The Art of Returns

Josie Leavitt -- March 6th, 2014

Every year, during the long stretch of winter after Valentine’s Day and before Easter, returns become a way for many bookstores to manage their cash flow. Bookselling is one of the few industries that allows for returns for credit. These credits are usually issued in the full amount of the invoiced price. Credits can then be used to pay all or part of bills. This is a lovely, lovely thing, but it returnsis not without its hassles.

The best way for a store to keep on top of returns is to have someone on staff who coordinates them. We are blessed to have Darrilyn who is aware of every book’s out of print status in the store and knows the most up to date rules for making returns. Darrilyn also knows exactly where we purchased every book. This is very handy as somewhere along the line in the 18 years we’ve been open, the rules have changed. You can no longer return books to the publisher that you haven’t purchased through them. In the past stores were able to return books purchased at the distributors to the publisher for full credit. While this change is irritating, it makes perfect sense. ┬áSo, here are some helpful hints for successful returns.

- Keep all books looking great. The rules for returns have also tightened in terms of what publishers will accept. There’s nothing more depressing than getting back “unacceptable returns” because the publisher thinks the book is dinged too much or has a sticker on it. Then you’ve paid to ship the book to the publisher only get charged to have it sent back to you.

- Have someone really organized be in charge of returns. Darrilyn is a whiz. The back room is largely her domain now. She has labeled piles by publisher and distributor. She even has piles with specific dates of when they can be returned. Occasionally, we make ordering mistakes (imagine!) and bring in too many of a book that turns out to be not as popular as we’d thought. But we have to wait three or six months to return it. Darrilyn pops the books on the return shelf with her label and the minute that book can be returned for credit, it’s out the door.

- Order less. I know this sounds elemental, but no one wants to be known as the store with a 50% return rate. I make smaller frontlist orders just so I don’t have to return as much. Ordering from the distributors is so easy, but now that things ordered from them can only be returned to them, I order less from them as well.

- Resist the urge to recycle all the boxes that come into the store. Frustration about not having boxes when you’re ready to do returns is needless and can be avoided.

- Do not buy cheap packing tape.

- Get a great rate from UPS and/or FedEx for shipping. The ABA has some great programs if your store does a lot of shipping. If you’re a smaller store, it’s still worth a call to your business rep for each big shipper. It’s amazing what they can do for your store if you just ask.

- In our old location we were across the street from the post office, so Media Mail shipping was easy. If your post office is easy to get to, then shipping with the USPS is far cheaper, but can take longer. Do a test and ship with one of each and see the cost and the delivery time.

- Do not overpack the boxes. Many publishers have stated rules about how heavy a box of returns can be. Pay attention to this. You don’t want a 40-pound box of book returns not counting because it was 5 or 10 pounds over their accepted limit.

- Know what your dollar limit is for returns. The distributors usually work on a rolling 12-month cycle. The publishers tend to work on the previous year’s purchases.

- Be somewhat ruthless when making returns. Yes, we all have our favorite books and these we keep around, to a point. But if books aren’t selling, or haven’t sold in months, maybe it’s to return them. I know ducks and bears are cute (always the kind of picture book I tend to overbuy) but it won’t hurt their feelings to send them back where they came from.

- The above point brings up a conundrum for all bookstores and backlist: what do you keep because you should have it, like classics, poetry and all the Newbery and Caldecott winners? Let’s face it, only 20% of the inventory sells, the rest is there to round out the collection and to please the folks who come in looking for less mainstream books. Every store has to judge and know what they can and can’t handle for inventory.

- Lastly, the rule of returns is as follows: the minute you return a book you’ve had on the shelf for two years, that has just been declared out of print, that you now have a three-month window to return before it goes in the Sale Bin of Despair, it will be the most asked-for book by all your customers.

- Actually, the final of rule of returns is to be a better buyer. Make discerning choices about frontlist, be bold in numbers when it’s warranted, and know that a hot book can always be reordered.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Returns

  1. Janis

    Is it a recent change that books ordered through a distributor cannot be returned to the publisher? I think we have been doing just that without incident.

  2. Carol Chittenden

    So what do you think is the ideal ratio of purchases from PUBLISHERS (better discount but gotta meet those minimums and wait for fulfillment, therefore more extra copies on hand, more money tied up) to purchases from WHOLESALERS (speedier replacement, but more expensive, and MUCH costlier to return overstock). We find that we’re at about 35% pubs to 65% wholesalers. Is that good, bad, or indifferent?

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