Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Priceless Impact of Bargain

I have written elsewhere in this blog about using your remainder and bargain buying to make your bookstore, online or off, unique, or at least differentiated from your competition. Chains buy a few titles in huge quantities and display for set periods of time. Amazon often sells used and bargain without images or annotations so that the customer has to know exactly what they are looking for to buy. The price clubs and enormous box retailers buy print runs in huge volumes of mostly current best sellers to retail at somewhat discounted prices. And most stores don't carry any bargain anything. That's a barn sized differentiation target.

The independent buyer, frequently the owner, can buy very short quantities, focused on what they know of their customers. They mix up the bargain in their stores so that they might have a bargain section, or bargain displays in one or more points throughout the store, but also mix them into the main category sections. Used bookstores put them everywhere, treating them as just another product stream. The bottom line is that you, without thinking about it too much, can have an amazing selection, the likes of which the aforementioned behemoths can't imagine and could never put together.

Most bargain buyers have databases that they access while they work, determining how many of a particular book they bought in the past, how often, if there are still any in inventory, at what cost. Some buyers still just buy what they see and want for their stores.

Selling to these buyers, I often hear a running commentary about why a title is good or, more often, why it's impossible to sell. "We can't sell this." My favorite: "Nobody can sell this." Guess what the next buyer buys. Routinely cited as the reason for not buying a title in bargain: It did not sell well as a new book. Yet they will also routinely buy books in bargain that they know very well did not sell as new, and they know the reason they do this is because they now have a track record of it selling as bargain.

I have buyers who will only buy mint condition. These are the hardest to please, for me, as most of my lines are marked. The interesting thing here, though, is that these buyers tend to buy very different titles than other buyers. They buy bigger books, more hardcovers, more of the full color, gardening-cooking-home-decorating coffee table books. Some of my other buyers buy this material, but very few. They say these "never sell." Again, as I've said elsewhere, these buyers can be in the same town. They probably have many of the same customers.

I have internet marketplace resellers who use elaborate formulas or purpose-built software to figure out what to buy, and others who just focus on the rankings. Either way, these buyers feel very strongly that the books they reject on every list have zero value and the ones they buy had better ship immediately to keep the competition from buying them. This is a perfect illustration of what I am trying to get at here, since both buyers sell in exactly the same place and they buy completely different books.

One aspect of my service is that I highlight sellers, books which my customers are buying consistently over time, or those which one or a few buy in big quantities. This annoys my suppliers. They feel the highlights skew the lists against the titles without highlights. If only they knew the most common reaction I get from my customers is "who would buy that?" My customers buy what they will, highlights or none. There is neither rhyme nor reason to my sellers; they are all over the place. 

All of this is to say, please broaden your buys. I'm not laboring under the mistaken impression that I could do what my customers do. Running a bookstore or any kind of retail book business is extremely challenging. I can't tell you what to do and never for a moment suppose that I could do it better. But just this one bit, this one little angle of perspective, does seem so clear to those of us on this side of the table, and so obscured on the other. In the difficult market in which we work, sales reps do not tend to talk business with each other much, but this buyers-who-do-not-buy thing does get into the conversation. 

Take a look at the titles you are passing and try a few. You might go on the recommendation of other buyers, customers, other staff, nearby children, or, dare I say, a sales rep. Don't do too much damage. If you order 100 titles at a time, try 5 you might not have tried. Order in small enough quantities to be able to mix in with shelf stock, but enough to display face up on a table and get some idea of track record before it (hopefully) sells out. Keep doing this. Your sales will increase.

Independent booksellers are businesses, but the buyers that work for them or own them are individual, idiosyncratic  people. Otherwise why be in this profession? They order based on what they perceive as the needs and wants of their customers, and no doubt about it, they are right in this. Still, they cannot help but show their true colors through their selections. The differentiation is noticeable in front and back list buying, and starkly stands out in bargain.

A buyer emailed me this feedback, June 27, 2013:

I would point out that large format pictorial books sell, but only in mint condition. Why would an interior designer who is concerned about things being in their proper place want a ratty book with a mark on the bottom to put on their fancy coffee table? Thus your customers who are extra picky about condition are right. But they often don’t understand the power of price.  A book becomes something completely different when it’s $19.98 instead of $49.98. Those who primarily buy hurts believe  of pictorial books that“they don’t sell” because they always get slightly flawed copies with marks on the bottom. In this case they are right.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Shortcomings of Short Quantities

If you've been reading my blog you know that some of my vendor clients sort returns ("hurts") from publishers. They send me lists of these and I send those lists to my customers after highlighting new arrivals and sellers. 

Most of these suppliers have a minimum quantity they accumulate per title before they include that title on their lists. One has a minimum of 5, for another it is 10, and one uses a very aggressive 50 as their minimum list quantity.

The beauty of the one that does not have a minimum is that, if you receive my lists, you get to see a snapshot of what the inventory looked like just after it was sorted out. If a publisher ships all of their returns in a month to the one client who has the contract to buy all of those returns, which is how this business works, and after those truckloads get sorted out and there are a few titles where only one or 2 or three copies of a title were found, guess which titles are the most desirable?

So, it's great that you get to see these, except for one glaring problem: only one of my subscribers gets those wonderful gems. Not always the same one, and not always the same gems, but always the first one to order the ones you wanted.

This is a big issue for me. If I have somebody who has been subscribing to my list service for a few months and they finally decide to purchase because they see several amazing titles on this list of 1s and 2s (this particular list has quantities ranging up to over 30,000), I could lose that customer if they place their order behind the first customer that wanted the same titles, especially if this is their introduction to this corner of the industry.

I know I have said elsewhere that you need to act fast to get a decent fill rate, but this is truly difficult. How fast is fast? I have a small used bookstore that orders within 10 minutes of receiving my lists, or not at all. The owner (and I think he reads this blog, so forgive me for sharing strategy with my other 19 readers) usually orders only a dozen titles or so. Not a big order, but it is always these amazing titles, and when he orders, there are always several other customers who are disappointed.

The effect is compounded with every order I receive before yours.

I don't know the solution. I need to sell to live, so the option of sending the list to one customer, waiting for their order, then reducing quantities on the list and sending it to the next customer does not work. First, of the 400 or so customers that ever order from me, not one orders every time I send them a list, not even remotely close. So how long to wait? By the time I would finish such a routine I would have the next week's inventory, or maybe the week after that.

How about if I only send to a small group of customers at a time? I do this in a limited and haphazard way, but even when I do it well, the exact problem I described above still happens, with almost the same frequency. 

On the hopeful customer side, the ones who keep trying eventually get the books they want. The returns-sorter suppliers have contracts with one or two publishers and tend to get the same books in similar quantities, shipment after shipment. This is small consolation if you are hoping for certain titles for specific customers or events, but if you are hoping to build and improve your selection, this approach pays off in the long run. 

Going back to the first premise of this post, if a title is hot, if there are 2 copies, or 10, or 50, the same dynamic applies. I had this problem, lasting for a few painful months, over and over again, with several Philip K. Dick titles. They showed up on one of my lists, and one or two of my first responders, and not the same one or two, would get them all. I may have permanently lost many subscribers due to this. 

I do have lists where this problem never arises. These are from my clients who publish their own books and buy remainders in quantities of several hundred to several thousand and would not know a return if it fell on their heads. I don't want to limit myself to these clients alone, as I would lose so many great titles to offer my customers, but the thought has crossed my mind.

I get almost no feedback on this blog, which is seriously and completely fine by me, but if you have any ideas you would like to share, or you just want to offer some constructive criticism, I am all ears. This particular problem is starting to take a toll

Monday, June 3, 2013

In a Trade Show State of Mind

Trade shows are a necessary evil of doing business. Some folks love them (mostly folks who don't have to do setup), and there are lots of good things to say about them, but after so many years of attending them, exhibiting at them, and missing my children's birthdays because of them, I am allowed my occasional outburst.

Different shows have different personalities. The big trade shows are not so much about buyers buying books as they are about rights, marketing, and deals between agents, authors, and publishers. There are huge numbers of people at these shows, dressed for business, heads up, shaking hands, smiling their best business smiles, conversing loudly in their best business voices. Bargain shows, much smaller affairs, are rows upon rows of tables with books loaded on them. People are quietly hunched over, heads down, looking at the books, all of which are samples of quantities at the exhibitors' warehouses. When it's time to do the deal or make the purchase, the buyer steps around the table and sits with the sales rep or the owner and works it out, then moves along to the next table or booth. Rare book fairs are quieter still.

Book Expo, the London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, and the Beijing Book Fair are trade shows for the entire book industry and then some. Thousands of attendees for these behemoths include literary agents, trade buyers, used book buyers, bookstore owners, authors, and everybody else looking for opportunities to grow their businesses or careers. Exhibitors include publishers, trade and remainder wholesalers, distributors, freight companies, manufacturers of anything remotely book related, service providers, software companies, and, more and more often, self-published authors. Book Expo almost fills the Javitz Center in New York, about a city block. Frankfurt feels like, and may actually be, ten times that size. No one buyer can work an entire show of that size in the time allotted. Attendees know why they are there and focus on their agenda.

Trade shows are costly events. Even the smallest exhibitors can't get away for less than several thousand dollars. Attendees have flights, hotels, and everything in between. Budgets being tight, it becomes harder to justify these expenses.

And yet...

I was recently sitting with a customer in the booth of a wholesaler client when the wholesaler pulled a box off a hand truck and said these were new arrivals, titles that they had not had time to add to their inventory (hence not on the lists I send you). He cut the tape, opened the carton, and pulled out about a dozen samples. Among them was a copy of a particularly great title. My customer immediately ordered way more than the stated quantity, thereby ensuring that she would get all copies. So, one customer got all of one of my hottest titles of the last quarter, without anybody else seeing it. For this edition, not ever. So it is hard to do anything but recommend that you should attend trade shows.

Like many friends and colleagues, I make it a practice to walk the entire show, at least once. This is a quick walk through, looking left and right as I go, seeing what I missed, taking notes, not stopping for too long anywhere, trying to avoid getting into long conversations. Some of these notes might never be referred to again, but some turn into new lines, new leads, or new business plans. Now and then I run into someone who I have not seen for years and the reconnected relationship becomes important again.

At the bargain shows, such as GABBS, CIANA, and CIROBE, and regional shows, and maybe the rare and antiquarian shows, most of the attendees and exhibitors have been doing business with each other, or at least meeting with each other, for years. There is a feeling of family or tribe, with all the familial ups and downs. Loud arguments between family members, a little brawl now and then, enthusiastic sharing of fantastic and nasty jokes, shunning of collectively perceived ne'er do wells. There are meetings at trade shows that turn into actual marriages. Children grow up in these businesses. Sometimes one sees the adult child of a long-gone wholesaler manning his or her own booth, or taking the reins at the venerable parents' institution. There are moments of silence for members of the tribe who shuffled off the mortal coil between shows. Or at one. Doing business with the same people for decades is more than business.

The big shows don't have quite such a communal feel (though the fist fight I alluded to above did happen at one); but it's there in places. The big shows are islands in archipelagos. If you're a remainder buyer you can spend the whole show going island to island in that one archipelago, where everybody knows one another. If you go to the next archipelago, the language changes and the customs and rituals become unfamiliar. There's something called "returnable." Very strange.

When the show ends, we go off in our separate directions, knowing we will all see each other again at the next show, maybe thousands of miles away, in a foreign capital, where we will discuss books, print runs, customers, publishers, and, perhaps more importantly, what Manchester United did to Liverpool, or the Steelers did to the Ravens, or our children did to make us proud.