Ho-Ho and Ho-Hum Sales
John Mutter & Kevin Howell, with reporting by Jill A. Tardiff -- 1/15/01
The lack of blockbuster books during the holiday season encourages sales on more titles

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In the worst Christmas season in U.S. general retail in five years, independent bookstores seem to have fared better than most retailers. Some reported lower or flat sales, but the majority of those polled by PW experienced gains over the holiday season of 1999. By contrast, the bookselling chains, including multimedia retailers selling a significant number of books, fared worse.

Among the culprits for the generally sad season: the miserable stock market, high fuel costs, high interest rates (although they are coming down), bad weather, falling consumer confidence and tremendous sales a year earlier that make comparisons look lousy.

Still, indies were able to excel because of the same factors that resulted in general retailers' sales rising only 1%. For example, a few said that bad weather had kept customers "close to home"--and close to their neighborhood bookstore.

Among other trends this year:
  • With no big blockbuster book, booksellers used the opportunity to handsell a broad selection of titles.

  • The Book Sense 76 list was popular with booksellers and customers

  • While gift certificates sales were strong, resistance to Book Sense gift certificates continued.

  • Customers gun-shy about tardy online purchases last year returned to bricks-and-mortar stores.

  • The book is once again a popular gift.

SalesThe biggest gain reported by a store in a survey was that of Skylight Books, Los Angeles, which saw sales rise 30% over the 1999 holiday season. General manager Kerry Slattery attributed the gain to an improvement in foot traffic in the relatively new store's hip neighborhood and to "more people knowing about us."

Rainy Days Bookstore in Nisswa, Minn., had sunny news: sales were up 24% in the holiday period. Owner Suzy Turcotte explained that the store was helped by the closing of a nearby Little Professor and, because discounting wasn't important this year, people seemed to be in a Christmas-like mood. Plus, bad weather kept customers "closer to home."

Another California store with glowing results: Kepler's Books & Magazines, Menlo Park, Calif., where sales were up 5%- 6%, according to inventory director Karen Pennington.

Susan Avery, co-owner of Ariel Booksellers, New Paltz, N.Y., attributed the store's 9% sales gain in part to the extra selling days, as well as "generous" and "very thoughtful" customers.

The most amusing explanation for a sales gain--in this case 30%--came from Robert Maull, owner of Twenty-Third Avenue Books, Portland, Ore., who said, "I attribute the increase to the charm of our staff and our wonderful selection. There were less panic-stricken faces, and customers were more relaxed because they had the whole weekend to shop."
Foul weather affected many stores' sales. At Apple Book Center, Detroit, Mich., sales were "a little lower" this year, according to owner Sherry McGee, because "customers couldn't shop. The snow and ice held our customers back."
For some, as at Rainy Days Bookstore in Minnesota, bad weather actually helped sales. Sales at Prairie Bookshop, Mount Horeb, Wis., rose 7.3% in December because "with the weather, people tended to shop closer to home," owner John Stowe said.

On the other hand, Chris Satterlund and Kristine Kaufman, owners of Snow Goose Bookstore, Standwood, Wash., attributed their holiday gain of 10% to "very pleasant weather."

One store whose sales dropped precipitously--10%--had a difficult act to follow. At Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Mont., sales had jumped 40% the year before because of the popularity of Montana's Bitterroot Valley (Stoneydale Press), a book written by store owner Russ Lawrence. Sales were up 20% over the same period in 1998.

Several stores reported that they had done better because, they thought, people were buying more books as gifts. As Peggy Bieber, owner of the Little Professor Book Center in Aberdeen, S.D., put it: "With the economy, books are not high-ticket items but are still a nice gift." This attitude among her customers helped boost her store's sales 8.5% in December.

But a few stores noted that the average transaction size and quantity of transactions were down. At Best of Books, Edmond, Okla., for example, where sales were off 1%, customers spent nearly as much as the year before, but the number of transactions was down, co-owner Kathy Kinasewitz said.

At McGaugh's Newsstand in Flagstaff, Ariz., sales were "about even" this holiday season, manager Lillian Osthoff said, in part because 2000 was the first full year a new Barnes & Noble in the region had been open. While the new B&N "affected book sales overall," she added, "it was not as much as it could have been."

Many stores indicated that holiday sales account for even greater percentages of annual sales than in previous years and, in most cases, the busiest sales periods of the holiday season are in the final weeks and days before Christmas. One exception was Millrace Bookshop, Farmington, Conn., whose sales were "better" this year compared to 1999. At Millrace, the season was strongest early; the store's busiest day was the day after Thanksgiving, owner Janet Owens said.

Booksellers Speak"There was a lot of gloomy publicity in the press, but it did not reflect our business," said Julie Norcross, owner of McLean and Eakin in Petroskey, Mich. "It was a 'merry' Christmas." Norcross summed up the feelings of the majority of bookstores.

Kathy Simoneaux of Chester County Book & Music Co., West Chester, Pa., explained her store's flat season by stating, "There didn't seem to be many big books driving people into the stores." But the majority of bookstore owners believed just the opposite. For many, their holiday good cheer was due to the lack of a few blockbusters that dwarf the rest. This afforded them the opportunity to do what they always claim independent booksellers do best: handsell.

"Buying was spread out over more titles this year, so we didn't run out," said Betsy Burton, who co-owns The King's English in Salt Lake City with Barbara Hoagland.

The sentiment was ech d by Carol Horne at Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass.: "This was the best kind of holiday season. There was not one huge book and it's absolutely an advantage for bookstores to have customers looking across a broader spectrum of titles."

Hot TitlesThat said, there certainly were titles that were universally in great demand. Barbara Kingsolver's support of independent bookstores was reciprocated with strong sales for Prodigal Summer (HarperCollins). "It was a favorite handsell," said Susan Daigre, owner of Bookends Bookstore.

Some of the strongest-selling holiday titles had been doing well in stores for several months. Kathy Kinasewitz was amazed by the sales for Kent Haruf's Plainsong (Vintage): "It just sells and sells and sells!" Besty Burton called Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife: The Star Gazer (HarperPerennial) "Our favorite book of the year." Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (both Penguin) were other trade paperback gift-giving favorites.

There were also some fiction surprises. Steve Martin's somber novella Shopgirl (Hyperion) brought smiles to booksellers' faces when it turned into a sleeper hit. Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass (Knopf) also took many owners by surprise. "His previous books had sold well, but nothing like this," enthused Simoneaux.

Speaking for many booksellers, Carol Horne was struck by the popularity of David Allen Sibley's The Sibley Guide to Birds (Random House). "We have never sold bird books particularly well," she told PW. The closest thing to a nationwide blockbuster this season was this Audubon Society Nature guide that featured more than 6,000 illustrations. Another strong nonfiction title was Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (Walker & Co.). "It was like putting a kite in the wind," said Jenny Feder, co-owner with Jill Dunbar of Three Lives in New York City. "We started with two copies because we liked the look of it. Then we handsold it and it took off--we sold hundreds."

Paula Murray, who along with co-owner Ellen Eagleson, opened Jade Creek Books in Fort Collins, Colo., just a week before Thanksgiving, had no problem keeping books in stock. "We were forewarned by our distributor Partners West and did really well with Stranger in the Woods [Carl R. Sams II Photography]." The photography book by a husband-and-wife team, Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick, was a surprise hit in several stores. The authors had traveled to many regional booksellers shows to increase their profile. "It was really amazing," said John Stowe of Prairie Bookshop. "Customers just became quite enchanted with it." Russ Lawrence of Chapter
Books agreed, "It's such a low-key book, we were pleased to see it sell so well. We stocked it because of other people's predictions and customers just found it."
A "secret bestseller that we didn't see in other stores that made a wonderful stocking stuffer," according to Jenny Feder, was Prince and Other Dogs (Bloomsbury), a collection of sepia-toned Victorian photographs of dogs. "It's a beautiful little book that sold and sold in our store. And no one else seemed to have it." With a slightly higher profile, Anna Quindlen's 50-page A Short Guide to a Happy Life (Random House) was another ideal stocking stuffer. "It was just amazing--we sold 500 copies," said Karen Pennington at Kepler's.

Kepler's also sold 560 copies of Ian Falconer's Olivia (Atheneum/Schwartz), which was probably the bestselling children's book of the season. Other favorite children's books for the season at various stores we surveyed included a new edition of E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan (HarperCollins), with new illustrations by Fred Marcellino. "It did better than even we expected," said Judy Geck, children's book buyer at Ruminator Books, St. Paul, Minn. And Kevin Henkes followed up his award-winning Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse with Wemberly Worried (Greenwillow), which was a favorite handsell at Children's Book World in Los Angeles. There were also strong sales for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Pop-up (Little Simon), created by Robert Sabuda, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the original L. Frank Baum classic.

Every dog has its day, and every holiday season has its dogs. Several slow-movers were mentioned by a majority of stores we surveyed. There were few takers for the $60 Vanity Fair's Hollywood (Viking), Tom Wolfe's essay collection Hooking Up (FSG) and Caleb Carr's venture into SF, Killing Time (Random House). John le Carré's late-arriving Constant Gardener (Scriber) got mixed notices. "People loved it, just loved it," said Jenny Feder. "But then it got two brutal reviews and died." Others sold the book well, but wished it had been in the stores earlier. Even Harry Potter came in for some criticism. While the books themselves had few detractors, there were some for "all the accessories from Scholastic," according to Suzy Turcotte. "The kids just don't like the artwork. The pictures don't match what's in their heads."

Book Sense Makes SenseThe ABA's traveling regional seminars promoting Book Sense seem to have been time well invested, as enthusiasm for the program was very high. The awareness and enjoyment has also spread to customers. "The one thing I did see this year was that customers are recognizing the Book Sense brand," said Robert Maull of Twenty-Third Avenue Books. "They've been real positive and are asking for the new Book Sense 76 lists. Book Sense fits with our customer base."

Sherry McGee of Apple Book Center didn't think the Book Sense list was ideal for her African-American bookstore. "It's hard to reach our customers with that list," she told PW. "It's not what my customers are interested in." Among her strongest selling titles was Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Doubleday), which she called "the ultimate sleeper! We sold over 50." There was also keen interest in Natalie Cole's autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder (Warner), and Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever (Pocket), which "was our number-one bestseller for the past 52 weeks," McGee said.

While the 76 selection didn't necessarily match McGee's clientele, she had no complaints about the Book Sense gift certificates. "We do a really good volume in gift certificates in this store," said McGee. "One order was for 200 gift certificates at $10 each for a local PTA." Kepler's can top that. This year the store dropped its own gift certificates in favor of the Book Sense certificates (which can be redeemed at more than 1,200 locations). During November and December, Kepler's sold more than 3,000 gift certificates.

While most of the Book Sense stores contacted had added Book Sense gift certificates, the majority were still also clinging to their own proprietary gift certificates. Not surprisingly, when stores were using both certificates, the store's own certificates dwarfed the sales of the Book Sense certificates. To many, gift certificates is still a "them" vs. "us" issue. Susan Avery of Ariel Booksellers was enthusiastic about the Book Sense program but added, "We didn't do well at all with Book Sense gift certificates. But our proprietary gift certificates did great--we sold hundreds."

Hitting the Bricks (and Mortar)Several booksellers believed there were more people shopping off-line because of negative experiences last year with online purchases. "Customers were gun-shy to go back to the Web after last year," said Peggy Bieber. "Customers do research on, but they bring their lists in and buy at the independents. In all honesty, our sales have been affected in some degree by e-commerce. But overall, customers come into the store to purchase books; Web shopping d sn't cut down hugely on impulse buying." Jenny Feder at Three Lives argued that customers are often smitten with the new but return to the familiar. "First, there was a rebounding after the perception that the chains were offering better discounts," said Feder. "Then most people came back. Then there was a dip from, but now people are talking about the hidden cost of postage, so they're returning again."

"I think there's still a customer misconception that has everything they claim to have in their database," said Kerry Slattery of Skylight Books. To combat this, Skylight went live with its own Web site a few months before the holiday. "Orders seem to come from new customers, customers we would not have had. Although we receive many orders online, the majority of the customers ask for store pick-up."

The real satisfaction for many owners was the resurgence of books as a popular gift item. "This was a real pleasant holiday season," said Chris Satterlund. "People were happy to give books as gifts, and there was no price resistance." Kerry Slattery agreed, "It's heartening to me that customers say they are buying books and have gone out of their way to shop at independent bookstores. We hear it from many more people, and we attribute that to Book Sense marketing."