I love to go to trade shows. Not for the inevitable accompanying airport fiascos, the tiny hotel rooms located too close to the elevator, and the stress of all the minor store emergencies that occur while I’m away, but for the possibilities. I love being away, briefly, from my own aisles, where I stare and obsess about things that are selling and those that are not, and look instead at all the pretty, shiny new merchandise and just unveiled dust jackets of new titles and series from authors both familiar and new. I love to imagine whole new sections in my store, innovative displays, different programs and promotions, and new ways to delight customers. I picture giant stacks of boxes arriving at the store, and the staff exclaiming (with delight, not with “WHERE DO WE PUT THIS?” frustration) and getting excited about building displays and fixtures that require total section resets. I crave the time spent visiting with colleagues, hearing about what’s working in their stores, and commiserating about what isn’t. Choices and possibilities abound, inspiration flows like wine at the hotel bar, and all those hundreds of pre-show phone calls (“Hi! Are you attending …….? We are in Booth # …….”) fade away like the well-intentioned plan to pack at least TWO pairs of comfortable shoes and to be back in the room to sleep every night before midnight.
My June schedule this year will put this trade show warrior stamina to the test, as Book Expo in New York is rapidly followed by the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) Marketplace and Academy in New Orleans, and then chased (like a Hurricane – or just in a hurricane glass?) by ABA’s Children’s Institute, also hosted in the Queen City this year. It will be a sticky month, both in temperature and scheduling, and I appreciate my summer staff back at the shop this year more than I can say. I also appreciate all those publishers and vendors that give me exactly what I need in advance to prepare for these meetings: fewer phone calls about booth numbers and more emails containing concise descriptions of promotions with catalog and price list links, plenty of advance notice and information about new products and series, and real decision makers in the booth, with easy access for conversations and questions. Appointments are great, but trade shows are like traffic jams, and schedules evaporate like data plans on our iPhones inside a convention center.
Last week, I scheduled a brief coffee for some of the members of my “advisory council” – a group of customers who shop with us regularly, and are willing to meet 3 to 4 times each year to give feedback on store programs and products, alert us to needs not currently being met, and weigh in on new product categories. Some of these customers are moms, some are grandparents, and few are teachers or childcare providers. Their advice is always open and interesting, and while I don’t always act on all of their recommendations, I feel confident that those ideas that I do implement will be well received. This time around, I brought both our projected fall programming and a couple of catalogs from companies that I plan to see at trade shows next month. In one case, the vendor is one that I have carried for years and am considering dropping (note: they told me to keep it). Another catalog showcased a new category for us that I have been considering, and I wanted some feedback (note: they told me to skip it). I prepared a short list of questions (kind of like prepping for a store book club) and hoped that the conversation would just grow from there. I brought my big coffee maker from home, baked some blueberry muffins, and printed some store gift cards (my traditional thank you gift).
The meeting, as always, was chatty, direct, and surprising (“Cynthia, raise the price of your birthday parties but increase your evening hours in the summer”) but the most valuable suggestion came from a mom who shops with us regularly for her three school aged children. “You know,”, she offered, “you should have this meeting for Carlie* and her friends. She’s the one who tells me what to buy for birthday presents and books for her (younger) brother and sister to read.”
Carlie* is nine years old, and in the fourth grade. She’s a regular participant in our summer reading program, but usually only stops in during the school year once a month or so. She relies on her mom to do her shopping for friends’ birthday gifts and “reading for fun,” but I was unaware that Mom was being given such a specific shopping list. So I asked if Carlie and some of her friends would be willing to come in together after school, baked some chocolate chip cookies, and put out a stack of new catalogs, some post it notes, and a big stack of ARCs. The girls arrived right after school, giggling, excited and STARVING, and moved quickly through the snacks, the vendor catalogs and product samples. They circled items they liked with sharpie pens, jotted age recommendations on post it notes and stuck them on catalog pages, and stacked advance copies into “yes,” “no”, and “maybe” stacks with the speed I sort socks in the family laundry basket.
I learned much more than I expected from that meeting, and am now looking for a middle school group to repeat the exercise. While each young customer was VERY opinionated about specific products and categories (“unicorns are done, octopi are cool, and graphic novels are SO GOOD… but you have to tell your mom that they’re real books”), they were also much less concerned about the age recommendations printed on products than we find their parents to be. They are highly sensitive to price points, not because of an arbitrary spending budget imposed by a parent, but because of real sensitivity to the financial constraints of their friends family budgets (“You don’t want to take a present to the party that the birthday kid can’t afford. That’s just mean.”).
The ‘best’ piece of buying advice came from a 5th grade student, who grew up in our store. I remember her playing at our play kitchen as a preschooler, excitedly bringing her choices from the early chapter section to the register, and acting cool when I saw her at her school for an author visit, waiting for her to be the first to say “hi” in the hallway. “You know, Miss Cynthia, I like coming here. You have good helpers. They like kids, and they like books, and you read stuff so that you can tell us what’s really good. And then when we read it, you want to know what we think. So you’re like, our book place. And our place to get stuff for our friends and birthdays and stuff. And I like that.”
Yes, my friend, so do we.
*I promised “Carlie” that I would use a different name, but that it wouldn’t be a name of anyone weird.