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


  1. Whenever I don't get the books I order from you Ben, I just forgive you and add another tick to the tally of drinks you owe me. :) Cheers, Harry (Elizabeth's Bookshops Australia)

  2. Methinks I must have a business rally to afford your drinks tally!!