A Countdown to Quarter Four [4]

It’s hard to believe we’re in the final stretch of the year. And the final stretch starts earlier this year as supply chain, staffing, and safety challenges necessitate even earlier planning than usual. Hopefully, this results in some equally early shopping in your stores and on your websites.

Here are the Top 10 Things to Consider as You Start Preparing for Q4

  1. Demand for books is anticipated to remain high. 
    This probably isn’t news, as 75% of stores surveyed by ABA in July reported their sales are up so far this year over 2020, and 55% of stores surveyed reported their sales are up so far this year over 2019. Still, it’s helpful to recognize the trend as you start to calibrate for Q4:

    1. The U.S. Census Deptartment reports bookstore sales were up 30.3% for Q1 and Q2 in 2021 over the same period in 2020. June book sales were the highest they’ve been since 2013. 
    2. A study on children’s reading habits from digital reading platform Epic revealed that the total average monthly reading time for children under 12 increased 89% between 2019 and 2020.
    3. Nielsen Book’s research found that 41% of people in the U.K. said they were reading more books post March 2020, and that people increased the amount of time spent reading books from around 3.5 hours per week to 6 hours per week.

There are reasons to believe that adults may decrease time spent reading as COVID restrictions recede, but there's also reason to believe that a strong reading habit is being established among young readers, which will bode well for book sales and indies. With the major caveat of possible worsening of the COVID Delta effect, the U.S. economy looks posed for continued growth and recovery. There is still pent-up demand, high personal savings, and job growth. The Fed looks committed to low interest rates. Federal stimulus in the infrastructure bill and, perhaps, a further recovery bill would fuel growth. In addition, a recent McKinsey study of U.S. sentiment and consumer behavior reported that shoppers are adjusting their behavior as the economy reopens. As many as 30% to 40% of consumers continue to switch brands or retailers. This was driven primarily by younger consumers seeking value, but importantly for indie bookstores, another key factor for trying a new retailer was a greater emphasis on purpose-driven alignment and quality.

  1. Online shopping is anticipated to increase.
    Last year holiday, shopping started to ramp up on IndieCommerce sites around October 11. Currently, online sales are around 318% higher than they were at this time of year in pre-COVID 2019. A recent analysis of online spending by McKinsey found that e-commerce sales continue to experience outsized growth, with more than 40% growth over the past 12 months. At the same time, brick-and-mortar spending on retail categories has stayed relatively consistent during this whole period. We thought e-commerce sales had plateaued at a new normal during the first seven days of August, but over the past week, IndieCommerce sales saw a 21.25% increase over the previous week as news of the increase in the Delta variant infection rate drove customers back online. It seems that when faced with the fear of possible infection, some bookstore customers will rapidly shift their purchases back online. With this in mind, be prepared for periodic online sales spikes that may occur in addition to your already increased online sales volume. To help you anticipate the flow, here’s the e-commerce sales timeline from last year: Expect a dip on Thanksgiving Day. Expect the biggest days of the season to be Thanksgiving weekend and Black Friday through Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Last year the online sales decline back to “normal” started on December 14.
     
  2. IndieCommerce education and training now will save you time and money later.
    We’ve rolled out quite a few new tools to increase the efficiency of your IndieCommerce or IndieLite website for the holidays. Here are two videos to show you recent updates and how to use them. This July 23 video [6] covers updates to existing features as well as new features on the IndieCommerce platform. Topics include: creating catalogs, coupons, Givex gift cards, online only gift codes, preorders, and store roles. For IndieLite users, this July 28 webinar [7] covers discount coupons, not for Sale, PayPal, Pick Lists, New Reports, and Store Preferences. As always, if you are looking for a particular feature and need assistance, contact staff@bookweb.org [8].

    Other reminders:

    Streamline e-commerce transactions and process orders more quickly:

  1. Ask your POS vendor where they’re at with their integration with IndieCommerce. By indicating demand, you’ll be helping ABA with our efforts to integrate POS systems with IndieCommerce sites.
  2. Know how to use bulk order processing functionality [9]
  3. Know how to use the bulk invoice printing functionality [9]
  4. Know how to create pick lists [10]
  5. Set up shipping integration with Stamps.com, PirateShip, or ShipEasy shipping software (PirateShip and ShipEasy are free services) [11]
  6. Continue to offer alternative order fulfillment options such as curbside pick-up and/or local delivery [12]
  7. Know how to create sidelines/non-book in bulk for your site and manage stock in IndieCommerce [13]
  8. Take a look at more ideas to streamline management on your IndieCommerce website [14]
  9. If you have an IndieLite website, be sure to check out this list of features [15] for improving your workflow

Know how IndieCommerce can help you:

Hours: 8:00 am to 8:00 pm ET, Monday to Friday. Email for assistance [8].

For after-hours emergencies: Check the IndieCommerce status page [16] first. If your issue has not been reported, submit a critical outage report [17] and staff will be alerted immediately. Bookmark these pages and have your BookWeb.org login info readily available in case of emergency.

A New Look For Your IndieCommerce Website

We are expecting a significant number of holiday shoppers at IndieCommerce websites this year. The appearance of your website can have a big impact on sales. For IndieCommerce stores interested in a new look for their website, we’re introducing two new templates/themes. The Flatland theme comes in 5 different color palettes (ADA compliant for color contrast), navigational icons (icon images included in the theme), built-in slideshow (alt text for slideshow images for ADA compliance), and a redesigned book product page.

Here are three sample sites configured using the Flatland theme.

If you would like to give the Flatland theme a try, please contact staff@bookweb.org [8], with the email subject “Flatland Theme.” The second new theme, Santa Rosa, will be available the week of Augus, 30.

The Latest IndieCommerce & IndieLite Features and Upgrades
We’ll be rolling out some new features and upgrades for IndieCommerce and IndieLite sites in September just in time for the holidays. Be sure to subscribe to the IndieCommunication email newsletter [21] to learn more about the latest IC and IL feature releases.

  1. Post-pandemic trends are different.
    Despite the financial hit many people took during the pandemic, a significant number of consumers have saved a historically high amount of money and experts predict they are eager to spend it on their “wants” instead of the “needs” they spent it on during the pandemic. This could directly impact book sales and/or impact the types of books people are buying. Experts anticipate increased demand for travel and entertaining so books on these topics are expected to be popular (Salesforce, Inc.com). Google Trends [22] offers current trending subjects — type “book” in the search bar, then scroll down to see popular titles and genres specifically. Or look around to find more general trends. Review your top 50 books since March and your top 50 titles from the last holiday season for additional perspective. If your store reports your sales for BookScan, you can review regional and local bestsellers with NPD BookScan (contact Pete Reynolds [23] if you need access). Bestsellers across IndieCommerce sites last holiday season included: A Promised Land; Caste; The Vanishing Half; The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse; Untamed; Braiding Sweetgrass; How to be an Antiracist; The Best of Me; Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem; Transcendent Kingdom; and individual store gift cards.

    Trending topics of interest to stock up on or create displays or even sections for include: mental health, mindfulness, climate change, homeschooling, healthy eating at home, parenting and psychology books about coping with change, taking care of anxious pets, fitness and health, coping with learning loss for kids, journaling, puzzles, and romance and YA.

  1. Supply chain is more [24]challenged [24] than last year [24].
    The reasons aren’t new but the impact is: Publishers, wholesalers, and retail experts all expect the supply chain issues to be worse this year than last year. You know the reasons — social distancing, COVID outbreaks, reduced capacity at printers, labor shortages, truck driver shortages, congested ports, and extreme weather — but what does this all mean for your stores? Order up and order early. Cash flow may make this challenging, but this is critical for the season. You may want to order up on gift cards, gift certificates, giftwrap, bags, register supplies, toilet paper, and other critical items. (Shopping bags may be particularly tricky both in terms of cost and timeline this year due to shipping container prices, supply chain delays, and the unpredictability of forecasting demand.) Some publishers may allow you to reserve future titles and cancel orders if need be. Whether books, gifts, or things you’ll need, order up and order early. Orders placed further into the season may be unavailable or have delays in shipping. Mitigate the risk where you can. Sign up for Libro.fm [25] to deliver audiobooks to your customers no matter what happens with the supply chain. Train your staff on hand-selling as it will be more important than ever if you need to recommend alternate titles for out-of-stock books. Focus on local to shorten the supply chain altogether — local vendors, local gifts, zines, and local small presses. Communicate with other indie booksellers to trade stock. Have digital gift cards [26]and physical gift cards ready to go.
     
  2. Willingness to pay may be down.
    People may be buying, but they may be more price sensitive right now as costs are up. (A bunch of grapes cost $11 at my local grocery store this weekend!) Discuss how to respond to this reality. Targeted sales? Loyalty discounts? Buy fewer expensive coffee table books for inventory? Experiment with or increase used books? This will differ from store to store, so start monitoring your dollars per transaction now to watch for trends and start discussing ways to increase the dollars per transaction just in case: Offer free gift wrap over a certain dollar amount; offer free shipping over a certain dollar amount; ask if they need any gift cards at checkout; and/or place chocolate at the register.
     
  3. The pandemic role of booksellers continues.
    Hire and train for the new roles — curbside pickup, picking and packing online orders, giftwrap, handselling. Turnover may mean you have new-ish people who need additional training for holiday-specific needs. Or changes in your operational status due to the Delta variant or changing mask mandates may necessitate new or reminder training for everyone. Review de-escalation training [27]with staff.
     
  4. Good neighbors are key.
    Meet with other local businesses ahead of time to see how you can help support each other through the holidays: Cross promote each other’s businesses, share ad space (a "buy" local ad in the paper), share delivery service, tag each other on social media, share best practices around COVID contingency plans, and/or commit to a community business mask mandate.
     
  5. Safety comes first.
    According to the National Retail Federation, 86% of respondents will continue to enact in-store safety and sanitation protocols from the 2020 holiday shopping season this year, such as mask requirements for associates (91%) and customers (87%). Most will engage in intensive cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitation (80%) and have social distancing requirements (63%). Safety will still be a priority for most stores and an expectation (or at least they’ll be familiar with the protocols) for most customers, though it will depend on your store and your community. Some stores are offering masked and unmasked shopping hours for vaccinated customers. Others are noting customers who won’t enter if customers aren’t wearing masks or if they’re wearing them only over their mouths. Regardless of your store policy, be consistent, enforce whatever policy you have, and keep you and your staff safe.
     
  6. Cash and credit flow is king.
    Even if you’re in good standing or have a good understanding with publishers and wholesalers, check in with them to ensure that nothing will prevent you from receiving books for Q4. (And if you’ve been having some cash flow problems, definitely communicate with the publishers early and let them know where you’re at.) Revisit payment plans with publishers, wholesalers, and vendors to communicate and recalibrate for 4th quarter. Double-check your credit limits. Use American Express’ Pay it Plan program [28] for necessary large 4th quarter purchases. 

And the Top Ten Things To Do Right Now: A Checklist

  1. Make sure customers can find you online. Make sure your IndieBound information is accurate and that the link works. If not, email info@bookweb.org [29] with corrections. IndieBound.org averaged more than 15,000 users per day searching for a local independent bookstore in November and December 2020, generating more than 100,000 visits to independent bookstores’ sites in that time. (Over the past six months, IndieBound averaged between 12,000 and 16,500 users per day.) Also, check your “Google My Business” listing. Google My Business is a free and easy tool for stores to manage their online presence across Google, including Search and Maps. Verify your business and edit your business information, including your store’s story [30].
     
  2. Sign up and/or promote your Bookshop page to earn your share of an earnings pool that is evenly divided and distributed regularly to ABA independent bookstores with a physical presence. Or set up a Bookshop affiliate page as an additional platform for your store, or as a backup in case you’re unable to fulfill orders during Q4 for some reason. (As an affiliate, your store is added to the Bookshop store finder, receives a 30% commission on sales, and receives customer order information. Between 2,000 - 4,000 readers a day visit the Bookshop store finder to find an independent bookstore). If you’re already on Bookshop, check out their tip sheet to optimize your participation [31].
     
  3. Prepare contingency plans.
    How is your store handling an employee’s exposure to COVID now? What if an employee gets sick? Is staff prepared to shift gears if the store has to close suddenly or if online sales increase dramatically? Lists of testing resources, health insurance coverage, checklists for activating a remote POS system or shifting to remote work — all of this preparation may prove useful. In anticipation of adding curbside pickup, know how to enable curbside pickup as an option on your IndieCommerce site. In anticipation of adding delivery service, inform your insurance company if employees are making deliveries. In anticipation of extreme weather, review your insurance policies, train staff on emergency procedures, and make sure you have a current employee phone list and emergency contact list for everyone. Whether you’re reminding people about policies, creating or reinvigorating policies in light of the increase of COVID cases, or training new employees, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound.
     
  4. Re-enroll in PartnerShip Shipping
    Make sure you’ve re-enrolled in PartnerShip [32] in the last year. ABA signed a new agreement in 2020 [33] that gave members significantly greater FedEx discounts: 50% on FedEx Express with no weight tiers and 30% on FedEx ground with no weight tiers.
  1. Mitigate the Risk of Fraud
    Fraud is expected to increase this year for stores. According to the FTC, credit card fraud jumped by 107% from Q1 2019 to Q4 2020 and has continued to rise. This nationwide increase coupled with this being the first holiday season that some stores will be managing their own credit card processing makes it especially important for stores to have a plan. Train staff on red flags. [34] Review IndieCommerce fraud flag procedures. [34]Consider paying for a fraud screening service. [35]

    Perceived fraud can also be an issue. Sudden spikes in demand can flag your credit card processing account for suspicion of fraud; given the trending increase in credit card fraud, these companies will be even more cautious than usual. Communicate with your credit card processor about your forecast for Q4 and again if extenuating circumstances occur during the season (a hot title or big event). This will help you avoid having funds withheld or your e-commerce shut down during the busy season like we saw happen for a couple of stores last year.

  1. Start your holiday marketing plan

    • Attend the Holiday Marketing [36]Meetup [36] on September 2 at 1:00 pm ET to hear what’s worked for others in the past and what they have planned for this year.
    • Read BTW’s guide to planning holiday marketing campaigns. [37]
    • Use ABA’s Marketing Assets for stores. Refreshed “Shop Early, Shop Local” assets as well as additional fall marketing assets will be previewed this Friday, August 27 in BTW. Some additional assets will be announced in the coming weeks.
    • Draft customer messaging: Be sure and have in-store signage and online content ready to communicate with customers about everything — your safety procedures, mask policies, gift cards, and shopping early for the holidays.
    • Rethink your social media: Don't just advertise a book or your store but think about how to solve your customers’ problems: a reel of last-minute gifts, a video of Secret Santa gifts, a video showing your curbside pickup ease. Marketing Insider Group reports that 68% of viewers will watch a business video in its entirety if it’s less than a minute, so it doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be as simple as a short, entertaining, video shot from your phone with content that speaks to a problem your customer is trying to solve.
       
  2. Talk to your staff.
    One of the most important investments in your holiday season is an investment in your staff. Communicate early and often. Hold an all-staff meeting and individual staff meetings now while you have more time and when you still have time to act on any needs they express or ideas they have. How are they doing? What do they need? What are their fears about the holiday season? How can you help? What ideas do they have? Reiterate safety procedures and contingency plans. Discuss self-care during the holidays. Listen and offer support. Invest some time in training, too. Review de-escalation training [27]. Make sure everyone knows how to gift wrap. Roleplay hand-selling.
     
  3. Update returns and on-hands.
    Clear out dead stock to free up space and publisher credit. Verify on-hands to improve your data for ordering, e-commerce on-hands, and customer service. Investing time will make you more efficient and effective when the busy season hits.
     
  4. Map out a timeline for the season.
    When’s the last day for your store to order from publishers in time for the holidays? (Build in a buffer.) When’s the last day for shipping customer orders for the holidays? (Build in a buffer.) Hanukkah is early this year, November 28. (Remind your customers. Display Hanukkah cards and gifts early.) Once the holiday wave hits, you just have to ride it but mapping out the milestones on a calendar will help you plan and prepare.
     
  5. Small Business Saturday/Indies First.
    Make the most of one of the biggest days of the season and one of ABA’s tentpole events. Watch for upcoming publisher deal announcements and news of this year's ambassador in an upcoming BTW. In the meantime, start thinking about staffing needs for the day, promotions for your customers, and how to get the word out in your community about why this day is important to your business, businesses like yours, and your community.
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