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Sunday
Oct022011

POS Scriptwriting for Booksellers

How are you today? Did you find everything you were looking for? Are you a member of our frequent buyers' program? Would you like to join? Could you tell me your ZIP code, please?

The POS script is a longstanding tradition in bricks-and-mortar retail stores. Lately the cashiers at my local supermarket seem to have been commanded to say something nice about precisely one item per customer ("Oh, that's my favorite coffee, too!").

When my days on the bookstore sales floor ended a few years ago, I was sure that I would stop thinking about POS scripts, but I haven't. If anything, I'm hyper-aware of them as a customer because I know what it's like on the other side of the counter, where you have to ask the same question(s) again and again.

Those memories, along with an unpleasant shopping experience recently, have ramped up my interest in POS scripts considerably. To help me exorcise this demon, I'd like to pose a few questions to you booksellers out there:

  1. Does your bookshop use a POS script?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. If you do, what does it require cashiers to say?
  4. What do you like and/or hate about POS scripts?
  5. How has your script changed over the years?
  6. What chaos might ensue were you to go scriptless?

    
A couple of years ago, SmartMoney shared an anecdote about a cashier for a chain bookstore in Manhattan who was tired of the "elaborate scripts" she had to recite during each transaction:

It's tedious to keep blurting out those little phrases, she says, and customers just look away. But recently, the aspiring illustrator tried something new: singing her lines. Now shoppers look up. They smile. Some even sing back, which is pretty awesome, says Gleaves. Depending on the reaction, she sings the official welcome, the rewards-card offer, even the sales total.


Questions arise. How long did she last? Where is she now? Did this store close during the past year?

A minimal POS script is probably unavoidable. If the customer is a member of the shop's frequent buyer program, for example, the cashier does need to know this. But it's the add-ons (ZIP code collection, programmed talking points) that can make the difference between friendly, efficient interaction and just another cold transaction. All the best handselling in the world can be undone by a bad POS experience.

While I always understood the necessity of organizing (though not micromanaging) the POS exchange, I was never good at POS line readings in two retail environments that captured a significant portion of my working life--the supermarket and the bookshop.

As a customer, I find indie bookstore POS scripts generally less irritating than chain bookstore scripts, if measured on a sliding scale that puts department store scripts at the hellish extreme.

Oh, the unpleasant shopping experience I mentioned above? POS script ghosts came back to haunt me recently while paying for purchases in a department store that shall remain nameless (let's call it "Sears"). A pleasant woman greeted me at the checkout counter and asked whether I was in their discount program (no); asked if I would like to apply for a Sears credit card (no); asked again if I was sure I didn't want to apply for the card (no); rang up my order and, when handing me my receipt, talked about something I should do with information on the back (I'm still not certain what that was about). Finally, after I had signed the electronic credit card screen display, another window popped up with a multiple-choice question about my shopping experience, which I had to answer immediately in front of the sales clerk. I was essentially, and instantly, evaluating her.

I felt far more sorry for the cashier than myself because I would soon be escaping to the sunlight. But the real downside for "Sears" is that the next time I need a shirt, I will recall being trapped in a seemingly endless transaction. It may influence my decision to return, which is one way, I suspect, that many online shoppers are born.

Thankfully, I've never had an equivalent bookshop horror story. One possible conclusion to draw would be that great booksellers make the final, crucial interaction between bookstore and reader a pleasant, profitable one, with or without a script. I don't think it's quite that simple. And unfortunately, the best booksellers aren't always stationed at POS.

Now I'm starting to sound like a retail consultant, but I'm really just a guy who's been wondering about POS scripts in indie bookstores. Will that be all? Have a nice day.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1570.

Sunday
Sep252011

What Do Booksellers Love to Read & Handsell? 

With all the chatter about personalized algorithmic book recommendations wafting through the digital air, I'm here to offer an organic alternative. Caution: you will have to pay attention, do your own sorting and use your mind. You will have to... read.

Since early August, Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Books, St. Paul, Minn., has been on an epic biblio-quest to assemble a kind of reader's holy grail by collecting Top 50 recommendations and/or handselling favorites from some of America's best indie booksellers (Shelf Awareness, September 2, 2011).
    
From the moment he called this summer and let me know what he was up to, I've been excited about the prospect, and thus far the results are spectacular. Weyandt posted his own list August 31 at Mr. Micawber Enters The Internets and has added 14 others since then. There are more to come.

The range of selections has been impressive. Consider just the first five titles mentioned by Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books, San Francisco, Calif.:
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
A Secret Location on the Lower East Side by Steve Clay
Aime Cesaire: The Collected Poetry
Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Ark of Bones by Henry Dumas

Across the continent, Toby Cox of Three Lives & Company in New York City started with these:
Wilderness Tips: Stories by Margaret Atwood
Another Country by James Baldwin
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell

Somewhere in the geographic middle, Kelly von Plonski of Subterranean Books, St. Louis, Mo., began with:
Firmin by Sam Savage
Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

If I were still a bookseller, I'd be thrilled to share this wealth with my customers. As a reader, I'm deeply intrigued by the range of selections. Not only have I already added far too many new titles to my infinite library of must-reads, but I've also spent a lot of time conjuring up--or should I say narrowing down--my own Top 50 list.  

In an introductory post last month, Weyandt explained the backstory to his project: "I had a customer ask me for 10 of my Top 100 books. Initially I thought she meant Micawber's all-time bestsellers. When I started plucking books off the shelves she straightened me out, 'No, I mean your personal favorites.' Well then--now we had a crazy fun task at hand. So it got me to thinking how cool it would be to compile similar lists from other indie booksellers."

Weyandt took a little time from this week's Midwest Independent Booksellers Association trade show to share some thoughts on his work-in-progress, which he said "continues to be fun, informative and unpredictable."

When asked what his "big picture" reactions, both personally and professionally, have been, he replied that "the surprises are too many to name. The biggest, for me, is that although the lists are odd and unique in wonderful ways, there is almost always a very common or normal book on each list and it is that that reminds me that all of us (booksellers) are normal readers in the beginning and in the end. General trends are very few. Big picture, both professionally and personally, is the idea that indie booksellers do bring a depth and breadth of knowledge that is important and valuable to communities. These lists, taken individually and collectively, are a strong indication of that."

http://media.shelf-awareness.com/theshelf/2011Content/weyandt_MPR_Photo_Andris_Straumanis.jpgThe lists have already garnered positive reactions both locally and nationally: "Our customers are loving it," Weyandt observed. "We sell books off the lists. People are reminded of things 'they meant to read.' Book trade people have also been very kind in giving encouragement and asking when I'll be starting lists for the reps and editors and publishing people."

Quite naturally, it is not just Hans Weyandt the bookseller who is being influenced by the project, but Hans Weyandt the reader as well. "I've already read two books I never knew about and liked them both very much," he noted. "I have mental and hand-written to-be-read lists and let's just say that they've increased by dozens. I gave some thought to reading one book from each list. And I still may do that for the original 20. But I have a lot of other piles of 'should' read and want to read."

I'm not giving away any house secrets to reveal that consistently some of the most clicked-through news links at Shelf Awareness are book recommendation lists. We all wonder what we should be aware of... and what we've missed. For readers, book guilt is good.

"A number of people have mentioned this," Weyandt said. "We do seem to love lists--maybe due to the messiness of life or how chaotic it currently is with technology buzzing every which way. A list is nice and neat and makes sense--or if not sense, it points us toward new things in a concrete way. Plus, especially with these book lists, most people can get a sense of whether a given list is their kind of thing. People react to all of them with enthusiasm, but for certain readers a particular list is pure magic."

Do yourself a favor. Add Micawber's Top 50 project to your must-read list.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1564.

Sunday
Sep182011

It was the Best of Bookcase Times, It Was...

 

When Lisbeth Salander needs to furnish her new apartment in Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, she drives to the IKEA store at Kungens Kurva, where she spends "three hours browsing through the merchandise, writing down the item numbers she needed." Apartment Therapy conveniently documented her purchases, including two Bonde bookcases.

I thought about Lisbeth's $13,000 shopping spree when panic hit the streets of BookWorld last week, triggered by an Economist article that began: "To see how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous 'Billy' bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome--anything, that is, except books that are actually read."

Within hours, the terror had spread via Twitter and Facebook, followed by media headlines that once again were trumpeting the end of book civilization as we know it. Here's a sampling:

IKEA Hates Books
IKEA Resizes Billy Bookshelf. Pundits Declare Death of Books
The End of Books: IKEA Is Changing Shelves to Reflect Changing Demand
IKEA Redesigns Classic Bookshelf, Foreshadows the Demise of Books
Has the Bookshelf Become a Dinosaur?

Over the weekend, reality began to intrude, as it sometimes--though not often enough--does in these situations. IKEA's PR manager Marty Marston told Reluctant Habits the Economist's story had been misleading: "We are not removing the original Billy. It’s interesting that everybody has jumped on this," she said, adding that a new Billy bookcase with shelving 15-inches deep will be joining the original 11-inch version. "Billy has gone through transformation since it started in 1979. This is just one additional transformation. And we’ll probably see some other ones." E-books were not a factor in the company's decision.

Anthropomorphic clarification was produced by Curbed, which quoted Billy him-...er... itself: "Reading is one of the most enjoyable and smart things one can do with their time. And who knows better about reading than me, Billy Bookcase.... My shelves are deeper so I can house bigger books. Deeper books. And I can hold all those mementos and pictures to keep all those books company. And my original Billy size still remains. You can count on it. My endurance remains high. So please, no more talk about reading books and how they are on their way out."

Paranoia may strike deep and fast in the book heartland, but ultimately it will save neither the traditional book nor the traditional bookcase. A design change by IKEA is not an omen, even if many of the early reactions to Billy's evolution resembled medievalish predictions of a digital plague. Bookcases are furniture, not monuments.

Sitting here at my desk, I'm surprised to discover that I cannot count how many bookcases there are in our house right now. Of course I could wander the rooms and take an inventory, but it doesn't really matter. Simply put, there are a lot of bookcases here. Some are expensive and some inexpensive. Some are made of wood and some of steel. Some have deep shelves and some narrow. In the shadowy depths of the basement, there's probably even a CD/DVD shelving system, if you want to discuss storage ideas that had a painfully brief "shelf life."

And yes, on more than a few shelves there are even the dreaded "ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome" that struck fear in heart of the Economist. As there should be in anybody's personal library.

In what I assume was a purely coincidental interior design piece on bookshelves in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, Sara Ruffin Costello wrote: "A good bookshelf is the foundation.... My favorite look is a collected-over-time weave of hardbacks, sculpture, mementos, art and bookends--the bits and pieces of a curious and full life."

There are so many things to worry about in BookWorld, but shelving isn't a priority. Remember, as a fallback strategy there will always be the board-and-cinderblock option so many of us chose in our youth.

So we can all just exhale now. IKEA's place in our bookscape remains secure. Hell, it has even been known to perform extra duty as a simile. In her 2008 review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, NPR's Maureen Corrigan noted that the author's "multi-pieced plot snaps together as neatly as an IKEA bookcase."

--Published in Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1559.

Sunday
Sep112011

An Indie Bookseller's Dream Comes True

"I dream of the day I can run events, handsell to curious customers and organize Avid Bookshop's shelves--but for now I have to bide my time and wait for the stars (and dollars) to align," Janet Geddis told me almost two years ago after I met her at SIBA's fall trade show.

Next month, Avid Bookshop will achieve genuine bricks and mortar status at 493 Prince Avenue in Athens, Ga. Geddis anticipates a soft opening in about four weeks, aiming for a grand opening by mid-October. Shelving (previously used by Chapters Literary Bookstore, Washington, D.C.) arrived yesterday, and most of her new book inventory should be there soon. "Once the shelves are positioned and we're ready to click 'submit' on our opening inventory, we'll keep everyone updated with a firm grand opening date. We haven't formally hired anyone yet, but we do have a list of at least 20 people who are applying (and we haven't even advertised the bookselling positions yet!)," she noted.

In many ways, Geddis has been living the irresistible and perilous life of an indie bookseller since she went public with her intentions in a blog post at I'm an Avid Reader on July 12, 2009. She has built strong community ties in Athens and done her homework--studying the industry, establishing an online version of Avid Bookshop, attending trade shows and conferences, connecting with a large network of other booksellers and scouting for the perfect location.

There is a narrative arc to this process (I was reading the opening lines of the tale a couple of years ago), so it is perhaps not surprising that an early and strong supporter of Avid Bookshop has been a storyteller from New England, the novelist Katharine Weber.

When Geddis created her Avid Bookshop fundraising page on IndieGoGo.com in 2010, "lots of generous people donated to the Avid startup funds, but Katharine's donation was bigger than most. She applauded my efforts and said that when the shop opened its doors, she'd love to fly down and do an event."

That offer became a reality earlier this week, when Weber conducted the first in-store events (see a video excerpt here) in the "raw space" that will soon be Avid Bookshop. She requested that her writing workshop be billed as an Avid fundraiser and, aware the space wasn't set up for a crowd yet, "had the idea that anyone who brought his/her own chair could get a discount to the workshop," said Geddis. "When the night was over, we'd keep the chairs we can use and donate the rest to the Habitat for Humanity Re-use Store up the street. Katharine also raffled off a private crit session. After the workshop, we hosted a 'meet the author' event where Katharine read from her latest book, The Memory of All That, and signed copies."

Geddis called the weekend events emblematic of her overall reception into the land of bookselling: "I guess this is all to say that, once again, the generosity of the people I've met in this industry has overwhelmed me. Were it not for fellow booksellers who offered up all their help from the beginning, I wouldn't have found this a viable plan. Were it not for the enthusiasm of journalists, I never would have had anyone outside of Athens hear about the bookshop. And were it not for virtual strangers reading your newspaper, I never would have gotten as much startup money and goodwill sent my way. And I certainly wouldn't have been able to welcome a New England author, one I'd never met, to my soon-to-open bookshop. I just love this world I've come into and love knowing that this really is the job for me."

Weber was also impressed by the experience, noting: "It is incredible to me how this town has embraced Janet's vision every step of the way. What she has done, creating a strong online presence first, and now the bricks and mortar, seems unusual but fruitful, as her relationships exist, her accounts are there, and her vision for every aspect of the store, from the shelving to the children's area to the coffee is so developed. Everything she can implement now has been thoroughly explored and refined, which seems like a huge advantage for a new bookshop."

When she first contacted Geddis about the proposed bookshop, Weber said she "wanted to help make it real, to offer her a future vision of authors coming from out of town to do events in her lively, successful store, because I thought this sense of the future would be helpful and encouraging at this stage of the plan.

"I was probably also being encouraging to myself as a novelist who has had the sad discovery that each time I have a new book in the works and am asked to list places where I have had good events for my previous books, more wonderful indies have closed. Bookstores like these, with thoughtful, literate booksellers who have a passion for books and know how to handsell books like mine, have made all the difference for me as an author."

Weber concluded with a bookstore blessing of sorts: "Surely someone who wants to do this, someone willing to invest her life, as Janet has, in opening a new independent bookstore in these perilous times, someone so inspiring to me, is deserving of being inspired herself. And now here we are! Welcome to the Avid Bookshop!" We heartily agree

.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1554.

Sunday
Sep042011

Bookselling Is Harder than It Looks

They say it all the time. Right this minute, somewhere in the world, a customer is waiting at the POS counter, chatting with a bookseller while purchases are rung up, appropriate currency exchanged and selections bagged (or not, depending upon local custom and environmental awareness). They may be talking about one of the chosen titles or the weather, favorite authors or town politics. But sooner or later the customer will be compelled by some mysterious cosmic force to embark on the requisite traditional litany.

"It must be so wonderful to be surrounded by books all day," he or she will say. "You have the best job in the world. I've always wanted to work in a bookstore."

If you are that bookseller, you will smile and nod... knowingly, yet still guarding a secret of the ages that only those in the trade understand.

Bookselling is harder than it looks.
    
Customers enter your bookstores because they want to. By contrast, they enter grocery stores because they have to. Bookshops are both a refuge and an adventure for them. Once inside, they move through a sensory wonderland--row upon row of books; soft strains of music in the air, mingled with the scent of coffee or baked goods.

All over the world, booksellers greet them courteously, ask how they are. Perhaps no one has asked them that question all day, not even their families. They say "fine" in the language of the land because, quite suddenly, at this moment and in these special places, they are fine. There are empty chairs in quiet corners. Maybe they will just sit and read for a little while... in paradise.

Ten minutes later, they glance up from their reading to watch booksellers shelve a few novels. It's a beautiful, universal and almost ceremonial tableau. They think about the jobs they must return to when this break is over, the bosses who are mad at them for no reason, co-workers who are driving them crazy and the mountains of work piling up incessantly.

They can't help but consider an alternative: How pleasant it must be to just work in a bookstore.

You know the truth. It is pleasant most of the time--you can't imagine doing anything else--but it's also complicated. It's bookselling.

Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to celebrate the work of booksellers. Your totem animal is the duck, which appears to float serenely on the water's surface while paddling like hell underneath. That is also your job description.

Here's just a bit of what those customers nestled in their comfy reading chairs planet-wide don't see because you are doing your jobs so well: today's deliveries stacked up in shipping & receiving; cartloads of as yet unshelved books; sections needing to be culled for returns; returns waiting to be boxed and shipped; staff meetings; internal staff rivalries; scheduling conflicts or sick days that result in overstaffing/understaffing (whichever is the worst one that could happen at this particular moment); ordering to be done; bills to be paid (or strategically delayed); websites and blogs to be updated; author events to be planned and executed....

Part of the magic and mystery of bookselling is never letting customers see below the surface. Who wants to look at a duck's feet when they can just watch the tranquil pond? The other part is that you wouldn't have it any other way because, for the lucky ones, bookselling is a vocation as much as a job. You could have done something else and certainly made more money. You chose this profession. If you're one of the best, it also chose you.

When you interview a prospective bookseller, you probably don't tell them about the phone calls from lonely people who'll talk to them for 15 minutes and may or may not order anything. You probably don't mention the occasional customer who takes a day's (or a lifetime's) worth of frustration out on you at POS because your books are more expensive than Amazon's. You probably don't ask them how heavy a box they can lift or if they can fix plugged toilets or shovel snow. If they are meant to be booksellers, they'll find all that out soon enough and it won't really matter.

You're a bookseller. You work hard, so enjoy Labor Day and a well-earned rest, though you're probably working this weekend.--Published in Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1549.