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Bookstore Web Sites & the Art of Hospitality

Shelf Awareness -- October 18, 2006

Valerie Koehler wants to improve her Web site. The owner of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., told me so herself when we met at the MPIBA Show in Denver last month. We spoke at length that day and the conversation has continued. As she explores new ways to cultivate her online presence, Koehler has agreed to share some of her experiences--both good and bad--with us occasionally.

Blue Willow's current Web site is a nice place to visit. Working within the limitations of a Booksense.com template, Koehler manages to convey a personal and hospitable image for her store. The site includes a generous selection of monthly new offerings, Koehler's Letter from the Messy Desk and a wide-ranging, up-to-date Staff Picks section.

According to Koehler, the toughest challenge is "carving out the time to work on it daily. And I'm not talking about actually writing the language; just looking at it and working with my Web master. My immediate goal is to keep the site fresh and relevant. This is not as easy as it might sound. I employ a wonderful person who is very detail oriented, a quick learner and a huge web surfer. But the site must reflect our personality, and that personality must come from me. So I need to 'feed' her this information. It helps when she spends time at the shop so she can work with me on the 'feel' part of the site. But all small business owners are busy and we need to carve out this time."

The reward, however, comes from "opening it up and seeing the changes and thinking, 'Wow, that's us.' "
"Hospitality" seems an appropriate and important word to use here. In this industry, we tend to flog "service" a bit too often in describing our mission, but that's not necessarily our best game.

Danny Meyer, legendary restaurateur and owner of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and other eateries in New York City and author of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, was asked to define hospitality in a recent USA Today interview: "Service can be measured based on how well a product was technically delivered. Hospitality can be measured based upon how the recipient of that service felt. Hospitality exists when something happens for you, not to you. It exists when you believe the other person is on your side. Service is truly a monologue. Hospitality has to be a dialogue."

Bluewillowbookshop.com already exemplifies such hospitality to a degree. Koehler makes it as personal as she can, using "pictures, letters, and fresh commentary that sounds like us. It's easy to cut and paste the words from the publisher. It is much harder to write reviews that reflect our personal views. Give me an opening to talk to people and I can sell books and inspire my staff to do the same."

People visit her Web site now primarily for information about events, for staff recommendations and, "a distant third," to shop for books. When customers mention the site to her, it tends to be for "everything from coming in and telling us they are buying a book that we reviewed on our site to calling us to ask about a date correction. One person said I don't look anything like my picture."

Although Blue Willow does not sell many books online, Koehler would like to alter that. She is particularly interested in finding a way to build Web connections between potential customers and her best handsellers: "Long-range goals would be to increase sales on the site and to develop relationships--with our existing and new customers who are unable to visit us physically--that will result in sales that otherwise would be lost to our competitors." If done well, handselling conversations online can reap both sales and hospitality benefits. Setting up an at once secure yet welcoming structure in which to accomplish this is the challenge.

Koehler seems ready to take it on. She is not satisfied with a good Web site. She wants a better one and has dedicated herself to the messy, evolutionary process of replicating the hospitable aura of Blue Willow Bookshop in an online environment.

"We are attempting to keep the relationships alive with our wonderful front line booksellers and their customers," she says. "We cannot say I just want to sell books. We have to engage in the business of retailing and today that includes online."--


'Dead Trees' and 'Fiber-Based Books'

Shelf Awareness -- September 28, 2006

On my flight home from the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver, Colo., I read the following in Brendan I. Koerner's introduction to an intriguing new anthology, The Best of Technology Writing: "The best tech writing is also frequently read online, rather than in the pages of magazines or newspapers--publications often jokingly referred to as 'dead trees.' "

Technology was the prevailing theme of MPIBA's Thursday programs, which featured panels like "Essential Technologies: An Overview," "Digital Media Formats and the Independent Bookstore" and "Capturing the I and My Generation (Ipods, IMs, and MySpace)."

During the Digital Media panel, someone used the term "fiber-based books." It was meant to be a throwaway line, but the audience laughed uneasily and other panelists briefly smacked it around like a badminton birdie.

Dead trees.

Fiber-based books.

Fasten your seat belts, folks. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Most of the panelists at the MPIBA show were (how do I say this diplomatically?) not representing the MySpace generation, yet their attitude toward technology was generally curious, engaged and resourceful.

Dave Weich of Powell's Books made the wisest statement of the weekend: "I don't know what's going to happen. The changes in the next 15 years will make the changes in the last 10 look like nothing."

The Essential Technologies panel dealt with bricks-and-mortar as well as Web site issues, and the point was made more than once that the two cannot be separated. If you have a Web site, it is your virtual bookstore and may be the first impression that many potential customers have of your business. It must be taken seriously as a venue for customer interaction.  


"What's changing in the world in the last decade or so is that there is less emphasis on product and more on customer," said Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com and director of education at the ABA. "People use the Internet as they used to use the phone book." He added that booksellers have to be more conscious of their Web presence, making it an integral, rather than tangential, component of their bookshop: "It is rare when you walk into a store to see any evidence of a Web site."

Liz Sullivan of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., suggested that with a strong Web presence, "you can actually get rid of your Yellow Pages advertising." She was also one of many industry professionals recommending the e-mail marketing service Constant Contact, calling it "the only one that didn't take days to figure out."

Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins stressed the need for every bookstore to have a high speed Internet connection in order to acquire information from and communicate with publishers. "Catalogues may go online in the next five years," he said, adding that publishers are already offering an array of digital POP materials. He stressed the importance of ongoing communication with customers, citing Constant Contact as "the best invention since Above the Treeline."

Andy Nettell of Arches Book Company in Moab, Utah, who described himself as a representative of "the frustrated user group of bookstore owners," also praised Constant Contact: "It makes your store look very professional."  

At the Digital Media Formats panel, the discussion ranged well beyond the confines of the topic, as if digital downloads were merely the shark's fin poking above the surface of still-impenetrable waters.  

Dave Weich of Powell's Books shared a wealth of information about that bookstore's focus on adapting to new opportunities while preserving the best aspects of customer service. "We've sold e-books for six years or so for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader," he said. "They account for about 1% of our sales." He expects that figure to rise dramatically when the long-anticipated--but still unrealized--development of a first-rate reading device occurs. "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer," he continued. "Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."

Still, e-books and digital downloads are just a part of what successful bookstore Web sites can provide. Weich offered two suggestions for raising bookstores' Web site game. First, don't assume you must always hire expensive techies to guide you through the virtual jungle: "Try to nurture the people on your staff who already have an interest in this stuff." And second, never forget that a very traditional, "fiber-based" question still applies to the digital book world: "What makes the relationship between your customer and your store meaningful?"--


Failing Better with Bookstore Web Sites

Shelf Awareness -- September 14, 2006

"No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."--Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

Beckett's existential strategy might serve as a realistic mantra for indie booksellers who want to create and sustain an online presence. Running a race with no finish line is the exhausting, absurd and inevitable way of life on the Web.

"Given how quickly change can happen, one must maintain some level of fluency, some level of competency, to permit the rapid adoption of new services and products," says Tattered Cover's manager of operations Neil Strandberg. In my last column, he shared his thoughts about using the Booksense.com template. This time he talks about both the challenge and the necessity for indie booksellers to stay up to speed on the info superhighway.

Strandberg has what he terms his "soapbox" speech about Internet commitment: "I may be making this up, but I get a sense that there are some within the indie community who argue in favor of a kind of 'opt out' business model: that we've lost the battle to keep up and should instead find refuge in standing outside of--indeed, in opposition to--these technologies and the changes they are bringing to consumer ideas about reading books (now known as content, I hear). This may work in some settings, perhaps where the store is small, the local fabric strong and the community insulated. For the rest of us, we have no choice but to break our backs trying to keep up, identifying and adopting our own innovations in a marketplace where we are perpetually disadvantaged. Having a Web site, even one that doesn't do all that you dream, is still part of staying in the game."

It's a game in which the rules change second by second. No one "keeps up" anymore; we just try to avoid being left behind. I've noticed that the bookshop Web sites I enjoy visiting most seem to be virtual representations of the people who inhabit the bricks-and-mortar stores rather than efficient, alien, cyborg annexes. That's why the online bookstores that move to the top of my siteseeing list are the ones offering current blogs (Elizabeth Frengel and Joe Murphy at Olsson's) or direct e-mail access to booksellers (Rainy Day Books) or podcasts of author events or anything else that humanizes a site and promotes some level of interactivity.

Call it organic mind over digital matter.

No one says this is easy, and most indie bookstores do not start from a position of strength when it comes to this competition. The virtual playing field is anything but level. Strandberg touches on this in what he terms a "truth" about the Internet challenge, which is "the cost of keeping up with the Joneses. And not just online shopping but also the varieties of digital content that one way or another have their origins in traditional print reading and in which a bookstore has a stake. The stock market has subsidized the rapid progress of industry goliaths and neither the ABA nor its members have had the benefit of this enormous gift of cash and consumer/investor attention. As we are all well aware, consumers are continually being trained by Internet change leaders and have less patience for the rest of us."

While there is no magic bullet solution, the human touch and openness to trial and error must always play key roles in drawing readers to your site. Imagination and persistence are as crucial to success as technological innovation. Even that word "success" can be defined in so many ways--increasing online books sales, widening a bookstore's geographic reach, developing profitable e-mail communication links between frontline booksellers and their customers.

Don't be satisfied with the status quo. Strandberg isn't. When I express my surprise, given Tattered Cover's reputation as a great handselling store, that there is no Staff Picks page (a staple for most bookstore Web sites) on TC's site, he replies that it is an unfortunate but by no means permanent situation: "In the past, we've had a difficult time maintaining it in a useful way. It has proved more difficult than one might at first suspect to get the staff engaged and keep the selections current. We're going to make another run at it again later this year."

Beckett as webmaster. Repeat after me: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."


The Ideal Bookstore Web Site? A Work-in-Progress

Shelf Awareness -- September 7, 2006

As I write this column in early September, I'm also listening to Julian Barnes read from Arthur & George at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on July 10. I mention this not to laud my multitasking ability, nor to reveal deep secrets about time travel, but to recommend Authors on Tour: Podcasts of Authors and Their Books, a feature that adds considerable luster to an otherwise standard Booksense.com template.

According to Neil Strandberg, Tattered Cover's manager of operations, "The ideal Web site will be able to keep pace with changing technologies and services, even when the future of such ideas is murky or their current return on investment disappointing."

While he admits that this online ideal is still beyond the reach of most bookstores, including Tattered Cover, he believes a Web presence is "indispensable" for independents. Strandberg has given the online book world considerable thought, as you'll discover in my next two columns. This time, I'll share his views on Tattered Cover's work with Booksense.com's Web site service.

It's an important topic. During my siteseeing tour this year, I've encountered a range of opinions about the effectiveness of the Booksense.com approach. Strandberg's take, based upon experience as well as reflection, is an excellent starting point for this discussion.

Tattered Cover is the first example cited on Booksense.com's Q&A page. Strandberg says that the bookstore maintained its own Web site for several years, but switched to the Booksense.com template to keep pace with ever-changing technology and customer expectations: "Booksense.com offered, in our view, the best selection of functions and services for the resources available to us. This 'math' remains true now."

He adds that while the store's Web site helps sustain relationships with customers for whom the current offerings (event schedules, browsing options, etc.) are satisfactory, "I must simultaneously acknowledge that I have responded to many customers who have hoped for something different, 'better,' from a store with Tattered Cover's reputation. Also, the fact that our online ordering growth does not mirror national trends speaks for itself with respect to the kinds of relationships our site is sustaining--or not."

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the Booksense.com option? According to Strandberg, "One advantage relates to the cost to Tattered Cover, be that the cost of labor, equipment, R&D, software, troubleshooting or the like. Doing this on our own simply became impossible to sustain. Other stores, of course, have selected other providers. Booksite comes immediately to mind, but this point leads me to another great advantage: Len Vlahos and the BookSense.com crew. They are fantastically responsive, sharp and helpful. They 'get' our needs, can quickly connect the dots between service goals and technical abilities, and can translate a rapidly evolving jargon-laden conversation into plain English."  

Strandberg acknowledges, however, the limited range of options available "to completely personalize the Web site and thereby reproduce online whatever is valuable about the in-store experience. Our internal arguments regarding this point center on frustrated desires to make the Web site as special and unique as any of the physical stores, and to offer all our products and services."  

He knows that BookSense.com must please a diverse (dare we say fiercely independent?) bookstore community and is inevitably "pushed by users with high expectations and pulled by others whose requirements are more basic. We frequently work with Booksense.com to identify new goals for the Tattered Cover--and all template users--and simultaneously recognize that these ideas will be placed in a queue that BookSense.com prioritizes according to its resources and the demands of other stores."   

While there is no such thing as an ideal bookstore Web site, Strandberg does have a dream site and his inspiration is Powells.com, which "has done a wonderful job of capitalizing on its core mission, selling books competitively while expanding its customer relationship via the Web. In fact, a Web site visitor can engage with books, digital media, Powell's staff, the stores, authors and aspects of the literary community in ways that the in-store customer could never experience. As a result, and this is my goal for Book Sense and the Tattered Cover, the in-store and online relationship both complement and expand upon each other. Neither is the pale shadow of the other, each promises to satisfy the ever-evolving spectrum of consumer interests."

"Ever-evolving" precludes arrival. The quest continues. More from Neil Strandberg next time.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)


What's the Vision for Your Web site?

Shelf Awareness -- August 22, 2006

When I visit bookshops on this site-seeing trek, I ask myself a simple question: What is the vision here?

Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman, owners of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., have a vision for their Web site that Richard calls "the Google vs. IMDB effect. If you're looking for something about the nesting habits of robins, you go to Google; if you're looking for the name of the actor who played the homicide detective in The Thin Man, you don't go to Google; you go to IMDB.com. In a small way, I think we've become the IMDB of mystery readers--they go to us first to answer a question. Once they are on the site, we have the opportunity to make sales."

In a previous column, I cited a report that 30% of this bookshop's revenues come from online sales. Pennsylvania is its primary source for Internet business; New York, California, and Florida round out the top four. In addition to providing an extraordinary array of useful information for mystery readers, it has a discount program, sends weekly e-mails featuring 20% off a selected title and offers free shipping on orders over $45.

Mystery Lovers Bookshop is always seeking new avenues for Internet outreach. Mary Alice traces the evolution of this strategy back to 1990, when Richard developed a system that "tracks all sales so customers can check for dupes, generates mailing lists by author, shows series chronology and makes life so easy for me, the user from Hell. We've never found any system out there that can top ours or we would have updated by now."

The online version of Mystery Lovers Bookshop made its debut in 1995 and went through several incarnations over the next six years. Richard admits that those early variations were "strictly an advertising/promotion site," but by 2001 the bookstore faced increasing competition from superstores in its region. About 15% of its sales had been coming from phone and mail orders, so the next move seemed obvious. "With increasing difficulty facing us in the in-store business, we realized we had to have an e-commerce Web site if we wanted to attract more mail order customers. In October 2001, we launched the new Web site, which was an immediate success."

In 2003, the store began using Google AdWords to drive traffic to the site. According to Richard, "This has been amazingly successful. We now average about $50 a month in pay-per-click charges, which generate thousands of dollars in sales. Traffic-wise, here's an example: In February of 2004, we had 22,000 unique visitors, 780 a day; in February of 2006, we had 51,000 unique visitors, 1,833 a day; and in June of 2006, we had 71,000 unique visitors, 2,320 a day."

Mary Alice adds that the store works with online communities (blogs, list servers, groups, etc.) to drive traffic to the Web site, and has become more aggressive about getting authors to link directly to it.

Fresh content is always king, and Richard commits about 25 hours per month to his role as webmaster. "The update of the Web site is crucial to success; you constantly need new content to get people to keep coming back."

Continuing to adapt to the changing world online, Mystery Lovers Bookshop has begun an ambitious redesign of the site. According to Richard, "We felt the site was usable but a bit of a mess. The bottom line is that we're not converting enough visitors to buyers." To counter this, the store is working on a complete overhaul that will include a new, more efficient shopping cart as well as significant improvements in navigation and usability.

Ultimately, however, the key to online success for Mystery Lovers Bookshop is more than just improved shopping carts and navigation. It's the personal dialogue between handsellers and readers, a conversation that can be profitable even when it is virtual.

"Aside from the site content, our handselling and customer service with online customers is absolutely the key," says Richard. "Our responses to orders are very personal and idiosyncratic; they reflect the personality of the staff person who responds."

Richard doesn't prescribe the Mystery Lovers Bookshop strategy as a panacea. "Every bookseller is in a different situation. We were driven to the web by the continuing falloff of traffic in the store as a result of the chain store expansion. The Web gives us a way to project the personality and uniqueness of the store over a much wider area."

There's a word for that--vision.