Why do so many booksellers put so much time and resources into making and keeping bargain books a big part of their bookstores? I asked a group of bookstore buyers and owners and the response was consistent and humbling.
A buyer at a bookstore that sells new books, this one with a large bargain department that could be its own bookstore, said: "Bargain books can create positive word-of-mouth in the community. When people talk with others about a full-price book they talk about the book and not where they bought it. But when it's a bargain, that becomes part of the story they tell -- I just got this great book for $4.98 at such-and-such bookstore."
He continued: "And on a personal note -- booksellers are fellow travelers with many low wage folks. So I always get a thrill ringing up a customer with a stack of bargain books. I'm incredibly happy that they got such a great deal on books they want to read."
An owner / buyer at another bookstore that sells new books said she loves "having a great selection of kids' bargain books. There are tons of gems out there if you look for them. Kids go through so many books and new books add up quickly. Even more important, I see families who probably would never buy their child a $17 book and who wouldn't even go down to our kids room, pick up bargain books outside the store. We're putting books into kids' hands who might not otherwise get to have their own books."
[I have always felt that part of my mission is to put more books into the hands of more people, including many who could not otherwise afford them, so it's always good to hear from booksellers who feel the same way.]
From another buyer at another bookstore that sells new books: "Aside from the obvious stuff, remainders are fun, in that the selection for both customers and buyers is unpredictable."
[I always mean to, and forget to, stress the fun aspect of bargain. Many buyers and booksellers, on both sides of the buying counter, including me, talk about this as being one of the reasons for buying bargain.]
She continued: "It’s not just the latest/hottest stuff, it’s books you always wanted to read but forgot about when their moment passed. It’s books you loved and now can buy for all your friends. It’s art books at prices younger/budget-constrained people can afford—it makes art less elitist. The lower prices allow readers to experiment and indulge curiosities they can’t when new hardcovers are $25-plus and 'paperback' no longer means cheap."
"I think it’s really the variety and constant surprises that I like most. That’s why I’d always rather get new stuff in than restock titles I've had before (except at Christmas: have to have those books customers saw back in June…the perfect thing for Uncle Bob!)."
[Other buyers reorder much stock that sells out and develop bargain bestsellers in this manner.]
From a buyer at a bookstore that sells both new and used books:
"The thrill of the hunt has always been a personal reason why I like bargain. This means searching in the most unlikely places, the relatively small quantities, and being quick with responses, with the better books being limited in supply. Testing your book knowledge against the clock, and all those other great buyers."
He continued: "Definitely add-on sales. We always have people buying new books, a few bargain books, and a sideline or two. The other thing worth mentioning perhaps is that you can market bargain tables like new tables- staff picks, coordinated displays, etc. I think it’s such an afterthought for most bookstores."
[It's interesting that so many bookstores which have made themselves experts in bargain have done the same with sidelines.]
From an owner / buyer at a used bookstore:
"Bargain books have changed over the years. I used to use them to fill categories that were not coming in the door fast enough. I bought a lot of history, science, philosophy and other non-fiction. They really allowed me to fill in and keep a well rounded store."
[I recommend that bookstores selling new books use this category-building capacity of bargain as well, especially in sections such as poetry, philosophy, history, and art. With little effort and expense, you can greatly expand the variety and sales in any category.]
He continued: "Bargain books now seem to be more about returns from big box stores. So they allow me to keep mid-list inventory in stock. Thus I am buying more fiction, kids and art books. I can now get good pop-up books that are not broken.
Bargain books are great for window displays. I'd say more than 3/4 of the books in my window are from remainder dealers. They look nice, and when people want them, I can pull from overstock rather than having to redo my window every day."
[Again, this works for all bookstores.]
From an owner / buyer in the college market:
"We often find books that are used as course adoptions- we can price hurts in relation to their retail price at times rather than benchmarking their net price- offering sale books that come from titles in active circulation ( hurts ) gives us a chance to offer sale prices on books that people are still paying full price and that generates the sense of a bargain even greater than a remainder find."
This from an owner/buyer at a bookstore that sells new, used, and bargain:
"We started as a 500 sq ft used bookstore, expanding over the decades to 5,000 and then to 10,000 sq ft with the addition of new books and sidelines. However, the used books have always continued to be a big draw and we soon realized that the demand for used books far exceeded the supply. That's when we discovered remainders. Knowing our customers' interests in new & used books helped us to select remainder titles that turned over very rapidly. Bringing our new-book buyer to trade shows and remainder warehouses offered her the opportunity of filling out whole sections of the store with only a modest investment -- e.g., crafts, art, photography, memoir."
And he wrapped up with the kind of financial details I don't see much of and am very thankful to this bookseller for sharing:
"Last year we grossed $265K in remainders, 6-7% of our total sales. Purchases were $147K for a net of $118K, a 55% gross margin. Sweet."
I also heard from buyers, owners, events coordinators, and other booksellers saying that bargain books help with customer retention, always being interesting and drawing them back in. A customer running short on time, shopping on their lunch break, might come back on a day off to get a longer look at the bargain tables.
Others say it's like saying "thank you" to their customers. Some of these under-price bargain, cutting their margins on targeted categories to make the prices so low they become a topic of conversation among their customers and help spread the word about their bookstores, reinforcing the first buyer's point.
Everybody seems to value the impulse sales that bargain brings in. The strategically placed bargain table can multiply sales when customers, walking to the areas of the bookstore where they will find the books they came in to buy, can't resist the great titles at great prices they see on the way, or that are stacked near the point of purchase.
Booksellers whose businesses rely heavily on off-site sales, such as college bookstores with buy-back events, children's bookstores running school book fairs, or any bookstore doing kiosks at convention centers during expos, often report using bargain to stock these events between 50% and 100%.
Finally and importantly, customers sometimes tell booksellers that they first started reading real books because they were in the bookstore with their child or friend or significant other and saw something interesting on the bargain table, bought it on impulse, and discovered that the reading experience was so much better than reading on an e-reader.
That should kindle your interest in bargain!