Bright Ideas for a Dreary Winter Season

Cynthia Compton - February 27, 2019

One of the benefits of the slower first quarter in the store is the opportunity to move things around, change sections, and try something new. As inventory is sparser, and we’re honestly doing quite a bit of “fluffing” out shelves, in which we spread out fewer items to make the store look full and inviting. Great titles and sidelines that were overlooked at the holidays have a chance to shine in the gentler late afternoon sunshine of February, and this shopkeeper has the opportunity to redeem herself in the eyes of her staff, as they wrap items (in Valentine’s Day paper!) that were received early last fall for 4th quarter.

This time of year is also a “retail laboratory” of sorts, as we try out some of those ideas that occurred to us in December, but we had neither the time or the energy to implement them. I thought I would use my post this week to list a few of those little experiments that we’ve launched so far in 2019, and ask for your great ideas, too. I’ll keep it honest, and include one or two total failures, as some of them might inspire some good advice, which is always gratefully received.
Here’s some things we’ve tried this year that have worked:
Pocket Money Books:  We don’t have a regular clearance shelf or cart in our store, instead choosing to return or donate unsold titles. We have two big clearance sales each year, and we move some books at those, but we leave most book discounting to the Half Price Books down the street. I have wanted, though, to have some kind of in-store book fair experience, which offers discounted or lower priced books for children to purchase with their own money. So as I groaned over the boxes of slightly dinged and dented titles after Christmas, the idea of “Pocket Money Books” was born. We set up three bookcases in our event room, and marked a bunch of titles with bright stickers. We offer only three price points: $1, $3, and $5…. and the display is strategically located directly in front of our Storytime circle, so parents look right at the display as they attend our morning events. The most rapidly selling titles are nonfiction, which are always of interest in the store, but definitely not our strongest sellers in hardcover. We have had parents offer their children $5 to “book shop” while they look for birthday gifts for a sibling, or as a reward for a successful dentist visit next door. Teachers have refreshed book bins in their classrooms, and grandparents have selected titles for trips, knowing that the book can be discarded or left behind after it is enjoyed on the journey.
Rethinking Returns: There is nothing as defeating as the sight of a customer climbing out of their car in the parking lot, holding a bag from your store and headed to the door with that determined look on their face… here comes a January return, on a slow, bitterly cold day when it’s possible for your register to stay in NEGATIVE numbers until…. well, after lunch. This year, I tried to embrace those returns by building a longer term relationship with customers who brought back items they “overbought” for the holidays. Our POS system requires that we take the customer name and email or phone number with each return, and so each week I have printed a report of these customers. On Sunday afternoons, I send a brief email or text to each of these folks, asking for feedback on their return experience, and offering a “thank you” gift from me if they would like to stop in again to collect it. The “thank you” is just a $5 gift card to the store, which can be used or given away. So far, 90% of these have been redeemed, and the average purchase made using the card is $30. I’m rethinking the entire transaction: if I can use this customer experience to make a friend rather than just perform a negative transaction, my business AND my psyche may feel less bruised.
New Sections for Graphic Novels: Since they were the fastest growth area of our store in 2018, we were determined to give some serious attention to how we shelve and display graphic novels this year. We decided to break them up into three sections: Early Graphics, Middle Grade (ages 10-12), and Young Adult. We shelved each of these right next to their corresponding sections, but chose NOT to integrate graphic titles into the shelves, for several reasons. First, our young customers told us that they wanted to browse “just the graphic novels” sometimes, and that it was easier to see new additions to favorite series AND find graphic series that they hadn’t yet read when they are separate. Second, it’s our hottest selling category, and the staff wanted to be able to tell with a quick glance if we need to pull overstock from storage, or up daily reorder amounts. Last, it expanded graphic novels into three different areas of the store, driving home both our enthusiasm and endorsement of the titles, as well as offering more opportunity for serendipitous discovery by readers. Some of our graphic sections include nonfiction titles, and having them shelved by format instead of subject has allowed some young readers to discover titles that they might not have seen, “hidden” as they were in History or Biography.
Extending the Valentine Season: Through the sheer happenstance of a storage issue, we pulled out the Valentine gift wrap on New Year’s Day (we needed one more spot in the closet to store Chanukkah paper, so out came the red and white hearts to make room) and we started wrapping “Valentine Gifts” immediately. We don’t sell either flowers or candy, but every other department in the store contributed items to this bounty of gift giving love, and we couldn’t be happier. Grandparents, in particular, purchased items to be wrapped and shipped out of town, and we turned the Valentine book display daily – that’s a better sales turn than Halloween or Easter.
Saturday Programming: I have written a lot about our weekend birthday party business, and while it continues to be a popular (and exhausting) driver of customer traffic into the store, it has bothered me for a while that our regular customers who work during the week don’t get to attend many of our  morning preschool programs. Each semester, some little three or four year old tells me tearfully that they “won’t be coming anymore” to story time, because they are moving up into a different Mother’s Day Out or preschool class during the week. After much staff discussion we decided NOT to reinstate birthday celebrations on Saturday mornings, opting instead to repeat our Monday Paint-a-Story event every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. (This does leave two party spots on both Saturday and Sunday open, so helium and sprinkle futures are not gravely at risk.)  As a result, we have loads of new customers on Saturdays, who begin their weekend by attending our free event, and use the opportunity to browse for books and purchase presents for all the other parties their kids will be attending that weekend.
I promised full disclosure, so here’s a few of the trial balloons that sank, so far:
The biggest disappointment of still new 2019 is our brand-new, enormously expensive furnace that I paid to have installed on a very, very cold January day, following two days of no heat and frigid in-store temps. Our landlord was willing to pay for one third of the price (note: renegotiate this on next lease renewal!) but it still was a major financial hit in a very slow cash flow period. Sadly, even the new furnace was unable to keep up with our brutal Midwestern cold and ice this winter, and we have endured 9 total days of no heat in the store in just under two months, three of which we had to close completely. I have never anticipated spring with such longing, nor have I ever relaxed my staff dress code as much…. mittens and hats are just fine for restock. Frostbite is not.
Evening programming, planned with such ambition and excitement in December, has been just miserably attended in January and February. It’s partly weather, of course, and need for everyone to hunker down and stay home and warm after dark. Next year, we will just focus our programming attention on daylight events in the first quarter, and keep our expectations more realistic – and let our staff have some earlier evenings at home, too.
Excuse me while I grab another sweater and turn on the space heater….. OK, now tell me. What’s working for you so far this year?

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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