Retail security experts have long said there are three sources why inventory disappears … external theft, internal theft, and errors. Physical inventories not only help a retailer confirm what’s on hand and in what quantities, it also helps get a glimpse on curious and problematic aspects of operations.

Last Sunday we conducted an early physical inventory so we could adopt a mid-year schedule. In Florida, summer has been a bit quieter than our first winter months. The last thing we need to do is celebrate the holiday shopping season and then count everything in the store on December 31st. So, we decided to get it done now, while inventory is lower and before we ramp up for the holidays.

Our retail space is approximately 2,400 square feet and we had eight of us working from 10 am until 6:30 pm to scan the inventory. Our computer systems vendor provided the scanners and instructions. We spent the week before getting organized and receiving everything before Sunday arrived.

With today’s technology, you can easily conduct your own physical inventory with your own staff. There are third party services you can employ, but it’s really not necessary to go outside since you’ll add extra time meeting them to explain your business.

On Monday morning, we began with an inventory that was correct, clear of receiving errors and corrected for “shrink”. During an author event earlier in the year, we knew a stack of books had disappeared, but we had no idea what else might have been stolen. The sobering fact is that even in small and safe communities, theft happens. Theft rings will even travel great distances for an opportunity.

The benefits of doing a physical inventory are many. We learn:

  • To correct item classification errors (books tagged for wrong sections) and ensure each new item brought into inventory has key fields properly coded
  • What processes need to be fine-tuned to ensure every item is costed properly
  • How to do mini audits throughout the year to keep the inventory accurate
  • What kinds of merchandise are most vulnerable for theft
  • What kinds of merchandise are most vulnerable for damage

Most importantly, we have a renewed commitment to shelving merchandise accurately and a new faith in our on-hand quantities … which is something we all appreciate each time we look for an item on the sales floor our system reports we have on hand.

When the cost of  inventory is the greatest cost of a bookstore, this annual count counts and is an essential step in managing the business.

It’s summer and that means time for vacation. Even though we have a permanent staff schedule, each week the schedule feels like a bowl of spaghetti with shift swaps happening left and right.

With our bookstore bistro we have further complexities … some booksellers also can work the cafe, but not all cafe staff can work the retail floor.

The aprons go on when we enter the store and we’re always ready to help out on the sales floor when necessary.

It would be lovely if coverage for all vacations, illnesses and surgeries, family visits, and special occasions could all magically work out. Unlike the 9-to-5 world, part-time staff will love working in the bookstore yet will always have something else as their number one priority. Opportunities for trips surface. Retirees can require a lot of time off to visit (or host) family and friends. College students sometimes can’t get the schedule they want at school and aren’t available when you need them most. Parents with children can have a slew of events they cannot miss. Then, cold and flu season hits.

The reality of owning a business is that in the end, it’s up to you to make sure all hours and tasks are covered. And some days, that’s easier said than done.

As we often work later than intended, cover shifts when we’d rather get back to business development, and spend more time arranging schedules, simply covering all of the open hours can be a challenge. And this can be a major factor for some who are thinking about the possibilities of owning a bookstore. If dropping everything for the business isn’t something you can do often, something will suffer as a result. In the end, we can understand why it’s so challenging to get to everything on our “To Do” list.

Ramping up a business to reach a level of revenue and net profit that allows you to build a core staff and even add some management-level positions. What a worthy goal that allows you to reclaim some of your time and be able to focus on the things that matter most to the sustainability of your business while the daily tasks get done.

Until then, long days where you are pulled in a variety of directions will be the norm. It’s exhausting. Yet unless you have unlimited funds to subsidize your start-up until you reach sustainability, most booksellers are moving fast and furiously, on their feet, constantly learning and juggling.

The glorious benchmark is to have even a handful of staff members who can take on important tasks so when it’s your time to take vacation, they’ll be the one filling in for you.

Bookselling is a unique profession in so many ways, but one that truly stands out is just how many people dream of having their own bookstore. We’re talking people spending years visualizing their bookstore, identifying books they’ll sell, and dreaming of the store filled with people who come to enjoy a heart-felt conversation.

This contribution to our inner lives and the inner lives of our neighbors and friends is one of the main reasons people get into the business. It’s also a big reason people choose to become booksellers after retiring from other careers.

Happy 20th anniversary to the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York!

One of our friends and colleagues in the book business is celebrating 20 years of being in business. The river’s end bookstore (yes, all lower case) in Oswego, New York was created by Bill Reilly who came to us when he had just retired from the New York world of magazine advertising. He was ready to relocate in upstate New York and begin a new chapter in his life.

Bookselling became his new career.

Since that moment, Bill has helped transform Oswego’s central business district in his corner space that makes a big impression when you drive into town. Bill added momentum and energy, enthusiasm and ideas to the business district. He has worked in collaboration with the university, local schools, and charitable organizations to help build community around books and ideas.

Twenty years ago, the space needed a real transformation since it was an historic building that had been used as a clothing store for years. I remember the shag carpeting, fitting rooms that needed to be demolished, and a drop-ceiling that was a throw-back to the ’70s when heating oil prices soared.

Bill wanted to have a beautiful bookstore that the locals would appreciate. He wanted to lift up the downtown district. He wanted to make a difference.

He certainly has accomplished this.

Bill’s wife Mindy joined the business after she retired from the university after working extra hours in the bookstore since it opened. Together, they have hosted authors, helped schools, worked with the university, and worked hard to live the dream.

Today, Bill and Mindy celebrate twenty years of bookselling and we are thrilled that their son Emile will carry on the tradition.

Bookselling, although demanding and challenging, can offer such rich rewards. For many, it starts with a dream and then can lead to making a difference. What a way to spend the next chapter in life.

Congratulations, Bill and Mindy and the booksellers at the river’s end bookstore! You have lived your dream in a beautiful way.

 

 

 

Once your dream becomes reality, you have made a stark right turn. Your vision is now central to your “To Do Today” list. You go from thinking about things in a general way to making them actually happen.

We’ve now entered our third month of being in business. Looking back to the planning and set-up stages, it’s now even more clear what new store owners need to get right from the very beginning. Our work with clients that have been open a few years reveals the kind of difficulties that can surface later on when it’s harder to change what’s already firmly in place.

These are the biggies, in no particular order.

Choose a computer management system that works in the book industry.
The most pain we see is when someone has bought a generic POS system because the screen is sleek or the system is most affordable. Now that I am the one ordering and returning books at this stage of our start-up, I see just how time consuming it is even though we import title data from book industry sources.

Be kind and gracious to all authors and have a system in place so you can make inventory and marketing decisions.

Know how you will accommodate self-published authors.
Self-published authors will make a beeline to you. How will you handle people who approach you every day and want to tell you about their book … or their sister-in-law’s series of children’s books? Know if you’ll take books on consignment (and learn how to do that) and how self-published authors who live in your community (and don’t) fit into your plan for inventory, programs and events. You won’t find much time to get things done if you are constantly taking time out to have ad hoc conversations with self-published authors, so have materials ready. Here’s our web page that allows them to tell us about their work and their ideas for helping us sell (not just stock) their book(s).

 

 

 

Be present on the sales floor.
Your competitive advantage is that you are a neighbor running an independent business that has invested in the community. Be visible to customers who want to thank you for opening. Be visible to staff who are watching how you greet and interact with customers. Show staff what to do when they’re not busy with customers. Answer the phone. Write shelf-talkers. Restock the supplies at the cash wrap. Clean the restroom. You are setting the pace and the tone.

Present a full and rich selection.
As it’s been said many times before, you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. You’ll learn a lot about how to shape your selection once you’re open and see what people are requesting and buying. Yet from the beginning, your selection can spark tremendous word-of-mouth marketing, your most genuine and valuable way to get new customers. Spark that momentum with the best books and gifts and toys and cards you can showcase from day one.

Some things are hard to change once routines have been set, behaviors have been established, and opinions have been formed. Prepare for a successful launch and you’ll spend less time reacting and more time enjoying the amazing bookstore you’ve been dreaming about for so long.

We’ve been wearing roller skates for months as first there was so much to do to launch the bookstore, now we’ve focused on shifting to organizing daily operations. Every day is over-flowing with things to do.

Mark and I have been thinking a lot about Tom Warner these last several weeks. Tom and his wife Vickie Crafton were one of our earliest trainees in the 1990s. After full careers in the textile industry, they purchased Litchfield Books. Tom said he wasn’t going to spend his retirement playing golf; he wanted something that would keep him invested in life. Each time we would see them at industry gatherings, Tom would ask us, “Why didn’t you tell me I’d have to work so hard?” Then, he’d add, “And I’ve never enjoyed my work as much as I do now.”

Tom died a few years ago and yet his stories live on. When we’ve come home exhausted from the day, we too acknowledge that there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing at this stage in our lives.

Here’s the counter-balancing moments to all of the administrative work:

  • children who draw us pictures or write notes on the blackboard in the play area
  • everyone who makes an effort to tell us and our crew just how much they love the store and how glad they are we have opened
  • when customers make the bookstore a stop for visiting friends and family
  • customers on the other side of the county who purchase from our website because they want to support a local business
  • our amazing crew who are over-qualified and beautifully devoted to making Story & Song a friendly and welcoming place
  • customers who tell us they found out about the store from a friend, hairdresser, or neighbor
  • 130+ people who show up to listen to and sing along with the local ukulele band
  • a sell-out concert two weeks before Harpeth Rising arrived to do our grand opening finale
  • a staged reading of “Looking For Normal” which prompted everyone to ask big-picture questions about society and our own biases
  • children who love telling us about what they like to read
The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

We are tracking above our sales projections, yet we’re still working relentlessly to fill the events calendar with reasons people should come into the store. Buying the opening inventory was one huge project and now we are working hard to transition into buying new releases for the coming months. Every day the interruptions keep us from getting things done, but saying “hello” to a customer who has come in with a neighbor is too important to miss.

In the next blogs we’ll be writing more about what we’ll call the “transition period” … the time when you’re switching between opening the store to operating the store. It’s another unique chapter on this path of developing a sustainable bookstore business.

Yet in the meantime, it’s important to take off the roller skates, stop, and breathe in the sweet moments that enrich each day in the bookstore.

We’re not thinking about ebooks here (ebook sales have plateaued and have been on decline for many months), but information technology as it powers bookstore operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager's laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager’s laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our dining room is transformed into our central area for setting up and learning how to effectively use our computerized bookstore management system. We’ve always said it is good to give yourself time. Now, it has become even more real.

Until now, I really never thought of the “To Do List” just for the setting up the system. It’s actually quite lengthy…

  • Set up store information for customer receipts
  • Enter departments, sections, and media (formats) to organize your inventory and determine how you want to analyze sales and inventory turns
  • Go to Edelweiss, where the publisher catalogs are managed online, to establish category mapping so you can import title information and have each book be automatically assigned to its proper category
  • Learn how to import book data from Edelweiss and your wholesalers
  • Develop customer loyalty programs so your system tracks customer purchases and helps you automate perks (no punch cards in today’s bookstore!)
  • Enter vendor account information (after you’ve opened your accounts!)
  • Lean to create purchase orders
  • Test electronic ordering (which is the best practices of our industry)
  • Learn to receive inventory so on-hand quantities are updated when you press the magic button
  • Understand how to research books using book industry databases (not amazon.com), find books customers want to buy from you, and put those on an order
  • Develop discount categories, add your staff discount and apply them only to the appropriate product departments
  • Establish security levels for various staff positions
  • Learn how to ring up a sale
  • Understand how to run a Z tape to close out sales for the day, then reconcile that for your bank deposit
  • Set up proper back-up procedures

And I haven’t even gotten to the accounting interface! The meeting with our CPA is Monday.

A computerized bookstore management system is essential to connecting to the book industry’s massive title databases and inventory detail, and this is where our systems go so far beyond Square or the generic POS systems. We are data-driven because each week we have thousands of new books released and our inventory is always fluid.

After a busy month of learning and testing our system, it’s clear that this effort requires planning, a keen attention to detail, and time before you go “live”.

This week’s headlines in the book business is Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos book. Some cheer, others uphold the First Amendment. It’s messy.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

While our First Amendment protects free speech, publishers are faced with way more submissions than they could ever publish, so choices are always being made about what manuscripts make the cut. Often times, celebrity wins out because of the expected return on investment. In many cases, like this one, it’s simply about business.

When Simon & Schuster decided to offer a $250,000 advance, the executives likely did their due diligence to understand that Yiannopoloulos was edgy and would offend many. As the editor of Breitbart News, he’d been in the spotlight for some time. So was his bad behavior on social media. Obviously, Simon & Schuster did not realize that he would be so controversial that author Roxanne Gay, offended by Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Yiannopoloulos, would withdraw her forthcoming book and that some booksellers would boycott the publisher, cutting frontlist orders.

Decisions have consequences.

Do publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, even language of hate and hurt? In the United States, absolutely.

Do authors, booksellers, and readers have the right to protest? Absolutely.

The book industry is a business, but many of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of ideas and the written word have limits. When so many worthy manuscripts never pass the editors desks, it’s hard to understand why resources would be used to publish words that contribute to the dark side of humanity.

Wendy Werris, a writer for Publishers Weekly magazine, wrote a “Soapbox” editorial that described her short bookselling experience working at Barnes & Noble. I closed the issue after reading her piece and let out a big sigh.

As technology has changed the way we work and live, we’ve seen the number of new books published exponentially increase. At one point a wholesaler mentioned we have more than 3 million books in print. Now, no one ventures to even utter a number, but I did hear that we’re at least at a clip of 2,000 new books per week. Yes, per week.

Indie booksellers are not only affected because the store size is finite, but there’s only so much time in the day to review publisher catalogs and industry news. How to keep up is an ongoing challenge.

Every book on this table display at Chicago's RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Every book on this table display at Chicago’s RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Yet investing time and energy in buying just to return is wasteful. It’s wasteful for the bookstore, for the publisher, for wholesalers, and for the book industry.

We want the best books for our community in the bookstore. Recommendations from sales reps is tremendously valuable; Above the Treeline helps; and spotlights from the American Booksellers Association (IndieNext) and regional booksellers associations help us focus our investment of time and inventory dollars.

In Wendy’s soapbox piece, you get an image of booksellers unpacking books from boxes, then gathering them up and boxing them back up for return. Every day, like the movie Groundhog Day, the task is the same.

Where’s the bookSELLING?

Our true north is with investing in the books we want to introduce to our community. Our work is to ensure when a book leaves the store, it’s not leaving through the back door on its way back to the publisher, but through the front door, in the hands of a customer who will enjoy a great read they have discovered at our bookstore. Selling means a focus is on aligning marketing, merchandising, and staff handselling.

When there are so many books and so little space and funds, we need to make sure our true north is reflected in the books that grace our shelves. Unlike corporate chains, we’re not in this business to buy and return books. When we care about great writing, a good story, and exceptional research, we will work to make sure those works are discovered. Sales, profits, and sustainability follow.

Bookstores typically aren’t pioneers when it comes to technology. We use book industry databases to help us navigate the growing world of books and can’t easily survive without the bookstore computer systems to manage the business, but otherwise, bookstores thrive on low-tech approaches to business. In today’s world, we often need to remind ourselves that this isn’t necessarily wrong.

Just think about the number of times you’ve called a business to automatically receive the recorded message that claims “your call is important to us…” and then you hang on the line and wonder if you’ll reach a real person. Conversations about implementing the $15 minimum wage includes corporations trying to find ways to automate more functions … to minimize the effect on shareholders.

Real connection requires the human touch.

Meaningful connection requires the human touch.

This week I read on Care2, an article by Anne Pietrbngelo entitled “7 Ridiculously Easy Ways to Do Good” and #3 was “When it’s people vs. technology, choose people.”

This is good advice for individuals. It’s great advice for companies.

We can love technology, but know its appropriate uses, switching to the human side of life to really connect. Long term, true relationships are formed this way.

An algorithm can give you a book recommendation, but it takes a real bookseller to listen to you explain what doesn’t work in a “search” box, then hand you some suggestions. You can browse online, but there’s nothing like hanging out in a bookstore, listening to people talk about their lives and their reading, and being surrounded by books that explore, explain, reflect on, and laugh at life.

You never know who you will meet, things you will discover, or what you will experience.

Our world is high tech and that won’t change. While our bookstores will be run on technology in the background, the real current is the human touch. It’s something that is and remains important.

We need to remind ourselves that it’s this human touch that forms the foundation of relationships and forms the foundation of a good business. It’s a good thing to keep this as our primary focus.

We celebrate each new opening of an independent bookstore. Shelf-Awareness, ABA’s Bookselling This Week, and Publishers Weekly all do a good job of announcing new store openings. It’s interesting to learn how a dream has become reality, but sometimes a single photo can tell us that we’ll soon see an announcement of the store closing.

One of the common pitfalls in opening a new bookstore is understanding the financial dynamics of a bookstore to get the business plan assumptions right. The margins in the book business are tight, and metrics, like inventory turns are essential to clarifying what sales need to be in order for the business to grow beyond break-even.

While no one wants to lose money, it’s surprising when a new bookseller will say, “I can’t afford the time” to come to a workshop to learn the business that will require thousands and thousands of dollars to launch.

Our response is, “can you afford NOT to?”

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

The photo we’re featuring has been modified to post in this blog, but it’s one of the photos that indicate the bookseller has opened on “a wing and a prayer”, driven by a dream, but uninformed and positioned for early failure.

All retail businesses are based on the buying and selling of goods. Inventory turns is a key metric that measures the productivity of our inventory. You take your inventory at its retail value and multiply it three to five times to forecast your annual sales.

The key question then becomes, “Is this enough?”

We recommend that a full and interesting selection of books and non-book items should run about $125 per square foot at its retail value, $75 per square foot at cost. The inventory in this photo appears to be at about $15 per square foot at cost.

Launching a dream for a bookstore is a wonderful contribution to community, but only if the story of this new business continues. It’s painful for everyone when a dream crashes. Those of us in the book industry want to see more success stories. The margins are tighter in the book industry than other forms of retail.  It pays to learn the complexities of the book industry and the basics of retail management before you dive right in.