After slumping in September and October, bookstore sales rebounded somewhat in November and December, reports from retailers and wholesalers indicate. And sales could have been even better if stores had been able to keep hot titles in stock. Lack of "must-have" new titles also limited sales gains.
A PW survey of independent booksellers found strongest sales in wealthier communities, where there was little price resistance. At Barnes & Noble, superstore sales rose 5.7% in the October 31—January 1 period, to $1.04 billion. Same-store sales at the superstores rose 2.0%. Sales at Dalton fell 14.7%, to $50.6 million, due to a combination of a 2.8% decline in comp-store sales and the closing of 55 outlets. And at Barnes & Noble.com, sales in the period rose 2.7%, to $105.5 million.
Joe Lombardi, B&N CFO, said the increase in book sales did not quite meet the average attained by the entire chain, largely because of slower sales of bestselling fiction titles. Sales were also slower in the health and fitness segment, as the low-carb craze continues to cool, Lombardi said, and sales of political titles have moderated post-election. But most nonfiction segments performed well in the holiday season, led by humor, cooking and reference. The top-selling title over the holidays was Jon Stewart's America (The Book). The entire children's category, including books, also had a strong holiday, Lombardi said.
Many independent booksellers reported a last-minute rush. For example, at Willow Books & Café, Acton, Mass., whose sales were up 5% in December, "the last week was crazed," said president David Didriksen. "They all waited." At this New England store, "anything Red Sox worked." At McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., sales were especially high in the last two weeks despite—or because of—bad weather. The last few days before Christmas were especially busy at the Book Rack & Children's Pages in Essex Junction, Vt., said owner Elaine Sopchak. Although she speculated that online sales "took a huge bite," store sales in December were up 14% over last December.
By contrast, Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., had a gangbusters November, up 32%—the "best November in 15 years," according to co-owner Mary Alice Gorman, but December, especially after mid-month, slowed way down, for a net November and December gain of about 4.3%.
One store with a disappointing Christmas was Harborwalk Books, Georgetown, S.C., where holiday sales were down 10%, even though full-year sales were up. Owner Ann Carlson attributed some of the decline to the lack of a "gotta-have" book this year and warmer weather that didn't lend itself to "Christmas festiveness." Her bestselling titles were from local publishers. Another store with Scrooge-like customers was the Book End, Lincoln City, Ore., where sales dropped last year and the year before, according to manager Stina Seeger-Gibson.
Sales were "up a little if not a lot" at Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., according to owner Valerie Koehler. Like others, the store had no runaway bestseller but did well "across the board." Sales of Book Sense gift cards were strong. The store benefited by e-mailing customers "an expanded and more colorful" newsletter that included a "Twelve Books of Christmas" annotated list of recommendations.
Sales at the Bookstall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka, Ill., were up "a little bit," said owner Roberta Rubin. Big-ticket items that did very well included the $60 Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker and three Chicago-related titles. A new marketing approach helped R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., where sales were up over goal in part because the store revamped its holiday catalogue, according to backlist buyer Karen Corvello. "Sometimes too much information is not helpful," she explained. "So we put in fewer titles and the descriptions were shorter and punchier." As at stores in other upscale communities, "price didn't necessarily seem to be a problem," she added.
Book Passage, with stores in San Francisco and Corte Madera, Calif., had a "good year," according to owner Elaine Petrocelli, who attributed much of the season's success to an appearance by Jimmy Carter two weeks before Christmas (where 1,500 copies of his Sharing Good Times were sold) and Petrocelli's usual efforts to "get the word out" about the store and independent bookselling. Like Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., Petrocelli said people want to shop at an independent. "My customers say they can't stand those big warehouse stores anymore," she commented.
Reflecting bestseller figures, booksellers said most political books, whose sales during the summer and fall were more fiery than a Zell Miller speech, were dead after the election. The exceptions included What's the Matter with Kansas? and Don't Think of an Elephant, as well as some Founding Fathers biographies: His Excellency: George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
Modest Kids' Gains
For most children's booksellers PW polled, business was either even with last year or somewhat improved. Beth Puffer, manager of Bank Street Bookstore in New York City, reported "one of the largest increases in recent years," while Sara Chaganti of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass., said, "Kids' books were about the same as last year," while sales of adult books at her store were "down a bit."
The Polar Express was the blowout picture book for the holiday season (restocking was an issue for some), while other strong sellers were Egyptology (though some said it didn't sell as well as its predecessor, Dragonology, had and was continuing to), Alice the Fairy and Stranger in the Woods (its new sequel, Lost in the Woods, didn't fare as well, booksellers said). However, James Patterson's first picture book, santaKid, which boasted a 500,000-copy first printing, proved a disappointment for some children's booksellers. "They sent a Santa Claus to read it, and that still didn't sell it," reported Sue Zlotnick of Yellow Brick Road in La Mesa, Calif. In novels, Dragon Rider was a hit, as were all of the Lemony Snicket titles. "We sold more fantasy than anything," said Sharon Ristau of UConn Co-op in Storrs, Conn.
Just in No Time
Almost every bookseller complained about at least one hot-selling title that couldn't be found at wholesalers or publishers, and some speculated that publishers had gone too far in holding down print runs. The situation drove a few booksellers to warehouse clubs for replenishment. At the Book Rack & Children's Pages in Vermont, for example, the store had such trouble getting enough copies of its top seller, Jon Stewart's America, that it went to Costco in search of more.
Ingram president Jim Chandler seemed to second the idea that some retailers are buying too conservatively, paralleling publishers publishing too conservatively. The giant wholesaler "hit our forecast number," Chandler said, speculating that Ingram's success had occurred in part because "some retailers may have entered the holidays" a little light on stock.