Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with other booksellers. The occasion was a dinner arranged by a publishing house so that an author who is reluctant to tour could meet booksellers in a social setting. We all enjoyed getting to know him (and getting signed copies of his latest thriller, to be released in July), but I think we enjoyed getting to know each other even more. The booksellers were from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and for once the “central” location was not far from my own small town. One of the disadvantages of owning retail a business is that one doesn’t get out to visit other similar establishments; during those critical shopping hours, we’re all keeping our own home fires burning.
If you guessed that we spent the majority of our conversation discussing the Amazon/Hachette imbroglio, you guessed wrong. We all agreed early on that it was fun to watch what is happening, and to read all the diatribes against our common foe, but that the majority of the public doesn’t really understand it or care very much. So on to topics where we could share information and help each other with problems we can actually do something about.
I’ve mentioned here innumerable times that customer service is critical to the survival of small independent bookshops. There was no disagreement from any of my colleagues on that point. We found we also had common experiences with customers’ reactions to that service. It’s not that they’re overly demanding; in fact, they have low expectations and seem surprised to be offered serious assistance. Many times after I spend ten or fifteen minutes with someone, finding out what they like to read or perhaps helping them choose a gift, they thank me profusely and apologize multiple times for “taking up so much of your time.” I learned that this reaction is not unique to my shop. I always explain that helping customers choose books is the best part of my job, and makes all the necessary drudgery of owning a business worthwhile, as do my new friends. We wonder why this reaction is so common. Have the “big box” stores, where you’re lucky to get pointed in the right direction, inured people to being on their own? Do people shop so rarely in any small establishments, for toys, or clothing, or kitchen gadgets, that they have no experience with a salesperson who actually cares?
A few weeks ago I went to a small shop in our town that sells gourmet kitchen items. I needed a new coffee percolator, and my experience was what I expected. I was greeted as I entered, was asked if I needed help, was shown two brands of the appliance I wanted, and received explanations of the pros and cons of each. That’s why I was there, and not out at the highway shopping center at Bed Bath and Beyond, where the “associates” generally don’t know that coffee can be percolated. And the price was less than the big name brand with a short life span that BB &B offers. I can’t speak yet for the life span of my new purchase, but I certainly am a happy customer.
I read that one of the bestselling authors whose books are difficult to obtain through the online giant decided to forgo online shopping in protest. She says that she had become so accustomed to ordering and having products delivered to her door that she had forgotten the simple pleasures of being out in the community, shopping and seeing other people. I hope she spent some time in small shops. The big chain store experience, with underpaid, untrained, and uncaring employees is almost as bad as the isolation of having everything delivered. My expectations in the small kitchen furnishings shop came from the fact that I provide the same kind of service and shop with small independent retailers whenever I can. My fellow booksellers and I agreed that it is very sad that consumers today have learned to expect so little and feel the need to apologize for being helped in the way they deserve.
A significant part of any small bookseller’s service is the “special” ordering of books that are not in stock. One thing the huge chain bookstores conditioned shoppers to was huge inventories. Now that there are fewer of these mega-bookstores, we find that we have to educate people to understand that we can’t carry every book ever published, but that we can get most anything they want, and usually literally “overnight.” One bookseller commented at our dinner that the words “order” or “special order” are the “Kiss of Death,” and that she has found several alternate phrases to use. The rest of us agreed that those words seem to be off-putting, and wonder why. Of course, there is the problem of those who need instant gratification, or, as I have experienced in the last two days, want a particular book for a Father’s Day gift and can’t wait until Monday. But frequently the shopper is in no particular rush; the words, “I’ll have copies on Friday” prompt a return visit on that day. There is something about that “special order” phrase that makes shoppers say, “That’s OK. I don’t want to put you to the trouble.”
Two or three keyboard strokes is not a lot of trouble. Suppliers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor deliver to most of us the day after an order is placed. Customers who have placed orders with the large chain bookstores are amazed when I tell them the book will be here the next day; they are used to long waits and don’t quite believe me. I explain that in a large company, there are corporate procedures and channels that have to be dealt with. The independent seller is the procedure, the channel, whatever. So no problem; I placed the order while we were chatting. In addition to conditioning the public to huge inventories, the chains conditioned them to believe any special request was a big deal, and more trouble than it was worth. Again, it appears that caring customer service from a retailer is a foreign notion.
There may be other reasons that the phrase “special order” turns off customers, and I would be interested to hear from book buyers who know what they are and have suggestions for making the concept more palatable. I would love to share these with my new friends.
There were many more topics discussed, from customer quirks to how to increase event attendance (to ticket or not to ticket?). I hope to elaborate on a few others in future blogs. In the meantime, remember: Shop Local. We’re here to serve you!