In a move that could push Barefoot Books further up Inc. magazine’s list of the top 5,000 fastest-growing private businesses (which it made for the first time last year), the Cambridge, Mass./Bath, England, children’s book publisher has reached an agreement with FAO Schwarz to create a dedicated Barefoot Books boutique in FAO’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It will be the only bookstore within the revamped children’s retailer, a tourist destination with four million visitors a year.
For Barefoot president and CEO Nancy Traversy, Barefoot’s 1,000-sq.-ft. New York store, which will open in August, represents an affirmation of the choices that she and partner Tessa Strickland have made over the past three years to staunch returns and create a true Barefoot brand for the 15-year-old company. Although some in the publishing industry questioned their decision to stop selling to the chains in 2005, high returns and withheld payments made it hard for the company to move forward, Traversy explained. Since pulling the plug on chain sales, she said, “Our returns are pretty much nonexistent, one to two percent across the whole business. Not even that much.” Barefoot has instead opted for a mix of gift and specialty stores and independent booksellers.
As for branding, Traversy said, “There isn’t a children’s publisher that is doing what we’re doing, trying to create a whole lifestyle brand.” The company is selective about where it sells its brand—colorful, high-quality books with multicultural themes—and prefers gift stores and high-end retailers like Pottery Barn and Nordstrom, which is part of its appeal for FAO Schwarz. “We’re trying to find things that aren’t in every store,” David Niggli, FAO’s president and chief merchandising officer, told PW. “Barefoot Books really fits what we’re looking for—we love the content and the art.”
The fact that Barefoot already had experience operating a children’s bookstore—the first store, near its former U.S. offices in Cambridge’s Porter Square, has been frequently cited as “Best of Boston” by Boston Magazine—didn’t hurt. At the FAO location, Barefoot plans to replicate some of the physical elements of the Cambridge store, such as its storytelling throne, and to schedule lots of activities to create a Barefoot community in Manhattan.
Stallholders on the Rise
It plans to use its New York outlet to host sales conferences and workshops for the company’s Stallholders, mothers mostly, who sell Barefoot books at parties and fundraisers. There were 1,100 Stallholders last year, who accounted for 16% of the company’s sales. Traversy expects to double the number of Stallholders in ’08 and to increase their market share to 21%. Already Stallholders outsell bricks-and-mortar booksellers and wholesalers, including Ingram, who together comprise 12% of the company’s sales. Next year that segment is expected to decline to 10%.
While many transatlantic publishers have suffered from a weakened dollar, Barefoot’s sales rose 20% to $7 million (just under £4 million) in 2007, according to Traversy, who projects that they will pass $10 million this year. However, pricing is starting to become an issue, especially for books that sell for £5.99 in the U.K. On this side of the pond, Traversy has had to hold prices at $6.99, occasionally $7.99, for books that should retail for over $11 in the U.S. In Canada, too, despite a quadrupling of sales since May 2006, when Barefoot shifted its distribution from Raincoast Books to the small husband-and-wife team, Fire the Imagination, a strengthened Canadian dollar has cut into margins on books with pre-printed prices. As a result, Traversy is considering removing prices from all Barefoot books.
But tending to prices and opening a second U.S. retail operation is not the only way Barefoot plans to grow sales this year. In July, the company will introduce a new line of books for children ages nine to 12. The first illustrated Young Fiction title, Gao Yue and Clare Farrow’s Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, illustrated by Helen Cann, will be released in July. Barefoot is planning a video-based e-campaign and an author tour to coincide with the Beijing Summer Olympics. Going forward, the company will publish one or two Young Fiction books a season.
Also on the Barefoot agenda is a school book fair program for Stallholders. The book fair displays will make use of what Traversy refers to as “magic boxes” that are being built for the FAO store—wooden display cases that are light enough to be easily moved yet sturdy enough to travel. And Barefoot’s revamped Web site (www.barefootbooks.com) is being fine-tuned to appeal more directly to consumers. In May, the site will add both a forum for Stallholders and a blog by Barefoot staff, with guest postings from authors and illustrators.