BOOKSELLING

GUIDE

FOR BOOKSTORE MANAGERS

                                                       Practical advice and ideas

 

Guus Schut

 

Copyright © 2008 Guus Schut, Fund for Central and East European Book Projects, Amsterdam

 

PREFACE

This guide to the practical fundamentals of bookselling is intended for the management of bookstores, with the idea that it should have a “top-down” effect.

Hopefully the contents will inspire the reader to use the information, advice and ideas as a basis for the instruction of bookstore staff.

An attempt was made to make this a “country-neutral” booklet, with no reference to specific local circumstances. Since the majority of readers will be situated in countries where booksellers need to catch up as quickly as possible with their colleagues elsewhere, the potential role of active trade organizations and cooperation between partners in the book trade is highlighted in a separate chapter. Much of the progress made in the book trade in the world is the result of mutual appreciation of the professional roles of publishers and booksellers and of the awareness that many things can be done far more effectively and with greater profit by working together.

No specific attention is given to the start-up phase of a bookstore, and the contents pre-suppose a basic knowledge of legal, financial, administrative and computer matters.

The material presented is based on nearly four decades of experience in the bookselling business, some familiarity with bookselling in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and on a number of sources used for booksellers training in various West European countries.

 

Introduction

Presuming that you started your bookstore not as a hobby but as a business venture, and perhaps because the bank asked you to do so, you probably wrote a proper business plan beforehand.

It will have included the location of your company, the investments required, a budget for the first years in business, etcetera. More important in a practical sense was the marketing plan you surely put down on paper as an integral part of your business plan.

Both the business plan and the marketing plan were quite likely designed with the specific characteristics of the book trade in mind. While many aspects apply to all kinds of retail businesses, some are not quite relevant when it comes to books, while others are indeed particular to books. This will become clearer as we go along.

The world, your local situation and the world of the media, certainly of books, are changing at a rapid pace. In order to constantly keep up with new developments around you, it is of vital importance to review your marketing plan. Every three years re-read (and probably re-write) your marketing plan!

When going over the elements of the marketing plan (traditionally evolving around the “marketing p’s”, together the “marketing mix”) it is wise to be critical of your performance in the various areas, to constantly be aware of the changes that have taken place. Of course you will do this with the aim of drawing conclusions about the adjustments to be made in your method of work!

Equally traditional, we call this a SWOT-analysis. It registers your:

Strengths

Weaknesses

Opportunities

Threats

If you want to do the analysis systematically, you may want to list your remarks in the form of a table, registering all of the elements of the marketing mix.

Thus every aspect of the day-to-day running of your bookstore gets proper attention. Subsequently use your adapted marketing strategy for a new scrutinizing review a few years from now and prove yourself to be a dynamic businessperson!

The six marketing-p’s stand for:

PLACE

PRODUCT

PRESENTATION

PROMOTION

PERSONNEL

PRICE

Keeping in mind that there are several types of bookstores, you can use these marketing components to ask yourself critical questions in the next chapters of this booklet.

At the same time let us see what the “state of the art” is in modern bookselling. Most of the attention will go to what the British call the high street general bookstore. No particular notice is paid to selling educational books here, and there is only a brief summary about selling academic titles.

Not all of the experiences and developments discussed may be of immediate importance to you, because of distinct differences in what is called consumer culture. However it is good that you know about them and carefully consider implementing changes in your company. Consumer culture tends to become more global!

PLACE

Is my store located at the right spot in town?

Did you make the right decision when you started your bookstore, or did you simply want to be as far away as possible from your major competitor? Or was this the only location where the rent was reasonable?

Such questions most of the time have little relevance, simply because “place” is the most static of the marketing p’s: you usually cannot take immediate measures to change location. However it is good to be aware of the pros and cons of your present location, to be able to grasp any possibility for improvement!

The location of any retail business is a subtle matter, with many aspects to be considered. Of course the cost of renting a space somewhat limits your choice, but it should never be the decisive factor. Being close to a competitor may in fact turn out be an advantage (for you and the competitor), provided that your bookstore has an additional attraction, like a specialized character of some sort.

To assess your present location it is wise to obtain and study demographic data; a real estate agent or your local government may be able to help you with this. Matters such as the average income in the neighbourhood, the general level of education, the average number of children in families, should all be taken into consideration. It is also useful to note the presence of educational and cultural institutions. Such information should subsequently be considered with your present stock in mind, because under all circumstances 20% of the titles must generate at least 80% of your turnover. In fact a change in location will almost certainly mean adjustments in the type and price of the books you have in stock.

It is in any case essential that you are always aware of changes in the shopping pattern in your town. Keeping a close eye on town planning is strongly advised. As a result of measures in the area of traffic, public transportation or housing, the consumers will start to take different routes to go from one place to the other. The character of shopping centres may also shift as time goes by. It is advisable to keep in mind that shopping for convenience goods (bread, vegetables, meat) is something very different from shopping for goods where choice, impulse buying and service play an important role. Although it may be a good idea to actually count the number of passers-by at a particular spot, it is prudent to note whether the potential customers hurry by on their way home or appear to be in the mood for “leisure shopping”.

While bookstores generally are unable to pay the high rents of so-called A-locations, there is in some countries a better appreciation of the presence of a bookstore in newly developed shopping centres, and local governments have started to demand more variety in the types of retail businesses represented in the main shopping areas. Again, it is worthwhile to keep track of local developments and to do a bit of networking.

If you do find an interesting new location, be sure to have a close look at important details of the premises available to you. Remember that you do need shop windows, but also walls, walls, walls. If the space available is not only on ground level, keep in mind that customers prefer to go downstairs rather than upstairs.

PRODUCT

Is this what makes the customers come back?

The most fundamental question, of course, for anyone who runs a retail business!

What we are talking about is your stock plus a number of services in your bookstore, which together make up the formula of the shop. In other words: how do you position yourself, and also in comparison with your colleagues?

The importance of this topic lies in the fact that you should at all times be clear in communicating to the customer, literally and metaphorically, what it is that you are offering him. Simply put: it does not make sense, if you have a children’s bookstore, to have people coming in asking for books on philosophy. If customers pretty well know what to find in your shop they can be expected to come in more often. One might say that the success of your business can be measured by what is called your “rate of conversion”: what percentage of people entering the bookshop ends up making a purchase.

Whether or not you are successful in this respect can be verified by means of a questionnaire. You should not do this too often, but your regular customers will understand your request to answer a few questions if they are presented with the motto: “if you are satisfied with our bookstore please tell others, if you are not satisfied please tell us”. Do not forget to ask explicitly for suggestions, for instance about what type of titles the clientele would like to find in your stock, which extra services they would like. If you would like to use their names and addresses in the future for mailing purposes be sure to ask them.

This does not mean, of course, that you should follow solely what the clients say they like. The preference and expertise of you and your staff must at all times guide you at least as much.

Most important perhaps is the information supplied by your computer system: it will in many cases correct the impression you have of the success of your different departments or sections. This underlines the importance of having software that gives plenty of data on the subject and title level.

The formula of a bookstore is not only a matter of subject areas but also of the depth and width of the titles being offered. Within every category, are there enough titles to surprise potential customers? Is the selection so wide that you can call yourself a specialist in that particular field? Check it with experts in that field. If the answer is positive, decide firmly to make this known all over town!  Can the selection of titles in several areas be considered to be of really good quality? Then perhaps you can advertise yourself as being a “quality bookstore”!

The decision to become a specialized bookseller at any time during your existence is a tricky one. The area on which you would focus needs to be sufficiently large to generate enough turnover. In a large city this could be the case, in a smaller town you may find that a fairly limited number of people will adore your choice of titles, but others will go elsewhere to buy even the bestsellers in your field of specialization. Sometimes it is probably wiser to combine a specialized section with a varied stock. The most successful specialized bookstores are probably children’s bookstores, which are in a position to create just the right atmosphere for this subject area. There are also very successful art-book sellers and cookbook sellers.

When making up your mind about specialization(s), a major issue is, of course, the extent to which your local competition covers certain areas. In fact, the local situation may make it possible to communicate about this with colleague-booksellers. In this respect do not forget that the attractiveness of “competing” bookstores can be enhanced when each has a particular image. Publishers and distributors, who are able to monitor the total turnover in books in a city of some size, will tell you that the appearance on the scene of a new bookseller or a new specialization will create an extra turnover. When a bookseller goes out of business or slowly loses a distinct image the remaining bookstore(s) in the city or district of town will not benefit similarly.

Pretty much decisive regarding the formula of your store is whether extra services are provided. Are you willing to accept and execute special orders? This question alone is one that you should consider from time to time, defining simultaneously how far this service can go. You should not raise expectations or make promises that you cannot fulfil. A good ordering service requires first of all bibliographic sources of information (preferably a Books in Print catalogue), professional specialized staff and probably connections with an extra number of suppliers. Hopefully a Books in Print catalogue exists in your country (an up-to- date catalogue of books available on the market, including information about the price, where the book can be ordered, which titles are temporarily out of stock or being reprinted). A suitable computer system is a vital requirement here, since for yourself and your customers you will have to keep track of orders that have been placed, shipments or part-shipments that have arrived, titles that are temporarily out of stock or being reprinted. If you decide to accept orders for books published abroad this adds considerably to the professionalism required.

Gathering information on books in print and on titles that are about to be published should be a central task for either you or at least one of your staff. If you are supplied through one or more distributors you may still improve the quality of your information by making sure that you are on the mailing list of all of the publishers who represent a considerable portion of your sales. Publishers’ websites are a great help too, and so are the sites of internet-booksellers.

With the advance of the use of computers, booksellers in a number of countries have introduced the possibility for customers to consult a database themselves, in the shop.

 

The formula of a bookstore is influenced quite a bit by a choice the entrepreneur will have made when he started out, but which has to be reviewed at intervals: will he sell non-books. In some cases doing so can attract new customers and add interesting turnover. When you sell travel guides, it is normal to sell maps, and when you are situated in a town where there are many tourists, they can expect you to sell postcards.

In other cases, non-books might have negative side effects. In what is to be a quality, literary bookshop the presence of a counter where tobacco and sweets are sold can easily have a detrimental effect. While the sale of stationary is a more logical addition to selling books, the size of such a section in a bookstore should be limited, according to most retail experts.

Depending on the selection of titles, the sale of magazines can be favourable, because it contributes to an atmosphere of being abreast of current events. Such a department is generally labour-intensive.

Bookstores with a large sales surface have tried the sale of cd’s, video’s and cd-roms at time when these media were popular, although with varying success.

Although a few bookstores have successfully combined the sale of new books with antiquarian books, this is somehow not a logical idea. To sell remainders is far more common. If you do, make sure that this does not create an untidy atmosphere.

Selling textbooks to students in higher education and academic books

is a form of specialization you may be acquainted with already, or, if you are situated near an institute of higher education, you may someday think about starting in this field.

  • Although the margin on these books is lower than in the field of general books, the volume of business can be interesting. There are a number of requirements to be successful: communication with the university or college staff is absolutely vital: you need to know very precisely which titles will be used when, and by how many students
  • as such books are normally published/distributed by other publishers/distributors than the ones you would normally deal with, you will need other methods to inform yourself; foreign titles are sometimes involved
  • among your staff you will need one or more employees with more than a general idea of the subject areas concerned, preferably, in fact, expert knowledge or an academic background
  • teachers in the academic subjects will most likely also come to your store and will want to place orders for individual titles which might be harder to obtain.

With regards to all of the “p’s” there will be consequences. One piece of marketing advice might be to build up contacts with a student organization and university staff to help you collect orders for books at the beginning of the courses. In return, you can allow them a discount and/or sponsor their activities.

Stock management

While proper management of your stock is one of the most vital elements in running your bookstore and a key to success, financial included, it is difficult to make more than general remarks here. Very much depends on the local circumstances.

First of all, there is the question of whether standard trading terms are based on bookstores buying books on firm sale or on a sale or return basis (taking books on commission). If firm sale is common practice it is obvious that a much more careful attitude prevails when ordering new titles and deciding to re-order.

A good relationship with publishers, however, will mean that unsold copies (if in mint condition) will sometimes be taken back. Clearly, if all books are supplied on a sale or return basis, a wise and balanced choice of stock is often not the result, and the margin allowed by the publisher on such supplies is, generally speaking, lower.

Another important influence on the successful management of stock is the speed and efficiency of book distribution in a specific country. If the time required for stock replenishment is only a few days, the quantities ordered can be lower than in a situation where it takes one or two weeks for books to arrive at the bookstore. Since a speedy delivery enables bookstores to react quickly to trends and to special requests from customers, the book trade in many countries has put emphasis on improving distribution.

 

PRESENTATION
Is my bookstore customer-friendly?

That is putting it mildly! Of course you want to be inviting, seductive even. After all, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of sales are impulse sales, so it is a question of creating the right ambiance and of making use of every merchandising concept that is logical in your situation.

It will certainly pay off if from to time you put yourself in the shoes of the customer and have a critical look at the interior of your shop.

However, let us start even outside on the pavement. Is it immediately clear that this is a bookstore? Especially if your company name on the shop front does not include the word “bookstore”, this requires attention. Is the shop easily accessible (including for someone in a wheelchair)? In summertime it would be nice to have your door open to be extra-inviting.

Of course there are books in the shop window, but is there still a clear view of the interior? One should be lured inside, fascinated by the choice of your stock and expecting to be surprised even more once the threshold is crossed and one can start browsing.

A minor but not unimportant point: are the opening hours clearly shown, for the convenience of the passer-by when you are closed?

Shop windows should be an expression of the formula of your store and should be changed frequently, say once a week. In weeks when there are few arrivals of new titles, a shop window can have a thematic character or perhaps focus on one of your specializations. Under no circumstance can the shop window be a random mixture of older titles.

The furniture and layout of a retail store is normally renovated, sometimes dramatically changed even, every ten or twelve years. If you are about to start on this, think carefully about this investment and take into account modern insights concerning “in-store marketing”. Such insights are nowadays always based on the self-service concept; counter service is absolutely out-of-date. This has consequences for the organisation and presentation/exposition of the books in your bookshop, which need to be consistent with the self-service concept.

As far as the bookcases and the furniture are concerned, it might be wise to do an extensive orientation. There are in some countries companies specialized in this field and modular flexible material is on the market or might be produced locally in accordance with your wishes. Try to create a bookstore atmosphere, a house style even. For the children’s books section, bright colours should prevail.

Definitely make sure that the bookcases are not too high, so that titles on the top shelf are within reach of an average prospective buyer or staff member. It goes without saying that they should be easily accessible. Different departments/sections of the store should be clearly marked, with signs hanging from the ceiling or at least quite visible as one walks along. There can be shelf-edge signs to indicate sub-sections, although not too many.

Of course you want your bookstore to look like a professional bookstore, not a warehouse. Some booksellers, (and certainly publishers!) have a tendency to want to put the books of one publisher in a bookcase. However, the only wise thing to do is to put the books in alphabetical order by author, within each subject section. This is again simply a matter of putting yourself in the shoes of the customer, who will most likely be looking for a book by a certain author and may have no idea who the publisher is. In other words, putting the books in alphabetical order is a logical consequence of the self-service formula.

A good number of the titles should get front display, unquestionably quite a few of them at eye level. They should, of course, be titles that are new.

The rest of the furniture hopefully includes a number of low tables of various shapes and sizes and at a little higher than knee-level, for the display of interesting, probably new titles. The books displayed here should be “refreshed” frequently, perhaps just moved around on the table every few days.

Be sure not to have high bookcases in the centre of the shop, obstructing the view for both the customers and your staff.

Larger bookstores sometimes like to make huge pyramids of mostly bestseller titles, but it is presumed that true booklovers dislike this.

If the available space is sufficient, there should be room for a comfortable chair here and there, while many bookstores have decided to have a coffee corner. This can be a single coffee machine, to be used by an individual customer, or in fact a few small tables. These elements are designed to make the customer spend as much time in the store as possible, and enable him to carefully consider the purchase of yet another book. Think of some small chairs or stools near the children’s books!

The lighting of the bookstore is of great significance, including the colour of the light. Neon light without covering rosters is simply awful. There should be sufficient basic light, spots in the shop window and above the tables and ample light on the bookcases, shining all the way down to the lowest shelves. Think of a flexible system if you can. This is of vital importance if the display tables are on wheels, which many bookstores do to be able to create the space necessary for events in the store.

Give some attention to the climate in your store, since shoppers do not like to stay around if it is either too warm or too cold. It is worth spending a bit of money on this.

Remember that most book buyers find music, and certainly loud music, annoying.

If your shop has let us say over 300 square meters of selling space it might be a good idea to have a ground plan near the entrance, indicating the location of your major departments. The routing in the bookstore is a subtle matter. In fact you will want the customer to see as much of the stock as possible, including the expensive art books that probably are not displayed in the very front of the store. If you sell remainders you most likely do not want those to be near the entrance, because you do not wish someone to leave with the purchase of just one book at half price, so to speak; admittedly, retail theories on this subject differ a bit. A third section that should also not be close to the entrance is the children’s department; parents should not have to fear that their kids will run out into the street while they themselves are indulging in what you have to offer.

The front of the store should give visitors a good idea of what kind of bookstore you are, to show your specialization, and to make clear that you are up-to-date concerning current titles. 

 

When deciding what should be where, keep in mind that the majority of people have a preference to walk around in a store counter-clockwise. As a logical consequence, the cash register ought to be on the left-hand side, which is on the right-hand side as one leaves. In countries where traffic in the street is on the left, this is apparently the other way around. Think also of the fact that if there are only long straight paths the customers will tend to move around fast, which is not to your advantage!

In a somewhat larger shop it is advisable to have an information counter. Questions can be answered and information can be looked up away from where payments etcetera require full attention.

Speaking of information, it is a good idea to have a bulletin board with reviews of recently published titles, announcements of events in the store and forms where customers can sign up for the release of an expensive but very important forthcoming title. There may be a special sale price as an introductory offer and you as a bookseller should point this out to your customers. Some space can also be given to announcements of cultural events in your town, thereby adding to the cultural image of your store.

Some visitors want to spend little time and will want to rush to the top-ten bestsellers, so these should be in a prominent position, most likely near the cash register. An alternative to the national top-ten is a display of the present ten favourite titles of your staff.

These should also be in the front of the store as they can easily qualify as impulse purchases.

Having finished this tour of your bookstore, you have with some luck come upon an idea for improvement. If that is the case, it will be a stimulus to do the tour again in three years from now!

PROMOTION

How well do I market my store?

What we are talking about here is marketing in the stricter sense of the word. Are you effective in publicizing the existence of your bookstore, or, even better, can you make your shop a conversation piece in your town?

Bookstores usually cannot afford a large budget for, for instance, advertising. In fact advertising in the general media is only useful at the very start of the business, to announce that you have opened your doors, what the formula of your store is, and where you are located. Otherwise it is sensible to spend money on ads only when you want to target a specific group of potential customers.

Free publicity is the best thing that can happen to you and there are ways to generate this yourself. Of course most of all by the quality of your overall performance.

You are lucky to be selling a product, which by itself draws the attention of the media all the time, due to its social and cultural importance. So in a way it is a question of tying in with this

by drawing the attention of the media to the events you organize, and by being constantly creative in thinking of new ways to attract people to your premises. If you do not have sufficient space, do some of the events elsewhere (for example together with a library or another cultural or educational institution). They could include a book presentation, a poetry reading, a discussion evening for a local reading group, a lecture, a children’s book author who reads aloud for small children, or a story-writing competition. The launching of a new book by a local author will draw quite a crowd, because all of his or her friends and the entire family will turn up.

To involve more people, you could find partners: for some events the local library, for the story-writing competition the local newspaper, for the lecture perhaps the local museum.

To tell your customers about the events (and about the arrival of titles within their field of interest) you can use direct mail, which you can extend to getting orders by mail.

As the use of home computers grows, there will be a moment when you must seriously consider being on the internet. A website is a great way to announce events and to promote the formula of your shop and a basic site can be constructed with the help of open source software.

The business of internet bookselling has expanded enormously in recent years and you will never achieve the turnover that can be realized with the use of databases and logistical investments that the big players in this field have at their disposal.

However, if you can link your database to your website (provided it gives up-to-date information on your stock), you may well get orders from customers living a bit further away. Any specialization you may have will help a lot to make your website attractive. In fact, an electronic newsletter can replace the “old-fashioned” but rather expensive and labour-intensive direct mail method of keeping your regular customers informed. Rule number one is to keep the contents up to date. This means that someone in your staff has to have the responsibility for updating the website regularly.

The competition on the part of internet booksellers should make you realize that the attractiveness of a high street bookstore lies in the fact that you offer a well-considered stock and provide excellent extra services. This is one more reason to reconsider your performance from time to time!

To attract local attention it might be an idea to co-operate with a publisher to publish a book with a specific regional character, maybe with a historical content. This, along with the events suggested above, will establish you as having a cultural importance for the town and the region. You will find that it brings visitors to the bookstore who are not regular book buyers.

A fairly recent phenomenon can help you to provide an interesting promotional service to unknown authors in your local community: publishing on demand of their book with the agreement that you are willing to have the title in stock for a year. There are a great many people in every country who have written poetry, a book on some very specialized subject or even a novel but who cannot get it published. Although it is sometimes qualified as “vanity publishing” it is also a fact that more than just a few hundred copies can be sold of such books, and that the publishing-on-demand technique is making small print runs possible. It is simply a question of finding the right partner.

Publishers everywhere are helpful with promotion, supplying booksellers with all kinds of material, from leaflets to disseminate among your customers and posters, to modern media methods like short films for use through “narrow casting” on a flat screen in your bookstore. They also sometimes offer money to specially promote their titles in your shop window. You are strongly advised to always make sure that such promotion is in line with the formula of your company. You are the boss in your own shop! The criteria for special display should be “newly published” and “fitting your formula”.

Since books are considered worldwide to be an attractive gift, you are wise to devote constant attention to this. Naturally, you will have nice-looking wrapping paper and will have made sure that your staff can recommend gift books for a number of categories of readers. You can also be pro-active in the field of institutional sales: many companies and organizations give things away from time to time (Christmas, a sales campaign, the end of an internal course). Since a book is so highly appreciated, you are in a strong position if you can approach them with a specific suggestion.

In a number of countries a scheme has been developed to strengthen the position of the gift with the introduction of a book gift coupon (“book vouchers”). Although this could be done on a local or regional scale, it is far more easily promoted when a national organization is the clearinghouse. For further details see the chapter on “Doing things jointly”.

 

The nationwide approach is enormously successful when it is applied to general book promotion. You will see in the same above-mentioned chapter that this is a matter of publishers and booksellers working together.

Together you might also take the initiative to organize a literary prize, to the benefit of the entire book trade. It would primarily be a question of finding a sponsor. The publicity that a prize creates (it might also be a prize just for children’s books) is huge.

 

PERSONNEL

Do I see the importance of human capital?

Of course, your reply will be in the affirmative, but please look carefully at various aspects of your human resources. All of the previous elements may deserve high marks, but that is literally worthless if your staff is not well-qualified or does not have the right guidelines.

In the recruitment of your present staff you have most likely already tried to hire people with a combination of talents: a knowledge and love of books plus commercial talent. A true commitment to books and reading cannot be acquired, whereas a commercial attitude can, to some extent, be taught. Computer skills are nowadays also a fundamental requirement, so you need to check whether your staff complies with this.

There is no need to stress that customer friendliness is a trait of all sales people in the retail business, so whoever has frequent customer contacts should have a good feeling for this: in a bookstore you are a host, a guide and an advisor.

Coaching your personnel is one of your main tasks and is of daily concern. It may be a good idea, however, to have something on paper to help you with this: a personnel manual which includes not just practical information in addition to what the employee’s terms of employment say, but also a code of conduct and instructions on what is expected. We suggest drawing up this manual not simply as a set of rules but at the same time as a means of motivation.  If your company has some form of financial bonus, this would also be the place to give details of the reward-scheme.

Included in the manual could be specific sales training (see box below) although most elements involved will require more attention than just words in a manual.

A staff meeting at regular intervals is highly recommendable. It is a perfect opportunity to hear from your personnel not only about complaints but also about positive suggestions they may have. This is especially valuable if your sales staff is involved in the acquisition process.

Needless to say there will be regular evaluation talks with individual staff members to discuss with them how they function, and not only in cases where there is a specific reason to do so. It is also a good moment to find out about their job motivation or to say something stimulating.

Your staff should be encouraged to visit other bookstores. In a city where there are a number of colleagues it is useful for them to know about their formula and any specializations. For one thing because there is nothing wrong with your staff directing customers to other stores. It will be very highly appreciated by the customer, and for sure also by your colleague, who will most likely do the same for your bookstore.

 

Do’s and don’ts for sales staff

  • place yourself in the shoes of the customer
  • let him or her first browse around and see as much as possible of the stock
  • take care to check regularly if books on the shelves are still in the correct alphabetical order by author within each section and put them back when they are misplaced
  • make clear in an unspoken way that you are there to serve the customer
  • try to understand “body language” and offer your services at the right time
  • remember that colleagues are there to help you if there is something you do not know, so don’t be embarrassed to ask them
  • be aware of the possibilities and impossibilities concerning customer service
  • when a customer places an individual order do not make definite promises as far as price or arrival of the book is concerned, stick to estimates
  • direct dissatisfied customers to the management if you or a colleague cannot solve the situation
  • do not eat, drink or use your mobile phone in the shop
  • limit conversation with colleagues when customers require attention and never talk about customers
  • if customers ask frequently for a certain title that is not in stock, report this to the management or the person in charge of buying/ordering
  • instead of becoming nervous about someone who behaves in a suspicious manner, approach the person with a question like “May I be of any help?”
  • be aware of the responsibilities and specializations of colleagues so that you can direct visitors to the right person
  • if necessary explain extensively why a book ordered from abroad is more expensive than in the country of origin
  • remember that you are expected to think creatively about matters such as the stock, presentation of books in the shop, events, external sales at local events
  • be sure to do useful things when there are no customers: keeping your section tidy, changing the presentation or a shop window, looking at sales information, getting better acquainted with the stock
  • make sure that there is always someone at the cash register
  • always put the merchandise in a bag or offer to wrap it

 

Shoplifting is for you and for your staff one of the most annoying aspects of the retail business. It should be a frequent subject of conversation amongst you, not only because of the immediate financial consequences. The disappearance of a book from your stock also means that the replacement of the title will take a while, depending on when the theft is noticed. It might mean that you also lose a sale. For the staff, shoplifting means anxiety. To approach a suspected person (as suggested above) requires tact and a self-confidence that must first be built up. In the daily routine of a store, it demands a constant awareness, among other things, that expensive books should not be put where the view is obstructed.

In a number of countries, the job competence of employees has been significantly enhanced by training schemes organized nationwide by associations in the book trade. See the chapter “Doing things jointly”.

PRICE

Do I properly weigh the price factor?

An attractive stock and friendly service are undoubtedly crucial, but the price element should be considered carefully, too. For one thing because you will want, in principle, to attract buyers from every income category. This means that in your store as a whole, but also in every subject area, you should stock books with varying prices

A lot depends on the formula of your business as regards to how you use the price-mechanism in the presentation and promotion of the books. Understandably, price plays quite a role when you sell remainders. If the store profile is different, you may decide to stress the price element only incidentally or not at all.

If you had a bookstore in a good number of EU-countries, your prices would be regulated by retail price maintenance law (see box). Elsewhere, the price policy will be defined by a retail price gentlemen’s agreement between publishers and booksellers’ associations or the price advised by the publisher or distributor, by the local market situation and/or by your buying conditions. Whether or not you buy with the right to return should be a factor to consider. Local situations, in other words, prevail and will not be discussed any further here.

 

 

 RETAIL PRICE MAINTENANCE (“fixed book price”)

A large number of parliaments in West European countries have passed a law to support the production of a variety of book titles and to secure a wide availability of books in a variety of bookstores across the country. Publishers are free to establish whatever price they want; this will be the “fixed” retail price of a book for (at least) a year. Booksellers cannot sell the book at any other price; temporary discounts, discounts for libraries etcetera are regulated. The laws do not apply to imported books and usually not to educational books.

The system intends to ensure the cross-financing of books for both publishers and booksellers, by making sure that there is no discounting of bestsellers.

 

Price certainly is a factor when you sell old stock, most likely once or twice a year. The life cycle of books tends to become shorter all over the world and you will want to make room for new titles. Deciding which titles will be included in the special sale is easy if you simply apply the rule that every book published over two or three years ago is to be priced down. However, if the title is of some importance to maintain the quality-image of one of your specialized departments, you will be wise to make an exception.

The special annual or semi-annual sale of old stock should be made into an event because you want to attract a crowd. To do this, you must limit the period of the sale to a maximum of one week; if you do not have a large quantity of old stock you might even decide on making it a one-day happening. Be sure to inform your most faithful customers personally, because it would be very rude not to do so.

To make the sale more attractive you might be able to buy some surplus stock from one or two publishers, for example no longer officially available titles in a specialized field.

Giving a small discount to reward your frequent customers and thus make them truly loyal customers is a well-known phenomenon in the retail business. It requires the design and production of a loyalty card.

If you are sure that a retailer in a different field of business targets the same category of customers as you do, it is perhaps an idea worth considering to experiment with “joint promotion”. It would mean that a person could get a discount on a purchase in your store after having spent a certain amount in the other store, and vice versa.

 

Having gone over the marketing p’s let us look briefly at

YOUR ROLE AS A MANAGER

purely from a practical point of view. What would be your most important qualities and tasks to successfully operate as the owner or manager of your store?

Anyone with experience in the book business will first of all mention the necessity of an enormous enthusiasm for books. In a position where hard work is constantly required, this is crucial. This positive attitude should be conveyed to all members of your staff. To be successful in this respect you must be willing to leave a good number of responsibilities to them.

Needless to say you should be able to continuously monitor significant (sales) figures. Computerization is a great help! Here are some of the more important indicators:

  • average margin
  • average selling price
  • average amount of purchase by consumer
  • stock and age of stock, preferably per section of the store
  • rate of stock turn (sales divided by stock)
  • stock difference
  • major cost categories
  • turnover per employee
  • turnover per square meter of selling space
  • turnover per section/subject area
  • turnover per title
  • number of copies sold per title

Obviously your annual stocktaking is an important moment to collect such figures. The stock difference does not tell you whether this results from administrative deficiencies or must be attributed to criminal causes.

From time to time it is sensible to check your turnover on an hour-by-hour basis, to verify if your opening hours are wisely chosen.

General management theories are not discussed here. Really important for anyone active in a retail business is the rule: “retail means detail”.

Let us also consider for a moment

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

Local circumstances with respect to a government’s involvement with the economy, including the business of publishing, distributing and retail selling of books, will of course differ from country to country. In free market economies, its role would in principle be quite limited: competition laws and anti-trust measures intended to safeguard the functioning of free market mechanisms. In other political systems, this might be totally the opposite. Whatever the prevailing political philosophy, any government should recognize the vital importance of the world of books to society and should play a supportive role without any meddling with the content!

Books are of course a major factor in the dissemination of culture and knowledge, and in terms of leisure reading they are a contribution to the well-being of any nation. It is therefore also in the consumer’s interest that a wide range of titles is widely available.

Since each title is in fact a completely separate product, the book trade has some different characteristics from other types of business.

The government can be expected to act as a facilitator by creating and maintaining legal conditions, by financing public libraries, by supporting the promotion of reading and by making sure that there is a pluriform choice of products. It should support the protection of copyrights and should be expected to charge a low rate VAT c.q. sales tax on books, and lower postage charges on book packages.

If the government plays this role properly and speaks up in favor of books and reading, it will surely result in more media attention: reviews, human-interest stories, and bestseller listings.

It is logical for the book trade to remind the government of responsibilities such as the above, and to take part in formulating of policies.

Always keep in mind that the book trade itself is in the very first place accountable for a healthy state of affairs! Each publisher and each bookseller is responsible for his or her own company and together they are responsible for the whole of book publishing, distribution and selling.

It is interesting to note what has been done in a number of countries in the field of collective activities:

 
DOING THINGS JOINTLY

in the book trade

Although in some countries the range of collective institutions and initiatives is wide and might include such matters as distribution and the supply of books to libraries, the more predominant areas of cooperation are the promotion and training of publishers and booksellers.

Joint promotion of the book

The phenomenon of book gift coupons or vouchers, resulting from cooperation between booksellers, has already been mentioned. The operational cost of the necessary clearing system can be covered through the bank interest received from the amounts outstanding in the market (coupons which have been bought but have not been exchanged for books by the recipient). Of course, the promotion of the gift coupons requires considerable attention!

The collection of market statistics should also be of mutual concern to everybody active in the trade: as a source of benchmarks for all partners involved in publishing and/or bookselling and as a means of measuring the effectiveness of government policies.

 

What can be achieved in the field of joint promotion has an enormous influence on the status of the book, general publicity for books, and the growth of sales.

The basic philosophy behind collective promotion is that, while each publisher and each bookseller has of course the task to promote his/her own titles or store, marketing professionals with a background in the book trade can operate more effectively and bring results to all partners in the trade alike.

Some suggestions for collective book promotion:

  • The organization of a Book Day (possibly on April 23, which is UNESCO World Book Day) or a Book Week in the months of a low book trade season (January-March). It would be wise to choose a different theme for this event every year.
  • The organization of a special event for children, like a Children’s Book Week. This might include the selection of the best book for children or the best children’s book illustrator.
  • An advertising campaign for books as a gift. This could be most easily done around events like Mother’s Day, Christmas or any other traditional gift-giving day.
  • Try to find a sponsor for all of the above, or for each item separately. Books are an interesting field to be involved in for a sponsor, because the sponsor can derive a certain status from the support.

Of course such promotion will cost some money for the partners in the trade, but if this is set up by the trade itself it will be more effective and less costly than to hire the services of a professional marketing agency.

 

Professional training

Training booksellers means educating a new generation of professionals and enhancing the professional skills of established ones. It is of equal importance to enhance the practical knowledge of employees, to make bookstores more attractive for the consumer.

In countries where the distances between cities are sizeable it would be necessary to organize distance learning, either as a correspondence course or online by computer. Aside from a general course in bookselling, there could be a separate course in shop management, in theft prevention, merchandising, stock control or for specific sales training. For publishers there could be special courses in editorial work or in author management or promotion. A subject essential for all book trade partners concerns “Cooperation within the book chain (publishers, distributors, booksellers)”.

There is a great potential for a trade association in these collective activities. In many countries the trade association has grown to become a central service organization for publishers and booksellers; in many countries there are separate associations of publishers and of booksellers. They also stimulate contacts between members. In a practical sense a booksellers association can conclude collective agreements for their members, achieving better rates for insurance or for credit-card percentages for instance. All of this requires the members of an association to become active members!

What doing things jointly also requires is a spirit of mutual understanding and respect between publishers and booksellers. A bookseller can be expected to do his/her utmost to become a reliable partner for publishers, by doing everything in his/her power to be a truly professional retailer, by showing an interest in good relations with publishers and distributors/wholesalers through the timely payment of bills, etcetera. On the other hand, publishers must see booksellers as their major means of reaching the ultimate consumers of  their books. A bookstore is more than an extension of a publisher’s warehouse; bookselling is a professional retail business which deserves the full support of suppliers. In fact a publisher can be expected to think seriously from time to time about his “channel management”, asking himself whether he is properly rewarding (or assisting in other than financial ways) each of the channels through which his books find their way to the market. The “added value” can be measured not only in terms of the volume of business, but also in terms of the quality of the performance. A somewhat smaller retailer for instance, who frequently orders many titles from his backlist, might be a more interesting trading partner than the company that buys merely a few bestsellers during any one year.

Copyright © 2008 Guus Schut, Fund for Central and East European Book Projects, Amsterdam

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