Email and the Indie

Josie Leavitt -- June 21st, 2010

Bookstores are evolving every day with their use of email. I thought it might be interesting to discuss what the Flying Pig has done with email in the last year to reach out to customers.

The beauty of email is it’s green, and that’s really important to customers these days, especially Vermont customers. Email uses no paper. It’s vital and often is interactive, which makes it more fun than a piece of paper received in the mail. And more importantly, it’s an inexpensive way to get your message out to your customers.

We have an email newsletter that we send out monthly. This tends to be an event-driven email, a monthly missive that highlights our upcoming author visits. I can claim no credit for this, as Elizabeth does all our graphics. One thing she does that I think is sheer genius, is every link on the email blast brings people back to our website for book purchases or further information. This closed link works to keep the Flying Pig foremost in our customer’s minds.

There are several email newsletter providers, but if a store is an ABA member, they can get Constant Contact at a reduced rate. The beauty of this program is it allows you to track who opens your email, what links they click through, and more. What’s important with all of the available programs is to see what’s working and what’s not. Are folks clicking on book covers to get more information? Do they want to learn more about the authors? Again, if you can keep a closed circle to your website, then customers are getting their info from you and not clicking off to Amazon to learn more.

Emails have become the preferred method of special order notification for a large group of customers. We are still calling the majority of customers, partly because we haven’t totally figured out the smoothest, most time-efficient way to do mass email notifications for each shipment that contains special orders and partly, because some folks are just don’t want to give out their email address.

Some people absolutely prefer emails because they have a smartphone, so they get notified whenever they turn their phone on. The real beauty of email notification is there are no phone messages to get lost, not delivered or just plain not written down. How many times have you left a message with a young child and known that the customer is not going to get that message? Emailing ensures the customer will get the message every time.

Collecting customer emails should be very easy. There are many ways to harvest emails. The first is quite simply a sign-up sheet at the register. Then you could ask the customer for their email address when you’re ringing them up and, depending on your point of sale system, you can add it directly. Lastly, if you have Constant Contact (I’m sure other email newsletter providers have similar functions) you can set up a widget on your desktop that allows you to add emails seamlessly right to the email program.

While emailing customers might be easy, often a phone call allows you to speak directly to the customer, and sometimes this can result in a book added to the order or just a fun conversation. Even when you’re really busy, never underestimate the value of a real person-to-person conversation.

Lastly, the question of email etiquette looms large in the business world. One thing I’ve often wondered is if someone has asked to be removed from your email list, do you send them an email telling them you’ve removed them, or do you just let it be?

3 thoughts on “Email and the Indie

  1. Ann Kingman

    I wonder if anyone has offered a text message option to customers for notification of special order arrival. I think that I would like to be notified this way, since nothing frustrates me more than to arrive home to a phone message telling me my book is in, when I had driven past the bookstore on my way home. It wouldn’t take store staff any more time than picking up the telephone.

  2. Shelftalker Elizabeth

    Paul, J was being funny about the paradox of email etiquette. Of course you don’t email someone who is already feeling the effects of an overloaded inbox. : )

  3. Paul Theriault

    I write the weekly email newletter for Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA, which goes out to over 6,000 subscribers. We average about 1,500 opens of the newsletter (called “bmail”) each week, which means that a good number of those are loyal readers, who are reading it for pleasure. These are the folks I focus on most when I’m writing.
    I’m third in line of newsletter writers here, so the template I work from isn’t all of my creation, but it is definitely, I think, a model for success. I’m so glad to hear of other indie bookstores engaging with their customers via email in this way.

    Readers become loyal to an independent bookstore because it is a personal experience to shop and browse there. That feeling of having a singular, unique connection to a place is what welcomes them as soon as they open up our email. I want them to feel “Booksmith” when they read it.

    But this is an even more personal Booksmith. They are on their own, in their own place, and they choose to open up this email. I try to write it from me, Paul, a guy who loves this store as much as they do, and who happens to have some inside information that they will definitely want to hear. I lead with a photograph I’ve taken of the front doors of our store, which rotates monthly. I take photos of our gift room merchandise; booksellers model sunhats and I drape jewelry off of my own forearm for some pictures. I don’t shy away from being open about myself. My reading tastes, my struggles and joys as a painter and as a father, a story from my commute to work that day…all of these find their way into any corner of the newsletter where they fit. A newsletter from your favorite bookstore is best when it feels just like a letter, from a person. A friend.

    And of course I push our events this week, and I write a dozen pieces of copy about a dozen books I haven’t read, I alert folks to fun stuff going on around town, but all of it is me, my voice, attuned to the larger voice of the bookstore itself.

    And I try to never copy and paste. It’s all original, all the time. Just like your favorite independent bookstore, right?

    So there’s our template for success.

    Also, I believe that a business, any business, should NEVER send a message once someone unsubscribes. If someone sends a request to have their email taken off a list, that means they NEVER want to hear from you again. One of the costs of putting yourself out there is that you will face rejection. Take it and move on. If you respond with a “you have been removed from our list, sorry to see you go” email, you’re just getting on their nerves one last time. Nobody is going to read that message and say, “Oh, how nice that they got back to me with a confirmation, maybe I should give them another chance.” Better to leave them swiftly and silently than to whimper on your way out.
    Don’t leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, essentially.

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