Recently I had the privilege of visiting another Christian bookshop. It was small, smaller than the LST Bookshop, and like so many of us, the owners were struggling to make ends meet. They’d invited me to comment on ways in which they might be able improve sales, and it proved to be an enlightening and salutary experience.
From my point of view as a professional bookseller, the shop’s problems were plain to see. I was, quite frankly, astonished that a shop that had so many basic elements missing was in business at all, let alone struggling: apparently what was obvious to me had not been obvious to shop’s owners. Join me, then, on a journey, and as we travel, ask yourself how your shop compares: if the issues are obvious to you, that’s great: I salute you; if not, I urge you to pause, take stock, and take action.
I decided to start the ball rolling by carrying out a ‘mystery shopper’ trip: I simply turned up unannounced one day to look around the shop, make an enquiry and buy something. I immediately ran into a problem, however: the shop was on church premises, which I found without difficulty, but where was the shop itself? The only signage proved to be two A4 sheets in a window, giving the opening times and pointing towards the entrance. Apart from these, the shop was invisible: there were no posters and no books placed in the windows to attract passers by. I eventually found my way in:
“I’m looking for a book,” I said, and gave the title. “Do you have it, please?”
“No,” replied the shop assistant, “You’ll be able to get that from —” and named another bookshop nearby.
I hope that brief conversation sets as many alarm bells ringing for you as it did for me — because if it doesn’t, your business is in danger. When a customer asks for something you don’t have in stock, the answer is not to send them elsewhere: it is to offer to order it for them, either for them to come back and collect it or to post it to them; but never, ever to send them elsewhere as your first response. That response can, of course, come later in the conversation if the item proves difficult to obtain within an acceptable time frame.
As I continued to browse, the assistant disappeared and when the time came for me to buy something, I had to call for help; then there wasn’t enough change in the till to deal with my purchase and the assistant had to disappear again in search of change.
Again, I hope this sets alarm bells ringing for you: a first time customer advised to go elsewhere, then left alone in the shop — I wonder how much stock I could have pilfered had I been so inclined? There was no evidence of CCTV monitoring or security mirrors — and finally, a minor fiasco over change at the till.
The item I purchased was an in-house magazine published by the church. It was a superb magazine, professionally produced and attractively presented with a number of fascinating articles and a section of book reviews; but as I looked through it, my heart sank: almost every opportunity to promote the bookshop had been missed. There was one advertisement — for a book that wasn’t reviewed — which included the shop’s contact details. Elsewhere, however, there was no mention whatsoever, not even a simple note in the reviews section: All of these and more are available from our bookshop — which should, ideally, have also included a pointer to the bookshop website.
After leaving the shop I spent some time exploring the church website. This was better, with a featured book and a link to the bookshop section on the homepage; and across the rest of the site, a link in the navigation bar to the bookshop. That link, however, was relegated to the far end of a somewhat haphazard navigation bar, and the bookshop section was isolated from the main site, a separate subdomain for which the site search facility failed to deliver any results.
So why was this shop struggling? What steps could it take to improve sales?
I suggest that we need to look at things in terms of two words and three worlds: the two words are visibility and accessibility; and the three worlds are the real world, the printed world and the virtual world. For a shop — any shop, not just a bookshop — to operate successfully it needs to be both visible and accessible, in all three of these worlds. To draw people in, you have to reach out.
Reaching out in the real world requires clear signage, attractive window displays, and an entrance that customers can find. Are you making use of posters from publishers? You’ll find that most publishers are more than willing to provide posters and other point-of-sale (POS) materials for their latest titles. Ask for them and display them where passers by can see them. Some publishers will also provide you with dummy book covers: used imaginatively, these can transform and liven up both window and in-store displays.
Reaching out in the printed world needs constant vigilance: if your organisation publishes an in-house magazine or newsletter, are you using it to keep the shop in the forefront of your supporters’ minds? Liaise with the editor to ensure that if an author is interviewed, there’s a strapline with the article to say the author’s books are available from the bookshop; if there’s a book reviews section, request a banner: All of these and more are available from our bookshop. Beyond your in-house publications, consider offering book-related articles — book news and reviews — to local church magazines and papers.
Here in the virtual world, the same principles apply: are you making the most of every opportunity to build up your online presence, to reach out to your customers across the internet? When did you last check your entry in the UK Christian Bookshops Directory: is it up to date? Does it include your logo and a description of the shop? Your contact details and opening times? A link to your website? Are you taking advantage of social media: blogging, facebook and twitter? These are all free services: the only cost is your time, and time spent increasing your shop’s visibility is surely time well spent. What of your own website? If your shop belongs to a church or other organisation, is the bookshop section easy to find or hidden away?
Last but certainly not least, we come to the question of staff support and training. Do your staff know where to obtain stock? Do they understand the importance of offering to order things that are not in stock? Do you have a customer order book, whether it’s a simple notebook kept by the till or a computerised system? If you’re a member of the Booksellers Association, have you considered sending staff to their training days? Finally, don’t miss the Workshops and Seminars being organised by Christian Resources Together: the session entitled “Please Step Inside – Good Customer Service” will be examining three specific areas that we’ve touched upon here:
- Creating a welcoming environment
- Good customer service is essential
- Display really matters
None of the things I’ve suggested in this article are rocket science; but the fact that one bookshop has missed them all suggests that others may be missing them too: make sure yours isn’t one of them.