Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Business Your Way

I've been a manager and a buyer for bookstores and wholesalers, managed a buying group, owned a bookstore and two wholesale companies. One thing I discovered over the years is that, if you own or manage a business, you tend to think of your customers as fitting within fairly easy to define boundaries. There are these customers here that do business this way, there are those over there that do business that way. This is a perception problem.

Entrepreneurs who buy into the bargain book wholesale business run into this problem early on. They see a particularly successful customer that buys large and often, and they ask why the sales team can't go find all the other customers in the world that match that profile; there must be so many. After all, one casual dining restaurant is duplicated with another name right next door and within a few years you have dozens of them, all successful. 

Even after years of trying, these recently-new book wholesalers will still sometimes wonder aloud why there is only one huge successful stand-alone surplus store that buys lots of books, or why they have only the one customer with the big mail order business that only sells bargain books, or how there can be only one regional chain of used bookstores that knows how to buy bargain. The thing is, all of these are actually the only ones doing it just the way they do it.

When I travel to visit customers, I will stop in at other bookstores in the area and see if I can meet the owner or the buyer, say hello, and do my best to convince them to buy bargain. I am struck, even at the smallest store level, by how unique each of these businesses is. There is the store with the maze of small rooms in an old apartment building they have gradually expanded to fill, or the stall in a hospital that has turned into a full service bookstore. A few stores are members of franchises, but seem to fit the corporate mold in signage only, being unique in how they buy, merchandise, and promote. 

If there's a formula for (or symptom of) success, it is that these businesses do everything they can to do business. They have internet sales, sidewalk sales, warehouse sales, and direct sales, school fairs, craft fairs, job fairs, health fairs, birthday parties, wine tastings, coffee shops, and date nights. 10% of their sales might be sidelines, or 90% non-book merchandise, and books, though sales have increased, have become one of many sidelines. The ever-present owners work harder than anybody else, and they seem to love it most of the time.

I was sitting with the owner of a medium sized bookstore and coffee shop as he was placing an order with me. As I was entering his order quantities in my spreadsheet, I saw that I had just received an email from another "books & coffee" business of about the same size, a customer who orders from me once every few weeks. The message was that the list I had sent that morning had nothing of interest, better luck next time. Same list, similar businesses, one buying, the other not.

Many of these differences can be chalked up to location. You can have two towns with 2 bookstores run by the same company, bought for by the same buyer, and stocking very different books, especially in the bargain area, because of location. But I think it's more because of the individuals buying the books, the hard working people who pay attention to what their customers need and want.

There are bookstore neighborhoods and bookstore towns. Hay-on-Wye, a town in Wales, is pretty much all bookstores. The only way this is possible is because of the individuals who own and manage those bookstores and supply them with their own unique mix of books. Customers can wander from store to store, never growing tired of the variety in selection and the bookstores themselves.

Physical books and the venues in which we sell them draw us in and they hold us, as they do our customers. This is certainly not the most financially rewarding career in the world, yet so many very smart people are still doing it. According to the ABA, 41 new bookstores opened last year. This does not include used and bargain stores that opened during the same period, some of which I know. This is quite a number for a business model and industry the prognosticators had deemed done for. 

There are stores going out of business. Part of the time I spent writing this post I was in the office of a fellow sales guy who was cold calling a store only to discover they were most likely closing their doors soon. This is a hard business, otherwise we would not need to work so hard, and yes, sometimes all that smart, hard work is not enough. But overall, looking at the whole experience of I and others in my line of work, it seems that the ones who do continue to make it, who see sales increase and businesses expand, are doing it in their own, unique ways.