man and a woman to meet, get to know each other, fall in love, and (six months later) get married, according to bookstore co-owner Gayle Shanks.

That was three years ago, but long, snaking queues are typical of the bookstore's New Year's Day sales event. That the lines often consist of jovial, chatty patrons talking books only adds to the convivial atmosphere that makes the event -- where everything in the store is discounted by 25 percent -- the bookstore's biggest sales day of the year. It's also a lot of fun. "There's incredible conversations while people wait on line," said Shanks. "It's a party; there's jazz music. It's a happy day to see all those books going out the door and know they're going to be read by all these people."

The Customer Appreciation Day sale, which began in 1992, was started as a way to thank customers, Shanks noted. Additionally, she added, "It's a whole lot easier to sell books at 25 percent off than to return them." Still, she stressed that lowering her returns volume is simply a by-product of the idea and not the motive.

Shanks credited ABA Past President Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, for giving her the idea to hold the sales event. "I was in line at an ABA seminar [in the early '90s], talking with [him], and he said he was doing a [similar] sale every year…. Booksellers are wonderful about sharing ideas," she explained. "At the end of every Customer Appreciation Day, I say, 'Thanks, Neal!'"

At the time, Changing Hands was usually closed on New Year's Day, so Shanks first held the sale on the store's anniversary date -- in May, but "that didn't work that well." They then decided to try it on New Year's Day. "We found out that a lot of people didn't like football and were begging us to open on New Year's Day," she explained."So we compromised; we open at noon and close at 9:00 p.m. [The event] turned into a huge success," she said.

Calling the sales event a "huge success" might be an understatement. Each year, people line up outside waiting for the store to open. This year, for instance, Shanks counted 400 people lined up prior to the noon opening, eagerly waiting to buy books.

Shanks said that it's mandatory for staff to work the sale, and there are never fewer than 20 staffers working the floor throughout the day. Two employees are stationed on either side of the doors, handing out shopping bags to customers as they enter, and, of course, ensuring that customers have a receipt stapled to the bag when they leave -- and thanking them for shopping at Changing Hands.

During the day, she said, the lines go from the front of the store to the back … and then to the front and back again. This year, to keep the line moving, Changing Hands brought in two extra cash registers, for a total of six. And the registers did not stop ringing, Shanks said. "This year, the longest anyone waited was an hour and a half," she added, which was an improvement on previous years.

Regardless, people don't seem to mind the long wait, Shanks said, because, aside from the great conversations about books that customers have with each other while waiting, they get free food. "There's a bakery on one side of us, and a deli on the other, and they provide our customers a table of food," she said. Patrons can choose from an assortment of brownies, lemon bars, cookies, and sandwiches to fortify themselves while waiting. "It's amazing, all these people with shopping bags full of books," Shanks beamed. "People wanting to read so badly that they'd wait in line [for hours]."

This year, Shanks said the first thing she sold was, of all things, a $259 Asian gong. "We sold dozens of wind chimes and expensive gift items, and a lot of art books that hadn't sold during Christmas." Overall, it's first-come, first-served, she continued. "You get here early and it's here, you can buy it [at 25 percent off]. We don't hold anything."

After a good Holiday season, Shanks said that this past New Year Day's Customer Appreciation Day sale was the store's second biggest sales day in its history -- falling short of the 2000 New Year's Day sale by a mere $49.

However, considering the nation's weak economy, she would rank it as Changing Hands Bookstore's best day overall.
All told, a fairly remarkable accomplishment, especially considering that advertising for the sale is minimal. Starting December 1, fliers advertising the sale are put into every single purchase that's made in the store, and clerks verbally remind every customer. "We don't advertise anywhere else," Shanks said.

Of course, there are two people who don't need to be reminded that on New Year's Day, Changing Hands Bookstore has a Customer Appreciation Day sale -- the married couple who met on line at the bookstore on that fateful New Year's Day in 2000. Said Shanks, "They're here every year."

The King's English, Salt Lake City, Utah

This marked the first year that Betsy Burton, the co-owner of The King's English bookstore in Salt Lake City, held a New Year's Day sales event. In the past, the bookstore would normally hold a four-day sale sometime in January. The goals of both sales were the same -- to lighten returns and to thank customers. The results, however, were different. The one-day New Year's Day sale did better.

"We'd always done the [four-day] January sale," Burton told BTW in a recent interview. "But [the one-day sale] was more effective…. This absolutely cuts down on returns."

Burton said the idea for their New Year's Day event (referred to simply as the New Year's Day Celebration on the bookstore's Web site) came from Changing Hands in Tempe. "I tried it because Gayle had done it successfully at her store," Burton explained. "[New Year's Day] is a boring day if you don't like football."

Toward that end, Burton found out that many of her customers concur. She noted, "People were thanking us for giving them something fun to do…. Hour for hour, it was the biggest single sales day ever."

On New Year's Day, The King's English opened its doors from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and, as Shanks did at Changing Hands, Burton found people waiting at the front door prior to opening -- and the crowds just kept coming. Everything in the store was discounted at 25 percent off. "We offered [our customers] a choice of champagne and Alka-Seltzer," she said. "We were just mobbed." She added: "We also offered mineral water, and served some chips, cheese, crackers, and had a vegetable tray."

Though the lines to the register were extremely long, said Burton, unlike during the Christmas shopping season, "nobody was impatient; everybody was having a great time."

For the sale, Burton had four people working the floor of her small bookstore for the event, but next year she said she would have to double that.

While big sales and customer satisfaction were two huge benefits to the New Year's Day Celebration, Burton told BTW that the event also gave her and her staff a chance to handsell books. "People were asking us for suggestions, so we were really doing bookselling," she said. "People wanted advice on the books that they would like. It was a joyous day." --David Grogan