Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Key to Book Retail

Zestful Blog Post #180

Quick pre-blog note: The current Writer’s Digest Yearbook on the newsstands features a couple of articles by me: “Take Two,” on using arc and pace to fix and improve your storytelling, and an excerpt on how to write good dialogue from You’ve Got a Book in You.

On to today’s post. Ever since ending my 10-year career with Borders in 1997 I’ve kept an eye on the bookselling business. I learned a lot working for Tom and Louis Borders, and some of it was about retail in general. And the great truth of retail is that there is no such thing as a loyal customer. The instant a customer decides their needs will be served better elsewhere, sayonara. That’s life; that’s common sense.

Therefore, the key to retail success is to be a loyal merchant. You can and should be loyal to your customers by serving them well, truly, and consistently. But there’s more.

A relic!

Today, bricks-and-mortar retail is way more about experience than the merchandise. Doesn’t that sound odd? But it’s so. The retail discount experience isn’t a pleasant experience; it’s usually an ordeal. We endure the harsh lighting, cheap fixtures, and overwhelming layouts in order to save serious dollars on food and other stuff. Then of course we can buy all kinds of things for low prices on line, from the comfort of our cracker-strewn bed. We can buy books that way too. Therefore, why bother getting up, taking a shower, putting on clothes, and scrounging enough gas money to go to a bookstore to browse and buy?

For the experience. For a unique experience, which in the case of a bookstore means a curated collection. Smart booksellers know that the deep-and-wide inventory of B&N or the late Borders will cost them big to try to duplicate, and make for lower profit margins. But if a bookseller can start small—that is, 4,000 to 8,000 titles—and curate that collection deep and narrow, they can succeed. Because the store’s personality is what attracts customers, if they’re to be attracted. Lots of smart booksellers are doing the small-batch, microbrew experience. (Speaking of microbrews, it is indeed a fact that food and beverage make any shopping or entertainment experience more enjoyable.)
Still, what’s to stop a customer from finding a cool book at your store, then buying it via their phone right while they’re standing there, for cheaper, on line? Nothing. Some will always do that.

But booksellers who keep an eye on expenses, make reasonable choices when it comes to staffing and overhead, and work hard to make it easy for a customer to buy something right now—yeah, that can work. Because humans crave experience; we WANT to get out of our cracker-strewn bed and feel we’ve done something fun and worthwhile. We want to brag that we went to X store, where the cognoscenti go. But moreover, it’s the serendipity of browsing that makes it worthwhile to physically be in a place with lots of books. You’re gonna see something new; you’re gonna bump into something or even someone. You’re gonna have a different feeling than staring into that glowing screen with its tiny images and hyperdrive scrolling. Even Amazon knows that, and is capitalizing on it: their new brick-and-mortar stores must be doing well, as they’re rolling out more of them.

Then there’s innovation! Went to the movies on a trip to suburban Detroit not long ago, and it was the first time I saw the ticket line and the concession line be one and the same. Lots of staff behind the counter; the line went fast; they sold a sh*t-ton of popcorn and everything, way more than if the lines were separate. This is really, really a leap, and how could it have taken so long for the first theater operator to a) get the idea, and b) have the balls to implement it?

What’ll be the next innovative thing in book retail? Lots of smart people are working on that.

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