The Bookselling Season of Limbo

Cynthia Compton - December 30, 2019

The Christmas and Hanukkah wrapping paper is still out on the counter, although the rolls are thin and the ribbon color choices are a bit limited. We’ve taken down the Santa books from prominent places, and moved them to a low shelf, spine-out, in picture books. There’s a great “Games to Play on New Year’s Eve” display near the front door, and our store giraffe is wearing those light-up glasses with 2020 surrounded by sequins. In spite of all that tinsel and glitter remaining, this is a remarkably quiet time in the store, as most of the big shopping is done, and kids are happily (we hope) tearing through the big stack of books they found wrapped in our paper under the tree. There are customers in and out, mostly kids on break with gift cards to spend, and late arrivals to extended family celebrations (“We have three boys to buy for, I don’t exactly remember their ages, but they need something to open. Can you help?”). But the pace is so much slower than just a week ago, and the neglected shop floor is covered with footprints of sidewalk salt dust and random small things that have rolled under fixtures. If there is an island of lost pacifiers and single mittens, it is surely populated by refugees from Christmas retail.

“How was your holiday season?” asked a regular customer yesterday. “Terrific, because of people like you!” was my chipper rote response, but truthfully, I have no idea. Oh, of course every shopkeeper knows their sales numbers, and most of us can extrapolate our year-end gross sales for these last few days, and we’re pretty sure what total we’ll end with, but no one has had time or energy to do the serious number crunching. For many of us, product returns won’t start in earnest until after the New Year, or on the first Monday that the kids go back to school. Most invoices have arrived, but damage reports and lists of planned returns lie in stacks on our desks, and that three-headed monster called Shrinkage will not make itself visible until inventory week. So there’s a tentative sense of our final performance, but that prediction is a bit shaky still, as we wait, ever-cautious, for the potential leak in the boat that sailed the rough seas of the fourth quarter.
I have a few observations about our own bookselling business this season, and wonder if many of you saw the same trends? For us, 2019 was the year of:
Late, later, latest shoppers: Thanksgiving on November 28th eliminated an entire weekend between turkey and tinsel, and we felt that in our sales numbers. Retail consultants opine that an abbreviated shopping season is just an excuse given by shopkeepers who failed to make their goals — for December, as we know, always has the same number of days between the 1st and the 24th, and the deadlines to purchase do not change. My response to those smart people is based less on fact and more on faith: many customers (especially moms) shift over to holiday shopping after they host the family Thanksgiving events, and return their kids to school. Moms are busy, and there are ALL KINDS OF KID EVENTS for them to fit into December. Any year that their weekend shopping time (when their partner can watch the kids) is limited is a stressor on brick-and-mortar retail.
This year, our final three days were epic — and I’m grateful for that, but it was too much for us to handle effectively. There is no way that I could have enough trained staff on the floor to truly serve that number of customers, and yet the business was there. The shift to last-minute buying was extreme, and we had neither the personnel or the product available to maximize that experience. The ease of online shopping continues (see #4 below) to generate a false sense of security about meeting gift-giving deadlines, and there is less pressure for checking off lists while in an actual store. Indeed, customers can just discuss a book with a bookseller, choose not to buy it in the moment, or set it aside and make other purchases, and have an advertisement for that very title appear on their social media feed later that day.
Dings, dents, and damages: I have written here before about product damage woes, which seemed to escalate this year (see Donate or Destroy and Despair) and the heartache of lost cases of books too damaged to sell. We also received quite a bit more “recycled” merchandise this season from wholesalers and publishers, complete with price stickers from big box stores still clinging to back covers. Rather than risk delayed or missing replacements for these titles, we swallowed our pride, plugged in the heat gun and removed the competitor’s labels rather than email for a call tag — a book in hand is worth more than a lost hour in the stock room peeling off stickers (and that’s where the cookies are kept, anyway).
Shipment Tracking as a Competitive Sport: Booksellers are often assumed to be less athletic by nature, but I believe that’s only because the average customer has not witnessed a literary shopkeeper hurdling snowbanks to reach a stopped UPS truck in a neighboring parking lot in the days before Christmas, risking life and limb on the ice to recover a missing box of special orders. Regular frontlist, backlist restock, wholesaler “Hail Mary” orders and every carton in-between were scattered throughout the shipping universe, split between trucks, languishing in distant warehouses, and caught for weeks in the retail purgatory known as “in transit” or the falsely hopeful “out for delivery” status. Next-day orders became next-week promises to customers, and we lost our status as the folks “who always have just what I need.”
Bricks-and-Mortar as Online Insurance: We will, of course, get returns of unopened items this year that were bought as back-up for Amazon orders that were late to arrive. There will be no guilt to these returns, but customers will blithely chirp that “they were worried, because our box hadn’t come, so we bought this here and kept it in the closet. It’s so nice that you wrap! Here’s the item I bought, and here’s my receipt. It wasn’t used or anything.” Here, they will receive a full price credit or refund, with no pesky return label to download or shipping box to tape. Here, we will weakly smile and take back the item that until very recently rested in the warehouse of our biggest competitor, and wonder how many more of this SKU could have been sold, had we not “loaned” it and absorbed the credit card transaction fees to keep our customer’s anxiety at bay — at moments like this, I am reminded of a pet phrase of my dear Dad’s: “With friends like this,” he would murmur, “who needs enemies?”
We’ll keep all these reflections to ourselves, of course, as we welcome extended families visiting from out of town, inquire about customers’ travel plans, and press a paperback or two into their hands for airplane reading. For it is still the holidays, the tinsel is still glittering in the corners, and we’re not quite ready to emerge from the magic into the reality of a very new 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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