Hold the Pickles, Hold the Lettuce…

Josie Leavitt - July 15, 2009

Special orders are the engine that drive the bookstore. Since July 1, we’ve had a staggering 521 special orders. Some of these are for teachers who are eager to jump the gun on ordering their books for school, but the lion’s share are for regular customers who want specific books to read. What I love about special orders is that they keep the customers coming back to the store.

Special ordering should be a fairly straightforward process: a customer wants a book, we order the book, the book comes in, the customer gets called, they pick up the book. But special ordering generally involves patience on the customer’s part, detective work on the bookseller’s part, and a good sense of humor from both parties. Usually what happens is a customer comes in, stumbles over the desired title. Most requests begin with, "I’m not sure of the title, but it was on NPR three months ago." Off we go to search the NPR website, only to be told five minutes into the search, that no, it wasn’t NPR, it was some other news outlet. Eventually, though, working together, we find the desired book. Refer to my earlier post, When Titles Go Bad, to see the real challenges we face when trying to order books for customers. 

Now we tag the order with the customer’s name and phone number, so no matter where I go in my point of sale system, that title is tagged with a note indicating that book is an order for so-and-so; this tag remains until they purchase the book. The book gets placed in the purchase order and ordered with either a distributor or a publisher. Ninety-five percent of the time everything works this smoothly. This is in a perfect world. My world is not so perfect. Often I’ll order the book, and then forget to tag it. So, when Straw Bale House Design comes in, I know it’s clearly an order, I’m just not sure who it’s for. I put it on the shelf and hope the funky homebuilder calls and wonders where her book is.

Our orders, if timed right, can come in the next day. If a customer comes to me before noon with her request and one of the distributors has it, it should be at my store by one the following day. Yesterday a very eager twelve-year-old girl ordered the Lisi Harrison book, Boys R Us, only after I told her it would be here today. I saved a sale because of overnight book delivery.

Well, we open at 10 in the morning, and she came bouncing in at 10:05 wondering where her book was. I told her the UPS man hadn’t delivered it yet. She pouted and said she couldn’t possibly wait until he came at noon. Calmed by her friend, they went and got creemees (Vermont’s version of soft ice cream, usually only available in the summer) and came back at 11:59 just as eleven Baker and Taylor boxes were being unloaded in the store. Nothing like ripping through eleven boxes searching for a slender paperback. This is another reason why all book boxes should have an exterior packing list glued on, because what took me ten minutes today, could have taken 30 seconds. While eager readers are lovely, I don’t really enjoy them standing over me while I’m ripping the tops off boxes and reading each packing list and then tearing a box apart to find the book. Finally, the book was found and the young reader literally skipped out of the store.

At least this young customer knew what she was waiting for. I’ve actually had customers order a book in the morning and then call in the afternoon wondering if their book was in. When asked what the title was, they had already forgotten. The only thing they knew, was they needed it right away. Once the book came in, the following day, the customer got a call and then waited a week to pick it up. The good thing was within that week he found two more books he wanted and we ordered them, thus starting the process again.

Every season there is always one person, for whatever reason, whose special order gets lost, over and over again. This past fall, a good customer had ordered a paperback copy of The Book Thief, repeatedly, and I just kept messing up. Finally she came in and stood at the register when I told her, for the third time, that her book wasn’t in, she smiled broadly and said, "You’ve got to be #%&#* kidding me." Instead of getting angry or defensive, I just burst out laughing since I wasn’t expecting to be sworn at, but also because The Book Thief is a staff pick and much-loved book at our store. I must say, we’ve haven’t been out of it since.

Special orders are not rocket science. They’re a simple process of information gathering and execution. A good special order transaction leads to more transactions. It can be the building block to a long-term relationship and can lead you to learning about books you might not have known about previously. It’s a win-win for all involved. That is, unless you’re ordering The Book Thief for Leigh Kilborn, and then you’re screwed.

5 thoughts on “Hold the Pickles, Hold the Lettuce…

  1. Pär

    Good customer service is so essential. As counter intuitive as it may sound, but a customer who has had a problem resolved is more loyal than a problem free client. Good for you staying with the sale.

  2. Josie Leavitt

    To the twelve year old girl, I’m not sure who you are, but you must not be the customer I was talking about. The girl I was speaking about definitely skipped out of the store. I’m glad you got your book, though.


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