Few observers could have predicted that 2021 would begin with indie bookstores at the forefront of an unprecedented online shop local movement. But the temporary store closures of spring 2020 forced them to take a bold leap into the world of e-commerce. Their embrace of internet sales appears to have paid off, allowing them to meet surging demand spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and the holiday shopping season, cementing the loyalty of longtime customers while reaching new ones, and succeeding in taking back dollars that were previously lost to online competitors.

At the Gibson's Bookshop in Concord, N.H., owner Michael Herrmann took on the store’s e-commerce operations by himself at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but given the large order volume, he soon realized this was unsustainable. “Over the weeks and months, it became a process of me giving up one element at a time until, by the end, we had six people who are trained on how to do it,” he said.

While Herrmann’s team was scaling up, the American Booksellers Association was adding staff to its IndieCommerce team, which provides the backbone to Herrmann’s site. In turn, their support created opportunities for Herrmann and his team to continue to manage the flood of orders. Meanwhile, in the store, e-commerce overtook the entire café space and the former employee break room.

Herrmann also tapped into a network of booksellers who were sharing information and tips about how to handle the most critical aspect of the online sales boom: communication with customers about stores’ online options. Booksellers at Oblong Books and Harvard Book Store persuaded Herrmann to try changing the language for the shipping options on the site to mirror the shop local language that booksellers have mastered for in-person shopping. He switched the option for shipping to “I’m happy to contribute to the cost of shipping media mail,” and sure enough, it worked.

The messaging shift dispelled the long-standing belief that customers would stop buying from local stores if they had to pay for shipping. “Customers want to help you out,” Herrmann said. “Once you realize that, you don’t feel like you have to give away the house when you’re contemplating your shipping models.”

Communication is key

Just weeks after returning from an intensive training session on IndieCommerce at last year’s Winter Institute, Avid Bookshop’s Luis Correa found himself at the helm of the store’s transition to e-commerce. Nearly a year later, the doors to the Athens, Ga., store remain shut, while inside booksellers work to fulfill online orders that continue to stream in.

Correa, who will participate in a panel on managing online sales growth at this year’s Winter Institute, said customers have remained loyal because of the store’s communication style. Owner Janet Geddis has led the way as the spokeswoman for the store’s overall ethic. “It’s a mixture of empathy and honesty with customers,” Correa said. “There is an understanding that customers are going through a hard time, and they’re figuring out their own lives and their own crises. But also a message that if they want us to stay open and have our doors open once the dust settles, then it’s important that they think about us first before they shop at bigger competitors.”

The messaging has succeeded. Avid has a team of booksellers handling e-commerce orders remotely—all of whom have previously worked in the store—while another team prepares them in-store, and a third comes in each evening to ready them for shipping and prepare the space for the next day. The teams meet weekly to assess how employees are managing the stress of the job, and those sessions often give rise to new ideas.

One innovation is a YouTube tutorial for first-time customers. “When a customer e-mails us, we send them the link to the website and include a link to the video that tells them how they can place the order,” Correa said.

Avid’s approach to communicating has also helped lessen the impact of potentially serious, unforeseen problems. Last summer, a large shipment of orders was lost by the U.S. Postal Service in transit. Calls flooded the store, and booksellers quickly sent out replacement copies. With the books, Avid sent notes explaining what had happened, and respectfully asked customers to consider an optional payment for half the price of the book as well as shipping.

Correa said the “vast majority” of customers paid, and when the lost orders began appearing on doorsteps six months later, customers shipped the duplicates back, allowing Avid to recoup its losses.

Keeping the personal touch

Annie Philbrick’s three stores—Bank Square in Mystic, Ct.; Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I.; and the Title IX pop-up in New London, Ct.—all share the same website, and online sales skyrocketed from less than $30,000 in 2019 to more than $300,000 in 2020. But though Philbrick has dedicated enormous employee time and resources to e-commerce, she still gets in her car every few months and drives 73 miles to Oxford, Ct., where she delivers boxes of books to two of her most loyal customers. “To ship them would be a lot of money,” she said. “It’s fine with me, and they are so appreciative.”

Philbrick’s approach is not just limited to customers who place large orders, either. “Independents are all about customer service,” she said. “If somebody wants a book and they live six, eight miles away, why don’t I just bring it there? It often goes to New Jersey before it comes back to Connecticut if you ship it.”

Philbrick has an e-commerce operation overseen by two employees that has steadily developed over the past year and now includes web pages meant to re-create the experience of browsing in the store. Their work has guided the enormous sales growth, and Philbrick is eager to continue refining the store’s capabilities. Next on her list is taking up the complex challenge of merging the stores’ point-of-sale systems with ABA’s IndieCommerce. Though each new step requires effort, she said it also opens up the chance to engage customers with the personal touch she values most.

E-commerce is here to stay

Many bookstores have books shipped from publishers to their stores and then send them out to customers, in order to add a note or other personal touches to each order, but Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstores flipped that approach on its head. Greenlight regularly sends digital communications to customers, which allows it to outsource much of the fulfillment process. The store entered the pandemic with a robust website and social media presence, which it deepened over the past year by adding high-profile online author events, offering signed books, and encouraging customers to preorder.

But while signed books are shipped directly from the store, and in-store pickup is available, all mailed orders go through Ingram. That approach frees up time for e-commerce manager Shauna Westgate’s direct-to-home team to keep track of orders, while the store’s booksellers and social media team focus on bringing customers in with personalized engagement.

On the back end, the process is not without its challenges. “The hardest part about it is the shipping costs,” Westgate said, explaining that, for instance, if someone placed an order for five books, three might ship from one Ingram warehouse, while the other two ship from two different warehouses. But she was able to work that out, she said, because the store has a firm handle on its e-commerce operation.

Westgate believes e-commerce is now a permanent—and significant—part of Greenlight’s long-term financial success. “I think people are obviously going to come back to the store to shop,” she says. “People miss shopping and browsing. But I don’t see the [online] numbers slipping. I think e-commerce is going to continue to be strong and probably grow.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mis-stated the name of Gibson's Bookshop.