When you’re planning a business, your thoughts are filled with dreams and ideas. It’s fun to think about what you’ll carry, who will shop at the store, and what people will want to buy. These become the foundations of the business plan and you make so many decisions based on these assumptions.

And then you open the doors.

So now that we’re at the 90-day mark, here are some of the surprises we’ve had along the way. Some pleasant, some not so much, yet all of the lessons are valuable.

Mother’s Day books and gifts enjoy the focal point display at the main entrance. Customers need help finding the right gift.

Retail shortfalls become bookstore opportunities. We keep hearing the business news report that retail is in significant decline due to online shopping. While that may be true for many kinds of retailers, it has not proven true for us. Greeting cards are in such demand we scramble to keep the pockets full. Quality products are in short supply. Some people want higher quality than what cheap goods just got off-loaded on a freighter from China. New baby gifts are hot in our grandparent market.

Gifts can make you a destination. One of our customers came to the store to buy her husband a 75th birthday present. She purchased a $160 globe that revolves with power from any light source. Our fourth order for these gloves has been sent in so we have more for our Father’s Day display. People often don’t think of buying a gift far in advance. While some of these gifts are for children’s birthday parties, many are for “big” birthdays, weddings, and graduations … life’s big moments.

Uniqueness sells. I never expected to have so much product on consignment. Yes, we do have some local books on consignment, but in support of our theme of “the art of living,” we initially brought on five local artists and hung their art throughout the store. Friends make beautiful pottery, so we set a breakfast table and paired it with cookbooks and fabric runners and napkins made by a neighbor.     My dear friend’s Kanzashi pins (the Japanese fabric folding) tell a beautiful story. All of these items are one-of-a-kind. In an era of mass production, uniqueness sells.

“Shop Local” awareness is greater than expected. Yes, there are people who come in and take a photo of books and our shelf-talkers, but this is rare. Many times each and every day people comment how happy they are that we have opened Story & Song and they will be shopping at our store because they want us to succeed. Still, we have “Shop Local” messages in the store because we know that consumer education is ongoing.

“New” doesn’t matter as much as we think. In the book business, we’re constantly trying to keep up on what’s just off the press and in the news. While this matters with some books and authors, it plays a very small part of what sells on any given day. People want and need you to point out worthy books and special items. When you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to find it online. Carry what you and your staff love and want to sell.

Be open to a greater vision, one that goes beyond books. We are a bookstore, yet we are also about quality gifts, wine, concerts, conversation, and art. In a small market like ours, people are hungry for a more interesting experience and our business needs income from all of those areas to be sustainable.

It’s been fun (and exhausting) and I’m feeling the surprises along the way will always keep things interesting.

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.

With Small Business Saturday the perfect opportunity to remind people of your start-up and the importance of small business to the local economy, why not do a pop-up shop?

Start-ups do pop-ups for a variety of reasons, mostly for visibility and the opportunity to learn from your customers while you’re still making critical decisions about your selection, programming, etc.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

We learned the importance of being mindful the “intense” opportunity. In a limited amount of time you will arrange tables, merchandise your selection, set-up cash register operations, handsell books, ring up sales and gather customer information.

Then, when it’s all done, you’ll box up what’s left, haul everything that’s left back home, close out your register, look at what sold, and let all those customer conversations sink in.

It’s trial by fire.

At our pop-up on Saturday, the good news was people showed up! Our location is a destination, people aren’t just going to stumble upon it. Marketing was key so we sent out an email promotion, posted it on social media, and put signs up on the road beside our tiny Amelia Park Town Center.

Friends and neighbors came; they wanted to buy. Although the internet connection worked via our cell phone to the laptop so we were able to accept credit cards, the receipt printer decided to take the day off.

So, here’s what we learned:

  • Your troubleshooting and stress management skills you’ve built throughout your career will help you push through anything that comes your way. (We electronically ordered from both wholesalers with one failed transmission that led to duplicate shipments. Two books arrived damaged.)
  • Present a bit of everything you think you’ll carry in your store, then see what sells. The wholesalers offer non-book merchandise, so try out some things you think might sell.
  • Talk with people about what they like to read and tell them you’ll carry books those kinds of books.
  • Books change lives and people want to tell you their stories. Listening is such an easy way to build a relationship.
  • Say a few words about why the book the customer has picked up is noteworthy or special; show them beautiful books; tell them about what you heard the author say in a radio interview. People buy stories and beautiful things.
  • People will be incredibly patient and kind. These are your neighbors and they want you to succeed.
  • Some people will want something you don’t happen to have that day. Write it down and go find it and order it for them. They will be wowed by your interest and  initiative. When you make it easy and go the extra mile for someone, you are gaining a fan.

Pop-up Bev Pat JeffFor me, the technical aspects of running a store on an off-site laptop, getting all of the electronic parts to perform and learning all of the operational aspects from creating a purchase order to receiving books, selling and running the close-out report provided a training ground.

Even with a pop-up, you have the opportunity to learn all of the things you’ll soon be doing on a daily basis.

From marketing to operations, it’s all good learning.

Whether I’m reading the news from the National Retail Federation or listening to the nightly business news, it seems so many retailers are struggling. Blame the internet, overhead, or too much space, but retail is challenged.

Yet the news coverage of indie bookselling is quite the opposite. Travel magazines and any publication that spotlights a community will often call out area bookstores right along with the cafes and diners that celebrate local foods.

As students of retail, it’s interesting to explore the similarities and differences … notice the trends and spot the opportunities.

Business investors like to assess “scale”, referring to economies of scale and extra profits that come with volume and shared overhead. Growth is a constant expectation as are efficiencies realized from new uses of technology.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Corporate strategies have their place. So do the ideals, practices, and values of independent businesses.

In an opinion piece entitled “The Myth of Main Street” published by The New York Times, Louis Hyman stated, ”Small stores are inefficient” and added that shop local campaigns and vibrant downtowns are elitist. The tagline to the article reads, “Don’t listen to President Trump. Going back to the good old days will cost us.” A month after reading this piece, I’m still saddened by the narrow view of “costs”.

For decades, the U.S. has received an endless flow of cheap goods from other parts of the world that have filled the Wal-marts and dollar stores across the country. The issues regarding worker abuse and the harm inflicted on the environment have been well reported, yet those costs don’t enter the equation since we’ve been on a spiral down in terms of services jobs and low wages, only increasing the demand for cheap goods.

Independent businesses and booksellers for sure are about the spiral up.

Serve your community, offer quality that is difficult to find in most corporate retail stores, answer the phone, be there to assist customers with recommendations, host programs and events that bring the community together, then

buy with increased accuracy because of first-hand market knowledge, utilize just-in-time inventory efficiencies, increase wages and share profits, keep Main Street alive and lively. Most importantly, contribute to the local economy.

Efforts that contribute to the spiral up happen every day on Main Street. There’s a tangible difference between cost and value.

Some bookstores are well worth the drive. We were having lunch with friends who were telling us about their summer travel plans when I discovered we have a habit … we can’t help but associate a city with one (or more) indie bookstores. Going to Chicago? Oh, you’ve got to visit The Book Stall at Chestnut Court and don’t forget RoscoeBooks and the new Read It & Eat. One of my book group members texted me from Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore, An Unlikely Story, and attached a photo of her husband and granddaughter.

Just what is it about these stores people rave about? The entries on Yelp are love letters. Locals are proud they have a great indie bookstore in their community. The stores are listed in travel guides.

Here’s my list of three things. There are no numbers since all of these things are important and the truly great stores are way above average on every one.

* Passion for wonderful books with strong impulses to tell others about a really great read. From product to people, this can’t help but shine through.
* A full and thought-filled selection. Show me something I’ve never seen. Surprise me. Help me find something for someone I love. Make me smile.
* Offer a warm and friendly atmosphere. From people to place, the bookstore feels good: welcoming, comfortable, peaceful, engaging.

When we’re asked to do a business valuation for an existing bookstore or potential buyer, we look at Yelp, review their social media sites, and look through the store’s website. We see the passion, sense of place, and warmth in everything they do. A bookstore destination grows out of love.

No wonder people will drive out of their way just to visit. We need these places in our lives.

While in New York City for BookExpo America, we used a window of time before the convention began to slip into the flagship Macy’s store on 34th Street. There was a cover story on “Macy’s magic” in the Delta Sky magazine and we were ready for a retail field trip.

Macy's flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

Macy’s flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

The iconic store has been featured in films and is beloved for its Thanksgiving Day parade tradition. In touring the store, it’s clear that Macy’s has embraced many traditions while keeping the store fresh and exciting.

For booksellers and all retailers, Macy’s is a model. Here are a few of the lessons we took away:

Keep Building On Your Reputation
Macy’s has been the fabric of New York City and is known throughout the world. The windows are kept fresh and interesting. Displays are constantly changing. The staff is friendly, happy, and helpful. The old creaky escalators still take you floor to floor. Their signature event remains the anchor of their marketing plan.

Cater to Your Customer
We walked by the kids shoe department and saw the adjacent display of skate boards in really cool colors, stacked up high ready for loads of summer fun. Macy’s knows people stay for hours and hours, so they’ve added food and beverage service in strategic places. Macy’s understands many of their customers are tourists. Near one of the main restaurants is a display of Macy’s branded merchandise, from dog bowls to t-shirts and tote bags that connect their logo with artwork they commissioned.

Create a Delightful Escape
The store is a destination. It sparkles. It smells good. There are beautiful displays everywhere you look. The graphics make the store feel alive with real people. Signage helps you find things. It’s a happy place. You can Macy’s online, but if you can, you want to go into the store.

In today’s retail, most department stores have had a tough time competing with online shopping. Not Macy’s. They embrace the art and science of retail and have created an American institution.

Listen to National Public Radio and you never quite know how your life might be affected. This week Diane Rehm interviewed Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World and what lingered for me was the value meditation has in changing anything.

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with our thoughts and leads to new mindfulness and way of being

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with us

During the conversation, Mr. Ricard noted the link between meditation and our neurological wiring. A commitment to thinking differently, and using meditation as our dedication to the effort, can bring amazing results.

In our work with bookstore turn-arounds, it’s become clear that the obstacles to turning financial losses to business sustainability are deeply rooted negative beliefs, mostly about money, profits, greed and business. Lump them all together in a negative light, and we limit our capacity to create a healthy business.

Here are some positive beliefs that can help guide daily activities in creating a sustainable business:

* My awareness will help guide a positive outcome.
* I seek to learn how to prioritize my work so that I give the bookstore the best and most important things it needs.
* My ongoing learning will help me broaden my awareness and strengthen my ability to lead the business.
* If I want a different outcome, I am willing to rethink my routines.
* Our profits indicate that we are making magical connections with our customers; that they choose to buy from us confirms when we are paying attention and making wise choices.
* I am part of the business community that values people. Our presence provides healthy places to work and honors reading and lifelong learning.
* Our profits are what allows us to continue to contribute to a healthy local economy.

We often refer to the “Art and Science of Bookselling” because both are necessary for sustainability. For some, the art comes easy and the science, not so much. Expanding our insights and learning skills begins with mindfulness and openness.

After spending three very full days with Jeff Kinney’s crew to prepare for the opening of An Unlikely Story, a bookstore cafe in Jeff’s hometown of Plainville, Mass., we toured the store together to admire the work that had been accomplished and learn more about the inventory selection.

What evolved was a beautiful conversation about why we so love to spend time in bookstores.

Mealtime fun! Many of these items came from Fred & Friends, "Airfork One", "Dinner Winner", and "Mealtime Masterpiece" paper placemats were some of our favorite picks.

Mealtime fun! Many of these items in Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore cafe came from Fred & Friends, “Airfork One”, “Dinner Winner”, and “Mealtime Masterpiece” paper placemats were some of our favorite picks.

Early on, when we began developing the non-book inventory, Jeff asked us to look for items that represented: “quality, imaginative, unique, not overly expensive, not pretentious.”

We watched price points (staying under $20) and looked beyond the typical items carried in the bookstore. Thinking about the people who live in the Plainville area, we searched for items that provided for “Family Fun” and items kids could purchase with their allowance money.

The goal is to make customers smile.

Birthday party items on display in the "Family Fun" section at An Unlikely Story

Birthday party items on display in the “Family Fun” section at An Unlikely Story.

Fun and weird books were put on display (otherwise found in the depths of the “Reference” section). Brightly colored journals (“Little Book of Awesome” and “Thoughts & Doodles”) prompt us to plunge into the creative side. Retro bicycle bells and “Mr. Bill” dolls went onto the Father’s Day display table. Colorful socks with amazing graphics filled an entire endcap at the far turn of the traffic path. And a whole side panel was devoted to birthday party fun.

When Jeff and his family came into the store to see how we were coming, our best initial feedback came when we overheard the boys say, “Wow!” and “Cool, look at this!”

As the team gathered to talk about the next step – officially opening the doors – we discussed what it really is that we want to accomplish. We agreed it’s about how we make people feel when they are in the bookstore.

I am fascinated with the Every Door Direct tool developed by the U.S. Postal Service. Designed for use by small businesses for planning door-to-door marketing, it turns out this is quite a valuable resource for prospective business owners.

very Door Direct Mail allows you to analyze your market by postal carrier route

Analyze your market by postal carrier route for detailed information on neighborhoods within a community

Here’s how it works … Go to the home page at https://EDDM.usps.com and enter a zip code you want to explore. Using the menu options below (Route & Residential), refine your search. Use your mouse to hover over different carrier routes and you’ll see demographic data appear on the screen describing who lives there.

This resource is perfect for:
Obtaining much more detailed demographics than by zip code or market analysis that takes a random 1, 3, and 5 mile radius around a particular address

Identifying neighborhoods and even streets that would be best for your new business

Collecting data for your business

Gathering marketing information to use later as you target your promotions

And, it’s free and available to you right now.

If you’re a visual person like me, it’s great to see the map, clip and save sections, and use the tables to choose the routes and tabulate population totals.

Market research has never been this fast, easy, or valuable.