As the holidays get closer, the number of special orders we take rises exponentially. I thought I’d take a moment and trace how a special order goes from your list to our store.
1. Customers come in with a title, usually somewhat wrong, that they are looking for and whoever answers the phone at the store, helps them find it. I should say that is the hardest part of the special order process. Deciphering a title is a real skill. See the blog post When Titles Go Bad to understand the challenges we face.
2. The title gets placed on our latest purchase order (this is the form we use to order from). We rotate our orders with the three distributors we work with. Baker & Taylor and Ingram each have noon order deadlines. Bookazine has a three p.m. deadline. On days it’s crazy busy, we’ll do a morning order and then an afternoon order. I should say, if the customer doesn’t need the book immediately, we’ll order direct from the publishers, althougk at this time of year, my publisher orders tend to be restocking the hot titles I have to have in the store.
3. The book in question gets "tagged" i.e,. marked for the customer, in the computer, so we know who ordered it. Anywhere that book appears in my computer system, I can tell who it’s for.
4. We send the order by the designated deadline. Then the next day, we unpack the boxes. Sometimes we get in enough boxes that the UPS or Fed Ex man has to make two trips from his truck.
5. We then tackle the boxes, pulling all the special orders out and putting them in a separate area. This process works best if there are three people working on the order. One person checks in the books, one person shelves (this is imperative as space becomes a premium when a dozen boxes need to get processed) and one person calls the special order customers.
6. Each book gets wrapped with the person’s name on it and then placed on our special case that’s just for special orders. Usually, the week before Christmas there are so many special orders, they’ve taken over the counter and most of the floor in the corner. It’s crazy, but it’s fun.
7. During the holidays, most customers come in within a day or two to pick up their books.
8. This process gets repeated more times than I can count from now until Christmas Eve.
Of course, the above assumes everything works perfectly, that no order has been forgotten, that all the boxes arrive the day they’re supposed, and that there’s enough time in the day to actually do steps five and six. It’s exhausting and fun.
I remember this time of year we had so many special orders at the bookstore where I used to work that calling all the people and wrapping and sorting the books into alphabetical order was often an 8 hour task each day! What was exasperating was how many people would come in, say their special order had arrived, and then we couldn’t find it. We’d hunt all over the store, we’d call all of the on-duty staff to search for it, everyone would be going crazy to try to find the book, only for the customer to eventually (usually only after an obnoxious loud phone call to their spouse about our incompetance) to realize that they had ordered the book at another bookstore altogether. Argh. Since your store is so unique (and the only one in town), hopefully that doesn’t happen to you!
And then there are the VSOP’s: Very Special Order Projects. Things like a special favorite to be signed by a beloved author, and then presented with a marriage proposal tucked inside. Or a special wedding gift purchase by a former customer, now confined to a nursing home. There aren’t a lot of VSOP’s (we couldn’t handle more than a few each year) but they’re enormously gratifying because we know they (and their little Eight Cousins sticker inside the back cover) will become part of a family history. It’s kind of hard to do that with an e-book.