I recently wrote about how things don’t look great for booksellers around the world. But what can bookstores do about dwindling sales in the book industry? Well, here are nine tips. Most of them come down to one thing: Customer engagement. If you suck at customer engagement, you will die before your competition.
1. Embrace Social Media
Everyone has a voice, and now everyone can air it more easily than ever with Twitter and Facebook. Bookstores should be using these tools for two purposes. Firstly, they should be creating and promoting an identity. Once a community is in place, they should be engaging with their fans and/or followers in a friendly, positive, personable and pro-active manner. The second purpose they should be using these sites for, is for building custom. Using search tools, your bookstore (and any other business) should be searching for what their customers are thinking, and they should react to it. This information is free to any company that is willing to let their employees find it. Free is cheaper than any market research. Keep an eye on location based social media websites like Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places and Google Latitude as more people embrace smartphones. If you’re in a decent sized city, hundreds of people might be ‘checking-in’ to your location(s).
A bookstore can only hold so many books, but do they have to be almost exactly the same books as every other store in the vicinity? Of course, the majority of sales are from the Oprah’s Picks section or the New York Times Bestsellers list and these books are vital. But how many customers come looking for a self-published title that staff are unable to order for them? Do deals with the major print-on-demand services, so that you can reach these customers. They might come back for more. Also: Consider if it is worth trusting your staff to order books for the store that it might not normally carry. They work there often and might recognise the wants of the customer base better than your head office. For as long as publishers bear most of the risk (because books can be returned to the publisher at no cost to the bookstore), this should be a no-brainer.
3. Get a mobile friendly website
Is your website smartphone friendly? If I’m not in your bookstore, but I see a book in an advertisement or being read by someone on the bus, is it convenient to find out more information and even buy the book on my smartphone? I don’t want to download your desktop website on my data plan and I don’t want to zoom around a page that’s only designed for viewing on a large screen.
4. Is there an App for that?
Lame title, I know. But smartphones are taking off. iPhones and Blackberrys are already popular and Android phones are going to attract even more consumers. Mobile apps will become more important, despite the unregulated and uncompetitive data market in Canada. In The USA, Barnes and Noble have an excellent mobile application. It allows you to buy e-books right on your phone. It allows you to look for a traditional printed book and will tell you if your local store (using GPS) has it in stock. If it does, you can have that store hold it for you from within the application. If you see a book at a friends house, at the library, at a competitors store or anywhere else, you can take a photograph of the cover on your phone. The Barnes and Noble application will automatically (or automagically, perhaps) identify what book it is and tell you the price and whether your local store has it, so you can hold it if you want to.
This could be combined with a more social aspect, linking into the Facebook API. What are your friends reading? When were your friends last here and what books are on their wishlist? Check-in to the location on Facebook or Foursquare in the next hour and get 20% off. Or make a crazy points based game where purchases, check-ins, book reviews, event attendances and so on lead to the award of virtual badges. Sound dumb? 6 Million people are already doing it on Foursquare alone.
5. Electronic Books
You need to sell e-readers. This might mean that the customer who just bought your fancy device won’t be buying printed material from you anymore, but the alternative is that they buy an e-reader from Walmart. You lose the hundred dollar sale, and they still don’t buy printed material from you anymore. You need to sell e-books in some form. Perhaps from computer terminals, via coupons for a particular book or giftcards for redemption online or from your computer terminal. You need to prepare for the future and be ready to innovate in a fast changing industry. What are e-books going to mean for brick-and-mortar stores? If you have the answers to this question, you will be rich!
There is no doubt that there has been a downturn in printed book sales. Part of this is due to the economic downturn, which should improve. But it is also due to the rise of e-books, and this will only impact printed book sales more as customers further adopt e-readers. Most bookstores will need to diversify, especially big box stores. Toys, games, home decor and lifestyle, gifts, stationary, greetings cards, gift wrap, candy and so on. There’s a surge in young adult fiction, so what about hip t-shirts, pin badges, posters and anything else you can shove a vampire onto. What about moving into printing? Photo development labs recently moved into printing photo-books. Bookstores could offer a book printing service, and maybe even rent shelf-space to customers printing their own books. Perhaps offer a service to host their e-book in your online catalogue. You could re-sell ISBN numbers. Worried about stepping on the toes of publishers? They won’t worry about you when your stores are closing and they are doing a fine trade in e-books.
7. Network in your Community
This can be hard if you are a chain store, but if you are allowed to, why not raise money for a local community? Attend book fairs to get your name out there. Invite local authors to do signings in your store, or showcase their books. Allow staff to take part in charity events using your company name. Do a newsletter for your store, that can also touch on community issues.
8. Customer Service
Improve it as much as possible. Not an easy task when your sales team are earning minimum wage, but when I go to Amazon, the website greets me everytime I visit and it offers me fairly decent recommendations. A lot of bookstores don’t even get the greeting right. Not every customer wants help, and it can be off-putting to be re-buffed because some customer is anti-social and thinks they know better, but saying hello doesn’t cost anything. If a customer is rude to you for saying hello, or they ignore you, they are an ass. Move on, concentrate on the next customer who is a guest in YOUR castle, and if the original customer comes back, smile as you take their money.
9. Customer Service
It’s so important that I put it twice. I know it’s cheesy, but turning a customers visit in to a “positive experience” will make them come back again, and they might even recommend you to friends. That is golden. The younger generation might, just might, if you’re lucky, tweet about you to their followers.
Engage with customers, talk to them, make them feel special. Hold events at your bookstore. Have readings for children, if you have a large enough location with enough customers. Hold competitions. For example, at Christmas, get kids to wrap a box and the most creative one wins a prize. Incorporate this into your social media presence, spread the word, get people to ‘fan’ or ‘follow’ you. Take photographs related to the events and competitions you hold.
Engage, engage, engage. Price is so important that customers will happily vote with their feet if they don’t think they are getting good value. You cannot undercut Walmart or Amazon, but you can offer better service and more expertise in your field. If you can’t, you are in the wrong job. If you can’t be bothered, your store will die.