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Celebrating Holiday Sales
Kevin Howell &John Mutter. Reporting by Jill A. Tardiff -- 1/17/00
It was the season to be jolly for booksellers with nary an e-Grinch in sight

The 1999 holiday season was a surprise gift to book retailers. Although the gift arrived later than expected, the majority of bookstore owners contacted by PW reported sales that matched and, in most cases, exceeded those of the previous year.
Hyacinth and Peanuts Covers
Many booksellers had feared that this might be the holiday season stolen by book e-tailers. But while sales via the Web tripled and may have reached as much as $5 billion, according to Forrester Research, 98% of shoppers bought at least some of their gifts at bricks-and-mortar retailers, an Andersen consulting survey of 500 people found. As deadlines for deliveries through online retailers expired, shoppers turned off their computers and surged into stores. Without exception, polled bookstores saw their biggest sales the week of Christmas. Booksellers thought the magic of Black Friday (the "official" start of Christmas shopping, the day after Thanksgiving) was beginning to tarnish -- it seems more and more a big day for mall stores. Booksellers with freestanding buildings reported flat sales on that day.

Among the findings of our survey:
  • Sales gains reached as high as 40%, with several stores remaining even with the previous year and only one store reporting a sales drop.

  • Sales of gift certificates were up -- one store saw a jump of 75% in certificate sales -- but the newly introduced Book Sense gift certificates had more spotty results.

  • Wholesalers received rave reviews from booksellers. Even factoring in that slight problems seem enormous during the holiday crunch, retailers praised Baker & Taylor, Ingram and especially K n Books for their fill rate, accurate shipping and quick delivery

  • Half the bookstores polled were Book Sense members, but were not using most of the promotional material.

  • The Internet is making readers more savvy about finding titles of interest but many are turning to bricks-and-mortar stores to fulfill orders researched online.

  • Customers were upbeat, receptive to recommendations, more aware of independents' financial struggles and were ready to spend money. Several owners thought customers shopped like "money was no object" and "were ready to spend money."

Green Christmas
Creative Visions in New York City boasted a whopping 40% increase in holiday sales over the previous year. Peter Dracher, manager of the eight-year-old gay/lesbian bookstore, said, "There are a number of things that account for this rise: we did more advertising than last year, we renovated the entire store and we doubled the amount of stock." The store also benefited from increased tourist traffic. "There was a big rush on New Year's Eve," said Dracher. "People come into the city for the New Year's celebration and they want to spend money on themselves."

Even less tourist-driven towns saw sales jump. Capitol Books in Montgomery Ala., which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, reported sales up 26% over last year. "This year has been really good for us," owner Cheryl Upchurch told PW. "We started a newspaper column that appears twice a month and we have an e-mail newsletter. And it's just been a good year for titles." Both Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., and White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H, saw double-digit increases, which they ascribe to new locations.

Diana Gilbert-Cohen, owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., was very pleased with her 22-year-old store's 5.3% increase: "We've been in our present location for the past four years. In this competitive market, we're considered a mature store. We also saw a 30% increase in credit card use. There was no sense of overspending by consumers. Customers were not cash-dry."

Not all stores reported increases. Eric Schwendeman, manager of the 30-year-old Little Professor Book Center in Columbus, Ohio, saw sales dip 9% from last year. "We were disappointed but not surprised," he said. He cited the Internet as one of the factors in his store's low sales. "We're also in a strip mall with a lot of competition coming from two major malls relatively close by," he added. On a positive note, the store had a 10% increase in the sales of gift certificates.

Send Cash
Gift certificates were very popular this year. Booksellers' opinions on the newly introduced Book Sense gift certificates are divided. Some stores did very well with them, while others experienced limp sales. It may take another season for the certificates to make sense to customers. Diana Gilbert-Cohen sold 350 gift certificates, most in the $25 range. "People are usually thinking about the price of a hardcover book," she said. "We've also redeemed about 95 Book Sense gift certificates. Once customers understand the concept, then their use will be more widespread." Brian Weese, owner of the four Bibelot stores in and around Baltimore, Md., had spectacular results with Book Sense certificates. His stores sold 400 during the holiday season. Even better, he has yet to see any of them redeemed. He believes customers like gift certificates "because they always provide opportunities."

The Black Bookworm, in Houston, Tex., sells only Book Sense gift certificates, and owner Sonia Williams-Babers thinks "they're wonderful. We sold 127." Rick Warren's Around the Corner Books & More, in Eldora, Iowa, sold "between 150 and 175 store gift certificates this year. But that wasn't as good as last year. We didn't sell or redeem any Book Sense certificates. Most of the certificates we sold were going to people in town, not to be sent out." Kathy Kitsuse, owner of Capitola Cafe in Capitola, Calif., sold 1,000 gift certificates during the holiday season, but only one was a Book Sense certificate. Fran Keilty, general manager of Atticus Bookstore & Cafe in New Haven, Conn., said sales of gift certificates were up from last year. But the store didn't sell many Book Sense certificates. But she is certain it is a program that will grow on customers: "It's wonderful to have the option that solves the dilemma of long-distance gift-giving. We expect this program to grow."

Making Book Sense?
Booksellers had mixed reports about Book Sense. About half of our respondents aren't members of the ABA marketing program. Of those who are members, a few had done little with the program or said that they couldn't tell its effect on sales. As Cheryl Upchurch of Capitol Books said, "It just hasn't caught on with our customers."

Some also were irritated that Booksense.com, the e-commerce arm of Book Sense, has not yet been introduced. Still, many of those who are members attributed some sales gains and a heightened perception of independent bookselling to the program.

For example, Books & Co. has a special display for Book Sense titles, which Diana Gilbert-Cohen calls "a great cross-section of reading." Listing 10 store Book Sense bestsellers, she said, "We would not have sold as many copies" of the titles without the marketing program.

Likewise, Changing Hands Bookstore would not have sold certain titles "if not for the Book Sense program," Gayle Shanks said. "Having it there made all the difference."

Bibelot's Brian Weese said Book Sense has given the stores "a new merchandising focus" and makes it easier "to talk with customers about other independent bookstores."

Although customers at White Birch Books were slow to adopt Book Sense certificates ("New Englanders take a little time to work into something new," owner Donna Urey said), customers have "really liked the program," particularly its "independent aspect."

But at least one Midwest bookseller found the title selection too "coastal," as he put it. Rick Warren of Around the Corner Books and More, said that as a result, he and his store "tend to showcase the [Upper Midwest Booksellers Association] catalogue titles" instead.

Holy Wholesalers

Stiffed Holes Covers
With few exceptions, booksellers were very pleased with the service they got from wholesalers. Bill Kloster, co-owner of Looking Glass Bookstore in Portland, Ore., told PW, "The trick to getting books is to have tenacity. We ordered from every one of Ingram's warehouses, from K n and from Baker & Taylor. We went wherever we had to to find books. Overall, we weren't out of stock of many titles. More books were on hand at distributors this year." Gayle Shanks agreed, "Wholesalers did great. Ingram was great, their Walnut, California, warehouse did a terrific job. The fill rate was way up. I have no complaints at all." Ingram's Walnut warehouse was also deemed "very good... very dependable" by James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles. Gary Lawless, owner of Gulf of Maine Bookstore in Brunswick, Maine, d sn't use Ingram but was pleased with B&T and K n's fast service. "I ordered a lot through university presses," he said. "Everyone was good. There was no trouble or slow response."

The only complaints concerned Ingram's Nashville warehouse. Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville (Ark.), said, "Ingram's Nashville warehouse was really awful this year." Little Professor manager Eric Schwendeman and Capitol Books owner Cheryl Upchurch agreed that orders to Ingram's secondary warehouse suffered from lag time. "But to their credit," said Schwendeman, "They found a lost shipment within 24 hours."

In & Out
Which brings us to the matter of what was selling, what wasn't and what would have sold if stores had been able to get stock. Few would argue with Rick Warren's comment: "There were the three Harry Potter books and then there was everything else." Brian Weese added, "Those Harry Potter books sold and sold and sold. We kept saying, 'Who in the world d sn't have a copy?' but customers were buying all three together."

The top names that kept popping up on each store's list of bestsellers included Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday), Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (MacMurray & Beck), Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods (Broadway), Anita Shreve's Fortune's Rocks (Little, Brown), Louis Sachar's 1999 Newbery Medal winner Holes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Kent Haruf's Plainsong (Knopf).

Surprises included a run on Peanuts: A Golden Celebration (HarperCollins) after Charles M. Schultz announced his health-related retirement; Pop-Up Book of Phobias (Morrow/Weisbach), The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (Chronicle), Elise Primavera's children's book Auntie Claus (Harcourt/Silver Whistle), Dr. Seuss G s to War (New Press). Ann B. Ross's Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (Morrow), and the Annie Lebovitz/Susan Sontag collaboration, Women (Random). Graham Cooke, owner of Hawley Cooke Booksellers in Louisville, Ky., was surprised that Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie (Doubleday) and Peter Jennings's The Century (Doubleday) "both still had legs after two years!"

Although most owners said they bought cautiously to prevent disappointments, there were still some to be found. Not living up to expectations were: John Glenn: A Memoir (BDD), David Guterson's East of the Mountains (Harcourt Brace), Susan Faludi's Stiffed (Morrow) and The Holy Bible (Viking) designed and illustrated by Barry Moser.

Titles cited by some as perennially out of stock could just as easily (and in many cases did) find their way onto another retailer's list of bestsellers. Concerning Tuesday with Morrie, Gayle Shanks admitted buying "80 copies at price clubs." Fran Keilty lamented that Life: Our Century in Pictures (Bulfinch) was "slow starting. We didn't take advantage of it." Jan Brett's Gingerbread Baby (Putnam) "solved the stocking-stuffing problem but it sold out immediately," according to Donna Urey of White Birch Books. And those Harry Potter books seemed to come with their own invisibility cloaks.

Of course, many stores cited online booksellers and superstores as their main competition. More customers than ever before came in with printouts from Amazon.com, letting the bookstores "fulfill" their orders, some booksellers reported. One bookseller sensed that customers were taking this approach in December to be sure to have the titles for Christmas.

Several booksellers believe that "the customers are coming back" to independents. As Gayle Shanks noted: "People need connection in their lives, and they don't get that connection in front of the computer."

For Rick Warren of Around the Corner Books and More, the biggest competition are discounters like Wal-Mart and Places. Warren has addressed those stores' sales policies by adopting a "price-match strategy. We do it occasionally to save a sale." The store is also cooperating with other downtown merchants; happily, the local drugstore has dropped books and magazines.

In the Mood
Not only were customers prepared to spend money, but they seemed happy about it. "People were eager for recommendations," said Fran Keilty. "They wanted to know about reviews and various lists. They were upbeat and buoyant." According to Kathy Kitsuse, "Customers seemed to be in a spending mood, but the spending came closer to Christmas." Emoke B'racz, owner of Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe in Asheville, N.C., thought it was "an exceptional Christmas. Lots of people were using lists from our newsletters and people seemed more aware about supporting local businesses." Although mail-order accounts for about 35% to 40% of business for mystery bookstore Rue Morgue in Boulder, Colo., owner Tom Schantz enjoyed seeing customers. "It's like friends coming in," he said. He noted that his chief competition is Amazon.com and observed, "It's difficult to compete against a company that d sn't need to make a profit."
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