A dozen years ago, Bob Ticehurst, then 22, quit his day job as an accountant, moved into his parents’ basement in Arlington, Mass., and became one of the first used-book sellers on Amazon’s Marketplace. Since then “MarineBob,” his original handle, has grown his online used-book business under the Got Books name. Today his offices are located in a 69,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Wilmington, Mass., and the books he sells no longer come mostly from friends. Instead he gets them through nearly 500 Got Books donation containers in New England, operated in partnership primarily with nonprofit organizations that get paid based on the number of books, CDs, and DVDs they collect. By August 2008, Got Books had collected so many books that it added a sister company, Used Book Superstore, to sell off part of its used-book inventory, along with new and bargain titles. There are now four 13,000-sq.-ft. UBS bookstores within a 20-minute drive of the warehouse. But that’s about to change.
By the end of the winter Ticehurst plans to add four more stores, including one in Plymouth, Mass., which will test the company’s POS and restocking systems that Ticehurst and district manager Joe Belanger, formerly with Barnes & Noble College, have put into place. Plymouth is nearly four times further from the main warehouse than other UBS locations, and its success could pave the way for Ticehurst to take the concept national. “We know growth will have to come from expansion,” says Belanger, who points out that same-store sales eventually plateau. Not that there’s any cause for concern right now. December 2011 was UBS’s best month ever, and even with the closing of a fifth store in Saugus in mid-May, which lost its lease, the company has seen double-digit sales increases for the first seven months of 2012.
Ticehurst credits UBS’s success to the stores being bright and clean and that nothing sits on the shelves for more than 15 months. “The stores get something new every day,” he says, “and we have something that’s comfortable for everybody.” While he’s referring to a row of mismatched chairs for people to sit and read, his comment could just as easily refer to the stores’ inventory, which ranges from pre-pub orders for J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and new copies of Fifty Shades of Grey to used editions of sports titles and military history. Because of the difficulty in getting used copies of current bestsellers, some popular UBS categories vary from those of new bookstores. Self-help, for one, is especially strong, but then so are children’s and teen titles.
Despite the word “Used” in the company name, Ticehurst decided that it was important to add new books, which are discounted at least 10%. “We got sick of saying ‘no’ to people,” he says. “We didn’t want them to walk out and go to one of our competitors.” More expansion came last Christmas when UBS began carrying educational toys, and it has also added remainders. By broadening the inventory beyond used, Ticehurst is also working to make UBS a holiday destination. “People won’t necessarily buy used books for a gift,” says Belanger, although UBS has had success with gift cards. It also helps to broaden UBS’s appeal to other booksellers looking to the stores as a wholesaler.
To keep customers coming back, UBS uses a combination of social media—over the past year it has built its e-mail list from 11,000 to 24,000 names—and rapid inventory changes coupled with what Ticehurst refers to as a “no sneak peek” policy. Not even employees get to see how popular sections have been refreshed before the store opens. Each store gets new DVDs, CDs, and LPs weekly, with daily markdowns. There are also teacher and military discounts on different days of the week, as well as daily shifts in book inventory. In addition, one area of the store is dedicated to “vintage books,” printed before the 1970s. The stores adds 600 to 800 books in the vintage area weekly. Some are scooped up by set decorators for movies being shot in Boston, while others are bought by collectors and those looking for special deals. Although the books are vetted for quality, first editions and signed books, like a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man found recently at the Nashua store, are mixed in with other used titles. “Let people find the bargains,” says Ticehurst, who views it as one more reason to shop UBS.
“Our fiction numbers blow away our nonfiction,” says Dianne McDermott, director of marketing for both UBS and Got Books, who adds a reminder that bestsellers are based on what’s available used. “There is no doubt that the Hunger Games would be #1, if we got lots of used copies. It is our bestselling book, but most of the sales have been new.”
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
3. Webster’s New Pocket Spanish Dictionary from the editors of Webster’s
4. The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
6. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
7. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
8. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
9. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
* Based on eight weeks of sales ending August 30.