19 ways your indie bookstore can stay competitive in the Amazon age.
I’ve been writing (or, perhaps, bitching) lately about annoying things bookstores do to try to regain lost business from the internet. I wrote a post about giving e-readers the stink-eye and another post about what showrooming really means to the indie bookstore. When I was writing the posts and responding to comments, I realized that there’s a lot of confusion about competition–and, if you own a small bookstore and you see your sales eroding, probably a large dose of fear, as well. We all know that Amazon sells books on the cheap; this can seem daunting to an indie bookseller who needs to charge pretty close to list price–if not list price–to make the numbers meet up and maintain profitability. After all, if it’s cheaper to buy from Amazon, aren’t people always going to buy their books there? Isn’t price the ultimate decider in where to buy something?
Luckily, the answer to that is, no, of course it’s not.
We humans overpay for stuff all the time. That is, we pay more than we “need” to pay for something due to other influencing factors; I wouldn’t necessarily call it “overpaying” because obtaining the actual product that you desire is only part of the equation when it comes to choosing a venue from which to purchase said item. We “overpay” for convenience and speed; we “overpay” for cool packaging or extra features; we “overpay” for brands; we “overpay” because we feel a little queasy about shopping at Walmart, Amazon, or another large retailer (I don’t feel queasy about Amazon, but a lot of people do). Logically, economically, it doesn’t make sense for us to pay more than we have to, but we often do.
Even though Amazon is probably creaming you with price due to their ability to sell in huge volumes without operating retail stores, that doesn’t have to destroy your business. We’ll walk through advantages that you have over big box stores, and even a couple of ways that you can turn right back around and use Amazon’s features to compete against them. Reverse showrooming, if you will. You may already be doing some of these–let me know in the comments how they’re working out for you!
Advantage: You are not a large corporation.
Whoa, wait–that’s an advantage? Yes. Granted, Amazon’s big-ness scores some major advantages for them: they can buy in large quantities, get better deals on pricing, and sell in large enough volume to make a large profit. That does, however, come with some massive downsides, as well. Corporations are set up to have one prime directive: maximizing profit in order to spur growth. Publicly-traded corporations especially have to meet this directive because they’re accountable first and foremost to shareholders. This can cause corporations to make some questionable decisions; if you’ve ever been scratching your head at something a big company has done because it seems like a bone-headed move, it’s probably because they were so focused on profit and growth that they forgot a little thing called the customer experience. (Netflix, I’m looking at you, buddy.)
Growth can cause all kinds of issues in itself. Starbucks ran into a lot of problems when they attempted to expand too aggressively; becoming a large company means being stuck with a huge amount of overhead, complex management systems that don’t always work, and the need to streamline in ways that customers don’t always like. I think I cried when I worked at Starbucks and we switched from the old-fashioned espresso machine to the push-button machine. It was faster, it was more efficient, it wasn’t temperamental, but dammit, it just didn’t taste as good. Corporate saw it as a necessary step to providing the fastest and best service possible; we saw it as losing a little bit of our soul.
As a small business, you can use the fact that you’re small to your benefit. You can’t beat Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the areas where they have an advantage because they’re large, so you have to beat them where you have the advantage because you’re small.
Tip #1: Become a lean book-selling machine by re-evaluating what you stock.
The time that the neighborhood bookstore was the stop for all of one’s book-buying needs are long gone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; having worked in the book biz myself, I know that there are some categories of books that move a hell of a lot slower than some others. Do you have a section of high-priced, photo-heavy gardening books that’s languishing? Or maybe your graphic novels section is gathering dust, but you feel you need to maintain a good selection “just in case”? The good news is that you can trim the fat, if you have fat to trim. You no longer have to be everything to every book-buyer; you can free up some space in some dusty, underused corners and tailor your shop to your particular market. This will allow you to carry more of what you’ll actually sell.
Part of the principle here is quality over quantity. Your real estate is too precious to have hundreds of dollars of books unlikely to turn over at a decent pace. I find that, the fancier the book, the less likely I am to buy it in a bricks-and-mortar store. When we start talking about saving $10 on a single book by buying it online–or, with some of the cookbooks and coffee table books, it can be a lot more–that’s when price starts to be a huge issue. If you do sell those books at a good clip, awesome–keep at it. If you don’t, it may be time to re-evaluate. You might trim down to just the best cookbooks, for example, and create a nice display for them.
Tip #2: Use your size to your advantage by responding quickly and effectively to customer feedback.
Retailers like Amazon and B&N have a much more difficult time implementing company-wide changes. I imagine just the paperwork involved is insane, not to mention the kajillion levels of management that something has to go through before decisions can be made. You don’t have to struggle through all of that red tape; you have the enormous advantage of being able to directly interact with customers while also being the prime decision-maker. I’m not saying you have to make rash decisions changing how you run your shop based on a few complaints, but if there are complaints or suggestions, you’re in a great position to take immediate action when you can.
Make sure that your customers have ample ways to connect with you, and set aside time every day–multiple times a day, if necessary–to keep up on customer feedback. This also means checking review sites like Yelp–although, be careful about engaging negative reviews: you only want to do this with an apology and an offer to correct the wrong (and even if you don’t think you were wrong, you still need to take the high road, here–your reputation is more at stake than theirs). Never make excuses or blame the customer, and contact privately when it’s appropriate.
Tip #3: Take the opportunity, when you can, to make changes based on what will make the customer happy.
Okay, this sounds a lot like tip #2, but it’s a little different. Like I said above, corporations have a growth imperative–not just a general, hey, let’s set some goals and maybe we can do even better this year than last year, but a we-must-do-everything-possible-to-see-growth-in-our-company imperative, even if it means laying people off, reducing quality, or making something more difficult or less beneficial for the customer. While you clearly need to keep a very close eye on your bottom line, you have the advantage of making human decisions rather than corporate-machine decisions. You have the opportunity to see individual customers rather than just growth percentages. It’s a good thing, and it will be rewarded with loyalty.
You can also consider the case of the push-button coffee machine. Starbucks basically had to change over because it wasn’t efficient enough to meet their profit margin goals (which, remember, are always set with an eye toward aggressive growth in the company as a whole, not just “maintaining” or even “doing well”). A small business, on the other hand, could choose to keep the higher-quality product, even if it’s a little less efficient, if your customer base prefers it and will support it through purchases. This is one time when not being laden with a ton of corporate overhead will benefit you. It’s much better in the long run to have happy customers that feel loved than to have customers with a growing sense of distrust because they know the company isn’t really interested in their happiness* as long as they meet their bottom line. Who would you give your money to?
*Not that corporations aren’t interested exactly–but they’re interested because they want to sell us more stuff, and we won’t buy more stuff if we’re not happy. That’s a little … opportunistic.
Tip #4: Consider specializing.
This ties into tip 1, but takes it to a higher level. Because you’re smaller, you can do what stores like B&N can’t do: cater to a specialty market, or become known for carrying a certain kind of book. Farley’s in Pennsylvania decided to implement this idea by carrying a large selection of indie press books; they’ve had positive results with this decision. Here’s an interview where they discuss why they developed this program. You’re going to want to read that interview, because: “Sales are excellent. Every single press has told us that we have sold more titles of theirs than any other bookstore they work with.”
While customers can order most any book on Amazon, a lot of customers want to shop in bookstores; there’s a romance to shopping in a real bookshop, not to mention that you can have that book on the same day that you find it. We love instant gratification. Carrying books that your customers want but can’t find at other stores could be beneficial.
Tip #5: Consider hosting community events, like book clubs or classes.
A lot of stores already do this with book clubs, but there are a lot more possibilities to get people into your store. While you can have high-profile book signings at larger stores like B&N, a smaller bookstore can really align itself closely with the community and offer events that a larger bookstore couldn’t because they have corporate rules to follow. You could have a local professor do classes on writing or interesting seminars about certain books (as long as it’s a professor with personality, heh–or he or she could bring the class in for a field trip); you can have poetry slams; you can have events for children like they do at the library. You could partner up with other local businesses and offer jointly-sponsored events. A local restaurant’s chef, for example, might like to couple with you on a cooking course; you could provide certain cookbooks for sale at the class that the chef recommends and advertise the class in your store to drum up interest. You could host a chess tournament, or Trivial Pursuit (I would so, so do that). Be creative, be fun, and increase that foot traffic.
Tip #6: Get active in your community overall.
One thing we love is for local businesses to be pro-community. Sponsor some causes; participate in some fundraisers–heck, pick a community issue and organize a fundraiser or event. (Literacy and education would be right up a bookstore’s alley, but it could really be a lot of things. 10% off if you bring in a canned good for local shelters for Thanksgiving? Toys for Tots?) If you’re careful to remain as politically neutral as you can, you’ll find a lot of people getting warm fuzzies because you’re a part of the community. Warm fuzzies can lead to customer loyalty. You can also get more exposure by getting involved, so it’s a win all around.
Take a page from the corporate customer service playbook, then tear out what you want to keep and improve on what you don’t.
One thing that indies often struggle with is customer service. It’s understandable; small business owners aren’t always from a retail background, or perhaps they’ve only worked for small businesses and have never undergone training from a large corporation; bad habits may have been picked up along the way. While many corporations have bloated, unwieldy customer service policies–or their policies are rarely enforced because of a direct conflict with actual day-to-day operations, like at Walmart (yes, I’ve worked there, too.. long enough to do the training, anyway)–corporations that are known for amazing customer service got that way because they have put a huge amount of time, effort, and study into the best way to serve customers. You don’t have to invest in that research, lucky for you. You can see what they do, and mimic it as best you can.
Tip #7: Retrain your employees with this mantra: “The customer is always right.”
I can feel you wailing at me from over there. No, the customer is not always literally right. Sometimes, the customer is a right prick, in fact. But you stand nothing to gain by fighting with customers and you could even lose business from doing so; I would personally only make exceptions for abusive behavior.
One area where I see indies of all kinds–restaurants, shops, anything–fail time and again is direct customer relations. (Subtip: My manager at Starbucks once suggested How to Win Friends and Influence People to all of the staff at his stores, because it was his handbook for talking to customers. I read that book. It changed my life, and I’m not exaggerating. Read that book if you have any customer service issues whatsoever.) With an indie bookshop having to charge more than larger retailers, customer service is crucial to maintaining profitable operations; making unhappy customers happy again is something that has to happen every single time you get a complaint, if you can possibly manage it. You don’t do huge volume, and every customer is important.
“The customer is always right” also means (and this goes back to the e-reader rant I linked above) not taking issue with stuff that customers do that annoys you. If they’re showrooming with their cellphone or they pull out a Kindle.. just smile. Yeah, maybe you just lost a sale because they found the e-book cheaper on Amazon; that sale was probably never going to be yours to begin with, let’s be honest. Even before electronic reading, that person probably would have gone to the library or scoured a used bookstore to get what they want cheaper. Taking issue with it and saying something to the customer–or even asking them to leave, heaven forbid–means you’re going to lose any potential future sales from that customer, who will not be returning. If anybody overhears it and thinks it was a jerk move, you might also lose their business, plus the business of the friends of the original customer. It’s really not worth it to you to make it an issue, no matter how annoying it is.
Tip #8: Define your customer service policy in concrete terms and empower your employees to correct any issues on the spot when possible.
At Starbucks, we had a policy when handling customer complaints and problems: listen to the complaint, acknowledge the problem (and this also means acknowledging that it is a problem, even if you don’t think it is), thank the customer for bringing it to our attention, take action, and encourage them to come back. I’ve used this and seen it work time and again. It sounds a little corpro-babble when spelled out that way, but it basically means to make sure you hear them, take responsibility, fix it, and send them away with a welcoming attitude. It may not work 100% of the time, because you can’t always make everyone happy again, but it fixes a lot. Fixing problems means more money in your coffers when customers come back.
If customer problems and complaints can be handled swiftly, your customers will be happier across the board. They may grow to prefer your store because of this tactic alone. Make certain your employees have the tools to handle lots of situations without having to wait for a busy manager to get involved. Don’t let customers leave your store upset if your employees can smooth over the situation then and there. Definitely don’t let them leave it for you to clean up later, when it might already be too late.
Tip #9: Attitude check yourself and your employees.
Have you ever walked into a store where it’s clear that all of the employees could not give less of a damn because they’ve become jaded? It happens slowly and sneakily over time, and it can poison your shop’s atmosphere. One quick fix is to institute a “no-complaining-no-gossip” policy, either in general or on the sales floor. At the very least, your customers won’t hear it. Then work on cultivating a positive, friendly vibe. It doesn’t have to be fake-plastic-smile happy, but there should always be pleasant interactions between employees and customers. It’s not enough to just ring a customer up without making eye contact and give a muttered “thanks”; customers need a reason to return and pay higher prices than if they ordered online or went to B&N. Unfriendly or indifferent employees are a dealbreaker.
Keep an eye out for employees that are overly suspicious of customers, too. Some customers are suspicious, of course, but most customers really are honest. They’ve done studies. I don’t have a link to them right now, but, suffice to say that most people aren’t trying to rip you off; problems can arise when your employees get disproportionately frustrated at the ones who do try to rip you off and start acting as though all customers are potential thieves. Few things will make a customer angrier than nakedly suspecting them of being shady.
The internet has changed the way we shop; you may need to change the way you sell.
I was in a B&N the other day for no particular reason. I’d had a doctor’s appointment, and my doctor is next to the mall, so I thought I’d pop over and do some browsing. I had nothing in particular in mind, and it struck me hard just how unwieldy it can be shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store when you don’t have a special item that you want. At B&N, for example, all of their general fiction is lumped together, alphabetized–pretty standard, right?
But who really shops like that anymore?
When I go to Amazon, or Goodreads, or various small press websites that I browse looking for new books, I have a lot of ways to browse that don’t include alphabetized lists. I can browse by genre, and sub-genre; I can look for books that are similar to books that I like; I can look for books that my friends like or that have good reviews, and this is a biggie. It’s called “social proof”, the idea that we’re more likely to buy something once it’s been “approved” by our peers. Some bookstores already do this with employee recommendation shelves. While having an alphabetized selection is probably necessary (I’d love to see a bookstore experiment with a different kind of arrangement, but I think that might be too weird for a general bookstore), you can augment your sales with displays that use the same methods we use to shop online.
Tip #10: Use Amazon as a resource.
Did you know that if you go to Amazon, you can see what books are being purchased the most right now? Yeah, that’s right–Amazon might be using you as a showroom, but you can use them right back to see what you need to stock and display in your store. You might already have a section of New York Times bestsellers; consider expanding it to include B&N, Amazon, and Goodreads picks for the week or month. You can use signage* to tell people what the book is ranked to take advantage of the social proof principle–”#Hot Pick: #1 on Amazon.com in Fiction” or “Five-star reads chosen by Amazon customers”–and draw customer attention to the books that they would be likely to buy based on actual sales data. Include a star ranking for extra pizzazz.
*Look into the legality of using Amazon’s name on your signage. You might have to change the wording to something like “Five-star reads chosen by the online community”. I don’t think that referring to their sales ranks would be an issue but I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV.
Tip #11: Integrate popular bloggers and websites into your displays, while you’re at it.
Think of the book blogs and magazines that readers read the most. They probably have reviews and recommendations for books. Why not make a display of those books? The customer has probably already heard the buzz about the books, so the recognition will make the display will be eye-catching. Use signage here, too–you may want to contact some of these sites to see if it’s okay to use their name/logo to pimp out books, to be polite if nothing else. If it’s a magazine that you carry in your store, display the magazine right next to the book display for cross-promotion and recognition.
You could also contact book bloggers and other bookish personalities and see if they will work with you to create displays in the store. (For the record, yes, I would do this in a heartbeat.) In exchange for a list of books, along with possibly short blurbs about why customers like it, you would be directing traffic to their website using appropriate signage, making the deal mutually beneficial. (Really popular bloggers might want a percentage. I wouldn’t. Just for the record.) Part of what book bloggers do is write about why people would want to read a particular book, so their talents might be especially useful in choosing materials for displays.
Tip #12: Consider developing a store app.
Developing an app can be a costly business, and it’s not something to undertake lightly–you’ll want to come correct with this app, making sure it looks sleek, works well, gets regular updates, and has a purpose that a Goodreads or Amazon app alone can’t provide. Offering discounts or promotions through the app is one way to personalize it to your store and making sure people actually check it. You can also use the app as a virtual display table, since actual space in your store is limited; the app could also be used to track book clubs, if you host them in the store, and have an events calendar for all of those awesome community events that you’re going to plan.
Tip #13: Get customers involved in your displays with social media.
*I meant crazy in a hyperbolic sense, just so we’re clear.
Tip #14: Break down alphabetized areas into smaller groups by genre/topic.
One thing that I do like about my local indie is that you can find some pretty specific categories of books in the store. You won’t just see “Paranormal Romance,” you’ll also see sub-headers of “Vampires” and “Zombies.” They have literary fiction sorted out from general fiction. (I would love to see them go a lot further with this, as “literary fiction” is still a huge umbrella. By language and era would be freakin’ sweet.)
Books are kind of like wines, I guess. You have your major categories–fiction vs. nonfiction (or, red vs. white)–and the you have subcategories, like merlot, pinot noir, pinot grigio, and so forth. But then, you can break it down further. By region. By flavor profile. Not only does this help pair the customer with the wine that they want or need, it also helps the customer discover new wines to try because they’re not totally overwhelmed by the selection in front of them, and the groupings are similar enough to each other that it’s not as big of a risk to try something new. With “fiction,” generally, it’s going to be a crapshoot for me to look at a huge alphabetized fiction section and find something I like. There are so many kinds of fiction, even if you separate out the specific genre fiction. Sub-categorizing would help me narrow in on the categories I do like and give me more confidence to buy books.
Also, if you have popular authors, try putting up shelf signage directing people to similar authors. “Like Stephen King? Try reading these authors: Joe Hill, Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub.” Similarly, you could put signage under Joe Hill that says “Like Stephen King? Try reading Joe Hill.” You can use sites like Amazon (using them again! That “customers also bought…” could come in really handy), Goodreads, or Small Demons to find book pairings and information.
Tip #15: Play on our tendency to pick up eye-candy.
Have a highly-visible display of books with gorgeous covers. People will gravitate there.
Tip #16: Get involved on Goodreads.
Connect with your customers on Goodreads. You can see what they’re reading, chat with them about it if you want (don’t be pushy or anything; make sure you have your online etiquette sorted out before trying this), see what’s popular among your customers. You might even ask them to use blurbs from their reviews on shelf signage in the store. They will probably feel like rockstars.
Bonus tips (really, they should probably go in another section, but I would have to re-number them all. It’s too early in the morning to re-number them all):
Tip #17: Go out of your way to accommodate customers in specific areas where Amazon and other big box retailers are failing customers/receiving customer complaints.
One thing I’ve noticed lately is that Amazon seems to have cut back their release-day delivery of new books. I don’t actually order books a lot from Amazon (I know! I’m usually in AMZ’s corner against naysayers, but, when I do buy books I often buy direct from the small presses when I can), but I don’t remember release-day delivery being an extra charge before. Last time I ordered a book, I was asked to pay extra for release-day delivery, and when I tried to order more than one item to get free shipping, they bundled both books together and wouldn’t ship them both out until the one book released. I canceled that order quick.
Indie bookstores could capitalize on this by talking up pre-orders that will arrive on release day. Yeah, they will cost a little more than buying on Amazon (don’t mention that) but emphasize that you get release-date availability and free shipping. Make sure everything goes as smoothly for the customer as possible (get enough copies, etc) and they will have a positive experience. Put signs up so customers know that this service is available.
Tip #18: Become known as an expert by going online and blogging, Facebooking, or tweeting about books.
This goes back to social proof. If you’re popular online, more people will assume that you’re “good” and be confident shopping in your store. Not necessary, but it can benefit you if this is something you think you’d excel at.
Tip #19: Actually sell books on Amazon.
Used books, specifically. A reader told me that her bookshop sells used books on Amazon; I’ve purchased used books on Amazon and have seen bookstores selling there. If you don’t take used books, consider beginning to do so; you could start a store credit program for gently-used books and then resell them on Amazon. (Note: this will require some labor, because you’ll want your employees to check to see how much credit you can offer for certain books. Also, be careful if you decide to display the books in addition to selling them online–you may run into a freak coincidence where you have an in-store and an online customer both buying the same book at the same time. Check Amazon policies to see if you can cancel an order in that situation.) This may not be something you’re equipped to do, but it also might help your store, especially if you limit the scope of the books you receive–books that have come out in the last year only, for example.
Go forth and prosper!
Of course, these are just a few ways that I can think of to compete with Amazon; lots of indie bookshops are still thriving, despite Amazon’s low prices. What are some of the things that you do that have worked? If you’re a customer, what does your favorite indie do to keep you coming back? Drop it all in the comments below!