Celebrating their second holiday season this year, Book Sense gift certificates are thriving thanks to a recent redesign and a growing conviction among booksellers that the service is giving them a competitive edge during the holiday gift-giving season.
"What is happening is a shift away from the attitude that prevailed when the program was created in September 1999, namely that we should use the Book Sense gift certificates because its the right thing to do as independents," said Hut Landon, Northern California Independent Booksellers Association president and Book Sense pioneer. "Now booksellers are seeing that offering services such as online ordering and national gift certificates gives customers fewer reasons to shop elsewhere. Most people who purchase or redeem a gift certificate buy other books as well."
Landon's view is supported by research conducted by the American Booksellers Association last fall, which found that more than half of the adults in America bought a book during the 1999 holiday season. Of those, 11.3% also purchased a gift certificate. Michael Hoynes, ABA marketing officer, told PW, "We found that customers who prefer to shop at independents still buy some percentage of their books from other sources. Narrowing what those customers spend elsewhere can be critical to a store's sales. We also found that if your customers are buying gift certificates from Borders, you're not likely to know about it."
Most of the bookstores participating in Book Sense that PW contacted reported a steady increase in gift certificate sales. The redesign of the Book Sense form last fall has allowed merchants to customize the certificate so that a store's logo can be highlighted. This was a decisive factor for many booksellers who have discontinued their own store certificates except for the occasional giveaway to local organizations. According to a spot survey by PW, stores that continue to offer in-store certificates sell substantially fewer Book Sense certificates. PW also found that certificates sold in urban areas tend to be redeemed in the same area, while stores in smaller communities see a greater number redeemed at distant locales.
Book House, a 6,000-sq.-ft. store in Albany, N.Y., is one of the country's top Book Sense gift certificate sellers, with more than 3,000 sold. Book House has a high percentage of gift certificates redeemed in Seattle, Phoenix and elsewhere. The store's proximity to SUNY Albany and its transient student population is partially responsible for the sales, but owner Susan Novotny is a strong promoter of the program. "I always wanted to be a cheerleader, but in high school I was too skinny and too busy reading," Novotny said. "Now I'm rallying the independents to use Book Sense and Book Sense gift certificates to get the New York publishers to sit up and take notice." Novotny has trained her staff of 20 to offer the certificates to any probable customer and to include a pitch for Book Sense with the offer.
Dutton's of Brentwood, Los Angeles, Calif., also boasts impressively large gift certificate sales with 1,122 sold to date. Unlike Book House, most of Dutton's sold certificates are redeemed in the store. Dutton's is currently pushing the program with holiday ads promoting the gift certificates along with a list of L.A. area Book Sense stores where they may be redeemed.
An activist stance seems to be a key ingredient for the most successful stores in the program. Donna Urey of White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H., uses her local radio station to broadcast ads mentioning the Book Sense programs and her store. One spot focuses on the Book Sense gift certificates. Though certificate unit sales in her 3,000-sq.-ft. store are only in the hundreds so far, Urey said that the radio spots have increased customer awareness and increased sales of the certificates. About 10% of those sold at White Birch are redeemed elsewhere.
Kepler's Books of Menlo Park has just embraced the program for this season. "Our customers have been adamant that they want a gift certificate from Kepler's," Kepler's marketing manager Nancy Miller told PW. "They want their friends to come in and experience our store-that's part of the gift. Last year we offered both Book Sense certificates and our store's certificates, but this year we sell only Book Sense with our logo. We mention that they can use the certificate elsewhere, but they are not particularly interested."
Bay Area neighbor City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco echoed that sentiment. "Though we are completely dedicated to Book Sense, we do still sell our own certificates, and sell many more of them than the Book Sense version," said buyer Paul Yamazaki. "Many people send them to friends who are going to be visiting San Francisco. People want to come to City Lights."
Similar stories were told at Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver and at several smaller stores in Taos, N.Mex., and Boulder, Colo., which were selling few if any Book Sense gift certificates, though many of their own.
The ABA argument is that the Book Sense gift certificates do not take away from stores' identity, a lesson-for both the public and booksellers-that may take some time to learn.