How to Talk About Amazon

Josie Leavitt -- June 23rd, 2014

Okay, it’s come up again: what to actually say to customers when Amazon rears its head in the bookstore. Signage is one thing: you put it up and hope folks understand. (See Friday’s post for more on clever signs.) But having a discussion about Amazon (or big other online or big box competition) in the store can be very tricky. Emotions come on surprisingly fast from both sides and there is a very delicate balance between education and annoyance.

I try to be very measured when speaking about Amazon in the bookstore. First off, an offended or shamed customer is not likely to come back, so thoughtfulness is the order of the day. The last thing any bookstore staffer wants to do is embarrass someone about Amazon. Education is a gentle thing that can take a long time to sink in. For me the best education comes when something happens like the local school having a book drive through Amazon during the holidays. Then I’ve got a big thing to talk about. Driving business to an online retailer that is only giving back X% of purchases is a slap in the face to the local bookstore. This recently happened and I had a long email exchange with the PTO chair who just didn’t get it, at first. But after explaining that we give far more money to the school than they’re getting with Amazon’s affiliate program, by our teacher discounts, donations to class trip auctions, book talks to the staff, even teaching a class or two!, and more, that choosing Amazon over us for a book sale is not only insensitive, it’s not even saving that much.

The key to Amazon education is making your points brief. Amazon shoppers are used to 1-click everything, so approaching them this way makes sense. I’ll be honest, it’s very tricky to do. You’ve got to pick the right time; often when a customer is saying they’ll get a book I’m out of at Amazon it’s in the same breath as, “You have such a lovely store.” I’m really honest but kind and positive. Amazon bashing turns people off. But extolling the benefits of shopping locally tends to really work. So, below are some good strategies that you can use at your store.

- If someone says they’re going to buy a book I’m out of on Amazon, I offer immediately to drop ship for them. By buying the book here you’re supporting our town and the people work here and by default you’re supporting the charities and organizations we support. If this is a new customer, I might offer free shipping.

- If I overhear someone talking about buying a book we have on the shelf from Amazon, I might actually take a different approach and tell them it’s okay to be immediately gratified. And then, I’ll thank them by saying how their purchase is going to be used in my town and my state because more of 68 cents of every dollar they spend with a local store stays in that community versus nothing from Amazon and only 43 cents from a chain store. Go to the 3/50 Project┬áto learn more. Also, the ABA has some pretty amazing signage with talking points available on its website.

If someone talks about how much they’re likely to save at Amazon with a particular book purchase, I counter with, “Yes, you might be saving more money with them, but Amazon isn’t likely to sponsor your kid’s Little League team or bring authors to the school. There’s more to where you shop than just savings.” Then I remind the customer about our free book club that automatically gives 10% back on every purchase and show them where the more deeply discounted bestsellers are.

- And, finally, if it’s a good customer who is threatening to shop at Amazon I can be more a little more bold and I’ll say quite simply, “Here’s the thing, if you don’t shop here, we will close. You have to shop at the stores you want to stay open.”

My advice to all booksellers is that less is more in the Amazon discussion with actual customers. They’ll feel trapped and chastised and that’s never a way to get someone to shop again. Be positive and honest, make one point and then let it go. I’m a fan of putting good info on a store bookmark and putting in with every purchase. Give them information without preaching at them.

Extol the virtues of your store if given the chance and remember, what makes all indies different from Amazon are the booksellers, so excel at your job. Read everything, know your stock, offer free shipping if it’ll make the sale, be cheerful even at closing when you’re tired and someone comes in wanting book recommendations about hippos who are friends.

One thought on “How to Talk About Amazon

  1. Carol Chittenden

    Good points, all. But I want more: I want ways to get it across to fellow retailers, to let them know Amazon is hurting them just as much as it hurts us. I figure all the people working retail in this town have families and friends, and the multiplier effect could be considerable.

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