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.

This past Monday, we submitted our large opening order to our wholesaler and a second order to a remainder dealer (for bargain books). The volume count just topped 11,000 and there will be a last minute order to catch the newest titles on the bestseller lists as January is also a big month for new releases.

A bookstore of just over 2,000 selling square feet can fit this many books. And, there is a lot of data about what books are available, what’s on the bestseller lists, which books just won awards, and what is currently selling in U.S. independent bookstores. That’s the good news.

The bad news is there is a lot of data about all kinds of books. While doing our planogram made it clear how many books we’d need to fill the shelves, selecting the titles was time consuming.

Our shelf-talker introduces Sweet Pea, the little New England sheep that began as the star of a self-published book.

Our shelf-talker introduces Sweet Pea, the little New England lamb that began as the star of a self-published book.

How time consuming? Susan Savory, our Paz & Associates colleague who develops opening inventories for our clients, has always estimated that it takes her about 100 hours, but this also depends on the size of the bookstore. That’s a lot of time. With Mark and I joining in on the selection, we went way over 100 hours.

Now, I know first-hand why it takes so long. It’s tedious, it’s detailed, and, it’s important. Inventory is the single biggest cost of owning any retail store.

When you’re selecting titles, it goes beyond the numbers. It’s about the people who live in your community, those you especially want to be enchanted when they shop in your store, and it’s about the character of the store and the special aspects of your region.

Imagine that each title on the spreadsheet requires a decision. You want each to resonate in your market because you need them all to sell … and hopefully within three to four months so you can reach your inventory turns target.

Tomorrow we’ll do our second pop-up shop, the last one before we get busy with the process of setting up the store. Last time, some of the new National Book Award winners we stocked didn’t sell out. How could this be, we wondered. The truth is that people need help making decisions. They need more information.

So, we got busy writing shelf-talkers and grabbing reviews. While we as booksellers make decisions on what to buy and why … customers need information too. Now, we have personal notes about why the books are interesting, heart-warming and worthy.

Even though buying the opening order became tedious and tiring, we ended each day talking about some of the remarkable books and authors that were part of our day. Their stories, research, artwork, and writing talent enrich our days.

We can’t wait to share all of this with our community.

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”.

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.

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.

Last week during BookExpo America, which was held in Chicago this year, we took a retail field trip to visit five Paz workshop grads who have recently opened or purchased existing bookstores. What a delightful way to spend the afternoon.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks has been in business for two years and is surpassing financial projections. Owner Erika Van Dam sensed her neighborhood wanted a real indie bookstore, and, she was right. As soon as you enter the space, you know this store is staffed with people who love books because the very first bookcase is filled with staff recommendations. Travel throughout the store and you find staff recommendations everywhere. No matter your age, the children’s department is such a draw with its colorful mural. At 2142 W. Roscoe Street, RoscoeBooks is the center of the neighborhood with a friendly space loaded with delightful reads.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

City Lit Books is a few short blocks from the Logan Square train stop and in the center of a most desirable Chicago neighborhood. Residents can walk to a poetry open mic night, author event, or simply to sit in the comfy chairs by the fireplace and pick out some new books to read. We love to see staff recommendations, meet booksellers who are authors themselves, and especially love seeing displays of customer recommendations. Teresa Kirschbraun has created a community hub for readers and writers, poets and dreamers of all ages.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

We couldn’t wait to see Esther Dairiam’s Read It & Eat, a culinary bookstore with a full kitchen for hosting amazing food-centric events. Esther did a fabulous job choosing colors and finishes to dress up the historic space at 2142 N. Halsted Street. The air was filled with a delicious aroma as Esther was prepping for the next day’s special event. We browsed the selection of books … everything you’d ever want to know about food for home cooks and restaurant professionals.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

The iconic bookstore Women & Children First was purchased by employees Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney last year and they have been busy making their own mark. The whole store has gotten a fresh coat of paint, the children’s department has come to life with a new carpet and colors, and we loved the series of hand-drawn portraits of visiting authors that were created by a talented artist on staff. We applaud Sarah and Lynn for stepping forward to keep this store alive and well into the future and are thrilled that this next chapter in their lives includes owning a beloved business. You’ll find them at 5233 N. Clark Street … remember to check the events schedule if you’ll be in town since they often host the major authors on tour.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Our last stop was Volumes BookCafe at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Sisters Kimberly and Rebecca George have created an invigorating bookstore that invites you to order a glass of wine as you shop and leave with a great cup of coffee once you’ve found your next great read. We loved the delightful touches in the store … book art created with used book pages and covers. In the kids area, a small family could snuggle up in the seating area and read together.

Travel Chicago and it’s easy to see there is no shortage of creativity when it comes to developing an indie bookstore. Bravo, new bookstore owners! Your neighborhoods and communities have very special places to gather because of your bookstores!

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.