Sunday, November 10, 2013

Independent Means

Several years ago I was involved in the founding and management of the Independent Booksellers Consortium, a group of bookstores who joined to form a cooperative buying and information sharing venture. The first thing they wanted to do together was buy remainders.

We quickly discovered that, if there is one area in which independents are more independent than others, it's remainder buying. Lists would go out to the member stores and come back with different selections for every bookstore. There was very little overlap. The buyers know their customers and buy for them, not for customers of another bookstore in another state. One of the IBC board members at the time was also the buyer for his bookstores (he had 7) and had a hard time believing that the buyer for a certain other store, located half a continent away, did not also want to order any of a title he wanted 50 copies of. He had an even harder time believing that no other buyer in the group wanted that title. It was a learning experience.

Once we figured out that remainder buying was not going to be the glue that held the organization together, we developed new goals and IBC became a great place for its members to work together to improve and enjoy their businesses. Twenty years later, they are still going strong. (If you would like to see a list of IBC member stores, go to my "Great Bookstores" page here. You will find the link listed between Honey & Wax Booksellers and Jim Reed Books.)

Being an independent bookstore means buying and selling independently, and when it comes to remainders and bargain books, very independently. You have all sorts of systems to help you buy frontlist and backlist and, inevitably, those systems create buying scenarios that homogenize you to a degree. You are not quite independent when you are buying the latest releases. When you buy remainders, however, you are focused entirely on your bookstore, your community, your customers. One look at my daily bestsellers list says it all: Most of them will not sell, ever, to most of my customers, yet some of my customers buy up to hundreds of copies of those titles at a time, or they would not be on the list. A high proportion of those titles sell out during those sales that put them on the list. And the customers these bestsellers represent are not necessarily frequent buyers. Many only buy between four and six times per year.

Most of my regular customers, that is, those who buy more than once per month, are small bookstores. Their orders are frequently the minimum or a little higher, averaging about $325. They tend to buy fairly quickly, ordering from lists sent to them in the morning by the end of that day or within a few days. They buy 2s, 3s, 5s, sometimes 10s, and there are usually between 20 and 30 lines per order. Most of their orders contain a few titles that no other bookstore buys, and they reorder some of these unique items over and over.

When visiting bookstores, this wide spectrum becomes more apparent. Lots of booksellers put their bargain books in one area of their store, like a department, some on tables, stacked face up, some spine up. Some display them in bookcases, spine out for the shorts and singles, face out for the larger quantities. Used bookstores tend to mix remainders in with their regular stock on their shelves, and more and more trade bookstores are doing this as well. Some bookstores do all of the above.

If you're looking for the best way to do bargain, the most important thing is to pay attention to what works in your store, for your customers. Some bookstores actually put their bargain department in their (nicely appointed!) basements -- you know, the bargain basement -- others have found this completely kills their sales. Don't give up right away if your first month or two of bargain sales are not what you had hoped. Mix it up, change your approach, go from tables to shelves, or shelves to carts, or whatever makes your customers happy.

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