Face Out or Spine Out: One Customer’s Opinion

Josie Leavitt - September 27, 2011

I was working alone in the store on Sunday, having a really great day, when a customer came in and challenged me on how to shelve books. After I had rung up his $89 of books — Dick Cheney and the new Jackie Kennedy (if only everyone could be so bipartisan) — and he was leaving, he called me over to the front door.
“You want to sell more books?” He asked. “Of course.” I said.
“Well, you ought to face them all out. Then they’d be easier to see.” He suggested this like it would be a revelation to me. He even did a little demonstration of how he found one book, but had to ask for help for the other, even though it was eye level, but spine out. I explained that the face out, while lovely and ultimately, ideal, is not practical for space reasons.
“You just need new shelving.” He kept saying over and over. I told him, nicely, that it wasn’t the bookcase that was causing the problem — it was just a space issue. If I faced out all my books two things would happen: I’d need to be in a store three times as large, or my stock would be cut in half and then people would say I had no depth to my inventory. I even showed him how many more books can fit on shelf spine out (20) versus the seven faceouts on a nearby shelf. If I have 30,000 books now and I faced them all out, without culling the stock I would need to have a 4,000 square foot store, or get rid of two thirds of my inventory. Either way, it just wouldn’t work.
Still, he persisted. “They even have this problem at Barnes and Noble.” I know! It’s a space issue, not a bookcase one. He said he hated looking for books all in a row on the shelf. I told him that’s why employees are there, to help folks find books, just like I had with the new Jackie Kennedy book.
So, how do other stores deal with the face out/spine out issue?

36 thoughts on “Face Out or Spine Out: One Customer’s Opinion

  1. Christine

    Okay, I’m another reader and customer so here’s my opinion. Do you have tables in front of the store or shelves with sale items or new titles? End cap shelves with latest promos or releases? What about readers finding things there? Or should they all be shelved in their respective genres? Sheesh, what a silly thing to keep harping on, especially when you so patiently explained your reasoning. A bookstore with an endless display of spine out is boring but if there’s too many titles face out, I find it distracting and confusing. It seems that it’s usually the latest release (or maybe the latest paperback release) that’s face out and the rest of the author’s works are spine out next to each other (at least in fiction). What’s so difficult about that for a customer? And your employees certainly sound willing to help (unlike at my local B&N).

  2. Francis Hamit

    My books are designed to be shelved face out so that customers are more likely to pick them up and look at them. If they do that you are half way to a sales, according to some social science research on this issue. It is validated by the book signings I do.

    1. Andrea

      All books are designed to be shelved face out! Who designs with the idea that the spine is more important than the front cover?

  3. AmyB

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall during that conversation! I can just see you trying to be kind & understanding with a fake smile plastered on your face! LOL! Of course everyone would prefer the books be face out, but I think common sense allows *most* to understand that’s not gonna happen. Thanks for the chuckle!

  4. Michael Walsh

    If I go into a bookstore and see mainly face out books I’m going to think they have little inventory. And if they have little inventory could that be a indication of unfortunate financial issues?

    1. Judy

      That’s what I think too, Michael. Not enough inventory to fill the shelves? Face ’em out to make them look full. And hope that customers don’t realise how limited the range of titles really is.

  5. Amanda

    This makes me laugh. Imagine the same thought in a clothing store. What if every shirt had to be displayed on a mannequin? You would need a bigger store or less clothes! I guess a lot of clothes racks face out at the end, but still…

    1. Stephanie Scott

      Amanda, you’re on to something here. How will we know how to wear a shirt unless it’s displayed on a mannequin!
      RE: original post. I can just see this guy steamed at every family function and at the watercooler at work. “Here’s what’s wrong with the book industry. It’s not these ebooks, it’s the way the books are *shelved*…”

  6. Ellie Miller

    As a former bookseller and still avid customer, I pretty much agree with what Christine says. Endcaps/spinners/table displays can and do make new releases (usually what I’m looking for when I come into a store these days) readily available, but I think some face-out shelf exposure is important too if for no other reason than to break-up the mind-numbing reality of too many books-in-a-row for easy browsing purposes. If I don’t know something new’s available from a favorite author, I’m probably going to miss it in a sea of spines. Then too, unless I go in with a list, I read widely in genre fiction and can’t always remember “Oh, yes! I liked so-and-so! I’ll give this a try” unless it first catches my eye. I think impulse buying (a bookseller’s bread-and-butter) tends to be triggered when there’s immediate ACCESS especially to new titles. Don’t waste faceout space on backlist unless there’s a new wrinkly such as a movie-tie-in which might tap a different narket for the book in question.

  7. Alethea

    There’s a great bookstore in the Philippines called Fully Booked–three stories, complete with music and video, Starbucks, comfy couches, and tchotchkes (there are a bunch of other locations, but I love the Bonifacio Global City one)… while they have the space to do a lot of face-outs–check out their art and architecture sections–they still spine-out books. I don’t think it’s so much a question of you learning how to merchandize; I think people need to learn how to shop.

  8. Carol B. Chittenden

    Since our store was a children’s-only store for the first ten years, gradually added adult books for the next 15, and is now the only bookstore in town, we’ve been squeezing more and more books into the same little space, and if that man thinks it’s a problem in your store, he would probably scream here — right along with all the staff. In addition to doing regular returns to thin things out, I have been asking sales reps, who see many stores, for their advice. Three things keep coming up: use tables, keep changing things, and use signage. We’ve done the tables, and they’re like shovels, scooping books into customers’ hands. I think it’s because they can see those covers. We do try changing things, and some of the changes work; others not so much. Signage, a personal design bugaboo (signs = clutter in nearly all cases) is yet to be attacked.
    Two years ago, when there were two other general bookstores in town, everything WAS face out — and that definitely didn’t save them. There is no such thing as the right number of books in the store. About every two hours, on average, someone asks for a book we don’t have on the shelf. But about every 5 minutes (guesstimation) someone finds one or more books, whether face or spine out, for which they’re willing to pay money. In the summer it’s every 20 seconds. Face out is nice; spine out beats online any day.

  9. Sandy Rangel

    Forget about face out or face in. History books (and maybe other nonfiction) absolutely must be shelved by time period and not alphabetically by author. It is a royal pain to have to search the entirety of military history to find a title on the Napoleonic wars if you don’t remember the exact title or the author’s name or just to “see what they’ve got”. It’s why I liked Borders so mych and why I don’t buy a lot at Books A million.

  10. Diana Faust

    Shelf talkers, esp. with staff recommendations, under a few books per shelf really help me as a customer take a look at books I normally wouldn’t have–even ones that are spine out. The design of those, whether cute or sleek or whatever fits the personality of the store, is important so they don’t become visual clutter, but rather visual enticement.

  11. Carol

    I agree with Michael. When most books are face out, the bookstore looks like it has too little inventory. I’ve noticed this at our local B&N in the children’s section. A few years ago, the shelves were jammed with books, mostly spine out. Now there are a lot fewer books, most of which are on the shelves face out and the shelves look noticeably bare. Having said that, though, it is nice if some newer books are face out and attracting your attention.

  12. MLewis

    How ’bout gutter shelves affixed to those big flip-book displays used for selling rugs and posters? Then you could face out books in spine-out displays – maximum face time with minimum space!!

  13. Theresa M. Moore

    That customer was too lazy to actually explore the bookshelves? I really can’t abide people who don’t want to figure things out on their own. I would have said, “I don’t have enough space.” and left it at that. I don’t think it is in the bookstore owner’s interest to pander to individuals who think theirs is the only opinion which matters. In terms of display, I find that I like a store which displays the newest release by an author face out with a few more copies behind it, and then the other books spine out. Or the new releases in a separate section. But I never go into a store expecting to argue with the manager about displays, as I expect that is their prerogative. They typically go with what works.

  14. Joseph Zitt

    I dearly wish that online resources about books would display the spine alongside the cover. As a bookseller (well, erstwhile bookseller, since I was with Borders), I was often frustrated by books that I didn’t spot until it was too late. If I had an image of the spine, I might have spotted it more quickly.

    1. Anne

      I totally agree with you on this point. I volunteer at a friends of the library bookstore that has an ever changing inventory that is based solely on community donations. Most of us will go above and beyond to try to find a book that a patron is looking for, but a picture of cover and spine would be so helpful.

    2. J.A. Jensen

      When I worked as asst. buyer of art and cook books with Borders, we were able to convince some publishers that their title would pop out more if they would list the title horizontally on the spine. However, if publishers really cared about such things, they would quit using cut-out covers, white or black matte covers and anything that cannot survive the distributor’s floor.

  15. Anne

    As an avid reader and bookstore shopper, I do not like a bookstore that has all the books face out, unless it is a very small space with a very small selection.
    1. I grew up using the local library so looking at book spines is not a difficult problem for me.
    2. If I can’t find something, I ask for help. Now in this day of ever increasing non-customer service, this could be a problem. But, if you go to an independent bookstore as opposed to the big corporate store, you are almost certainly going to find a bookseller willing and able to help you.
    3. I have noticed a new trend in the Barnes & Nobles stores in my area, where they are displaying more books face out and spreading them out further apart on the shelf. This reminds of what has happened at Wal-Mart. They undercut and drove most of the small businesses out of the area. Now that they basically have a monopoly, they have decided what you are going to buy. They only offer one or two choices in a given category and that is it. For example, if you want a garden light, well here is the only brand we carry, but we have a whole shelf full at a very low price! This is what has happened at my local Barnes & Nobles – less and less choices of books. If it is not a bestseller or a well known author, good luck finding a book.
    4. I do like to see displays of new releases or themed/holiday books. However, I do not like to see more tables set up like this than there are shelves of books. This again limits my choices as a consumer.
    5. Finally, I think this is the most important point – NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER! (I don’t think I have to elaborate on this with this group!)

  16. Kathie Porter

    As an avid reader who frequently browses shelves – I do admit that Face out is NICER and easier to read than Spine out.
    I get a neck crick walking around trying to read all the spines to find the new title or missed title by my author, especially in dense stacks.
    When shopping for kids books – this can be CRITICAL (face out aspect) – although the reading level tends to be only on the spine (sometimes) – as I am more likely to pickup the kids book for my nephew if the cover is interesting.
    I do NOT assume that they have not much inventory if they have alot of Face-out books – and I love the end-caps with staff suggestions as my local independent store.

  17. Donna Paz Kaufman

    It’s easy to get overwhelmed with case after case of spine-out books. In merchandising, we’re taught to break up any monotony of products with something that catches the eye. For that reason, in sections, you can clear the eye-level shelf (the most valuable space) and do a series of spine-outs with shelf-talkers. On other shelves above and below, face-out a title or two and add a shelf-talker. It’s simple, engaging, and works in amazing ways. Better sales for the bookstore, easier browsing (and buying) for the customer.

  18. Kitti

    Any time you’re faced with unsolicited advice, and the person rebuffs your argument, do the Southern thing. Smile big, nod ambiguously and say, “Ohhhhh!!” in a singing tone, starting high and ending low.
    Keep nodding and keep eye contact. Keep this in mind: The person IS trying to help you, and that’s nice of them. They’re not able to help you, but they’re still trying.
    In fact, since I’ve just given some unsolicited advice here, you could try it now. 🙂

    1. Nancy

      Yes, I learned that when dealing with a control freak that the best thing to do is say “You know, you could be right.” The controller walks away feeling satisfied, an argument is avoided, and you just go on and do what is best for you. Or you could say, “I might have to try that some time.” And, Josie, you know that he is a control freak.

  19. Susan

    Years ago, when my husband and I were book publishers, my Dad took great delight in visiting independent bookstores in whatever small town or city he was in, finding any of our titles, and positioning them face-out on the shelves. Then, he would tell me the titles that were there, along with the quantity of each title. He got such a kick out of it that I didn’t have the heart to point out that some bookseller was probably very weary from re-shelving. Since my Mom was busy buying books for their grandchildren, I decided this was a fairly good trade-off. Hope you would agree!

  20. Josie Leavitt Post author

    While I know some folks think it’s funny to rearrange shelves to promote their books, I can’t help but be a little irritated. The way our shelves are displayed is not haphazard. Often face out titles are books we’re featuring because we love them, the author is coming to the store, or the title is in our newsletter, etc. There is always a reason a book is face out.
    If you are an author, please introduce yourself to us, sign your books and leave the shelving to us.

  21. Yvonne

    Let’s face it. Customer’s opinions are valuable, even the cranky ones who don’t really live in reality. However, sometimes if they feel heard, that’s enough. Our retired manager said it best, “The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer.”

  22. Peter Taylor

    For a poetry book or a computer manual, the cover design will be of minimal importance – but if looking for a book on watercolour painting, the shopper will probably be searching for a cover showing a painting style that attracts them. Then, spine out is a pain, and if the shopper is in a hurry, and the interest level is ‘curious’ rather than ‘fanatical’, a sale could be missed. In future they may choose face out internet buying.
    If I am in a bookstore to buy a book on a particular topic or in a particular genre, I may be tempted by something totally differfent if I see its cover, but am unlikely to impulse buy spine out. So I think the easier it is to see covers, the better sales will be. I understand the space restrictions, but is there a problem with making at least some shelves like a v-shaped trough with enough space left in them for books to be easily slid from side to side to view at least a glimpse of the cover without them falling out? I’m sure this could also work for children’s picture books where the the first reaction is always ‘What lovely pictures’ – not ‘What lovely words’.


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