I recently read the blog post by Mike Schatzkin in The Schatzkin Files, More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself. This post really got me thinking about what has already transpired with the demise of Borders and how that might be a blueprint for what will happen to these B & N stores as they begin to close.
There is no second guessing the fact that B & N did not have a stellar holiday season this year. There are signs of gloom and doom on the horizon, but one thing that must be kept in mind: B & N is not Borders. Now this blog post is not about figuring out what will happen to Barnes & Noble as they begin to contract, but rather, this is a blog post about what may happen to the physical locations that B & N relinquishes to get a better handle on a revenue stream of survival.
In 2011 I interviewed Oren Teicher who is the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. I was writing a paper for my Book Sales and Distribution course and Mr. Teicher was gracious enough to let me ask him some questions. He has subsequently been a keynote speaker at the PubWest Conference in Keystone, CO this past October. In the discussion, Oren Teicher was adamant that Independent booksellers were not a group that was going under due to monstrous competition, but these were a group of talented individuals who were re-inventing the bookstore as a community center within their towns and villages:
“Any Indie store is doing lots of things to keep in the public eye. They now have cafes or restaurants or coffee bars. They sponsor events all the time. They want to be a fun place that people want to visit. Since we now do most of our interactions with a computer screen, the need for people to get out and intermingle is becoming more and more important in this day and age. Events at book stores have been better attended than at any time in the recent past. People are looking for inclusion and human interaction. People really want a place that’s theirs. Stores have to be smart in creating that place that is fun. Mix the merchandise that you sell. Successful retailers understand that books can be given as gifts, but successful retailers know that customers want to give a book as a gift but consumers may want to give something else as well and this is where the indie bookstores can capture market share. The stores are being very innovative on coming up with ideas to be different.”
The stores that Borders originally occupied have in some instances become new independent bookstores. Could this be on the horizon for the Barnes & Noble locations? I think this is a distinct possibility. Every community has entrepreneurs who love reading, love words, and love books. Another interviewee in my 2011 “White Paper”: Independent Booksellers: A Consultant’s View “White Paper” on Staying Viable and Profitable, was Betsy Burton, the owner of The King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City, UT. She first explained who her customers were:
“Our demographic is 60-65 % women who are over 40, well read and literary, with families. We do a great business in kid’s books. I would categorize The King’s English as a general bookstore. We pride ourselves on hand-selling mostly hardcover fiction.
This hand-selling puts books into people’s hands. They get a book that they will actually enjoy. We have mostly all repeat sales. The store is in a neighborhood in Salt Lake City.”
And then gave me an accounting of the biggest challenges to their continued survival in the market:
“The most difficult challenge is Amazon and the challenge of online retail. Amazon is trying to lock up the e-book market. They seem to want to own the world. We collect and pay sales tax and they do not, there is a 10% disadvantage. Utah may be making Amazon pay sales tax due to the “Shop Local” campaign we have initiated and support here in SLC.”
With more locations available as B & N contracts, could we see the reemergence of the small Mom and Pop bookstore that caters to local repeat customers?
Solutions and Continued Profitability
The independent booksellers are on the right track with thinking different, but what else can they do to separate themselves from the herd and continue to have market-share?
1. Evangelization through Scholarship Programs
Deserving students compete based on the criteria the store creates to win full or partial scholarships to college and/or university. In this way, the parents all become continuous customers and the students also become future customers with their families as well. This engenders good will in the community and keeps the families coming back to your store due to customer loyalty.
2. Facebook Branding
In her BEA podcast on Advanced Facebook Strategies, Cindy Ratzlaff laid out some fundamental priorities that any corporate entity should employ to brand themselves using all social media but specifically Facebook.
- Have a Facebook fan page.
- Sell books from the Facebook page as well as the brick and mortar store
- Collect e-mail addresses from customers and build relationships through a mailing list database
- Build a “Welcome” page with a video.
- Have something to give away. Whether it is some content, some space in the store for meeting, or something else. Be generous with giving to the customers.
- Host author chats on streaming video podcasts through Facebook and give all Facebook Friends (customers) opportunities to interact with the author and ask questions.
3. Twitter Community
Another BEA podcast, Advanced Twitter: Strategies and Practice for Bookselling Professionals by Kathleen Matthews Schmidt laid out the fundamental tenets of how to use Twitter to build a social network community by having conversations with your customers. The best points were as follows:
- Create a profile for the bookstore
- Observe other Twitter feeds to see what people are talking about
- It’s all about Reading, Writing and Sharing
- Tweets are forever, so be mindful of what you write
- These are short conversations for people who love books
- Your corporate bookstore logo should be on the Twitter profile
- Make 140 word bookstore biography: Make it witty but not common
- Humanize the Tweets, personalize the feeds and reply to people when they Tweet back.
- The tone should be polite, useful and unique: Tweets need to have a warm tone with no snarkiness
- For an Ice Breaker first Tweet, ask people what they are reading
- Give the followers a sense of community
Working in conjunction, a Facebook and Twitter presence should help to kick-start your marketing campaign.
4. Guerrilla Marketing and Conclusion
Now that we know what tools to use, the rules of engagement would lead us to use economically thrifty ways of keeping our base customers evangelizing and coming back as repeat customers now and in the future. We have a ready-made “nano-base” of repeat customers and that is the community to keep engaged
“Guerilla social media marketers get customer-focused by
- Diving deep into the online communities and answering and asking questions
- Writing web content that doesn’t boast about corporate greatness but talks about solutions to the customers’ challenges
- Listening, responding and helping instead of using marketing monologues
- Providing multiple channels for feedback through major social networks and tools like Live chat.”
Since you cannot fight the big corporate entities on the global level of sales, you have to meet and defeat them in the trenches at the grass-roots level. The community bookstore can excel at this since the owners and staffs know the community much better than the national competition could ever know it.