(phone ring) “4 Kids Books & Toys, how can I help?”
“Hi, do you have any books about building roller coasters? For a six-year-old boy? And his birthday is Thursday, so I don’t have time to order.”
“I can help you. Thursday gives us lots of time. Does he already have any books about roller coasters, so that we don’t duplicate titles?”
Ahhh, the magic of special orders. With two wholesaler warehouses within one day of our store on a delivery truck, we have the luxury of racing against the mighty online behemoth to keep our customers well read and gifted. In fact, in our employee training notebook, we instruct our new booksellers to say that books not in stock “are in the warehouse, and can be brought over” rather than “ordered.” Customers who may be loathe to commit to a “special order” (which for some reason sounds like a big deal) are perfectly content to have a book or two “brought from the warehouse and held behind the counter.” (Semantics, thy name is retail.)
Our book ordering process at the bookstore has evolved over time, but now is basically on the following schedule: we order our top four publishers every two weeks, our next four once a month, all others once per quarter, and special orders are placed at wholesalers daily. I wish that our returns were that disciplined, but that’s a goal we can discuss after this holiday season, when we’re making our resolutions for 2019. Daily special orders create daily deliveries from our primary warehouses, and we submit orders to our secondary warehouse about twice per week, or whenever the title count reaches the shipping minimums – a lesson hard-learned on a $3.99 paperback that cost $6.00 to ship in 2013. We have been known to bite the bullet and pay expedited shipping for emergencies—like a miscalculated school order with an author visit and not enough titles for each child—but our system has been pretty effective at balancing title availability with maximum profit margin.
The key to special orders, of course, is the capturing of information to make sure that the right book ends up with the right customer, as quickly as possible. We started out by using our POS system to record and track orders, but found that an old fashioned paper and pen (or marker, or crayon) process made the most sense. Many times, we take orders over the phone, away from the POS system, and just need some way to record the information from the customer. As books arrive, we need a way to label and shelve them behind the counter, and we need something fast. Currently, we use the following utilitarian (and completely unattractive form), copied on white paper for books, blue paper for toys and sidelines, and yellow paper for schools. When there’s an author coming, we have a slightly shorter form, listing actual titles and paperback vs. hardcover format, and that one is pink. (Note: I buy colored paper by the case on sale, so these hues might change by bargain, but are always distinct from each other.)
We have never taken prepayment on special orders, unless they are for an author autographing event. In those cases, we offer to “take the payment now, and we’ll get your book personalized no matter what…. just in case one of the kids gets sick or something.” Otherwise, we simply take the customer contact information and collect payment when it is picked up. In 15 years of business, we have only been stuck with a handful of titles, most of which have simply been placed on the sales floor. If the book is out of print, or requires sourcing from some more expensive vendor, we typically split the price in half, and take a deposit upon ordering, but only if the customer is brand new to our database with this purchase. If the customer is familiar, or has a purchase history with us, we simply order the book and expect payment upon delivery.
Notifying customers when their books arrive is always a priority, but how this is done is largely dependent on who is working that day. Our younger employees prefer to type rather than speak on the phone, so we use both email and text. I prefer to have a conversation (I am better at that) so I tend to call from the store landline. Long voicemail messages from me are a bit of a staff joke:
“Hi, Heather, it’s Cynthia! It was so great to see you and little Logan yesterday! Oh my gosh, he’s growing so fast. And honey, I wouldn’t worry about that teething rash. Ask your pediatrician, but I’m pretty sure she’ll say it’s just the extra drool. Oh, and I found those leggings we were talking about on sale in the village. They’re over at Steve’s store, so just call him with what colors you want. Also, when you have time, could you have the kids stop by with the Boy Scout popcorn order form? We need some stuff for the staff break room. Have a great day…… oh my gosh, I totally forgot why I called! Your books are here. Also, there’s there’s a new Indie Next List, so I’m tucking it inside.”
(that’s actually an abbreviated version….. so you see their point, I suppose.)
Early in my bookselling career, I found special orders to be a bit, well, embarrassing. Somehow, I thought that if we were a “real” bookstore, we would have everything that our customers wanted, right there on the shelf. What I have learned, however, is that our true value to our customers is our ability to recommend and respond. If a young reader has a particular interest, or finds an author or series that resonates with them, it’s my job to nurture that love, not to distract them with frontlist or hype. If that means that I can find 14 books about roller coaster design, and I can feed that young engineer one title at a time… then I am his bookseller. I am his champion, his personal assistant, and his book ambassador. Very little real diplomacy or world building happens “off the shelf,” and I will pull titles from the warehouse, and change focus from roller coasters to space shuttles to video game design in any given week with pleasure. And that commitment to each reader that can only be made by an indie bookseller makes every order special.