Bailing on Special Orders

Josie Leavitt - April 16, 2012

Admittedly, this issue frustrates me. When people order a book that we specially order for them that they never pick up, or worse, to suggest it’s somehow my fault that they had to get the book somewhere else, it’s disheartening.
Let me explain our very straightforward process. A customer calls or comes in to ask for a book. If we don’t have the book, we’ll always order it for folks. We don’t ask for pre-payment because we don’t want to hold on to the customer’s money in case there’s a problem getting the book. We trust that the customer will get the book from us. When the book comes in, we call them and let them know the book is here for them. We do not put the book on the hold shelf until we’ve left a message. We date the form that wraps the book so we know when we’ve contacted the customer. Periodically, we purge our special order shelves, but first we call everyone who has had a book on the shelf for more than a month, or more likely, three. This usually results in people apologizing about forgetting and then coming in to buy the book. Every once in a while these calls result in sheepish customer calls to the store about how they already got the book somewhere else.
One woman called last week in response to one our reminder calls and said, “My husband just now told me you called two weeks ago. But since I hadn’t heard from you, I went ahead and downloaded it from Amazon.” Ouch. So, now I’ve lost a sale because a husband can’t take and deliver a message. I could do without the accusatory tone. If someone is eager for a book, they can always call and we can track the order and find out where it is and when it will be in the store. After 16 years of not taking money for special orders, I am considering taking money for them because I tire of being stuck with more stock than I need.
But before I take this step, I’m curious how folks feel about this. Do you think it’s okay to ask for pre-payment? How do you feel when you’re asked to pay for your special order in advance? And booksellers: how does your store handle special order payment?

27 thoughts on “Bailing on Special Orders

  1. catherine james

    I don’t see anything wrong with requiring pre-payment before going to the trouble of placing special orders, but I might be biased on several fronts. I have a *big* issue with people not following through when they know extra effort has been made to satisfy their desires, plus *cough* I used to work in a book store. 🙂 So maybe I’m not the best person to give advice.

  2. Carolyn

    I would not be offended at all if my local bookstore required payment up front for special orders. I too, may be biased because my family owned a bookstore from 1976–1990. I LOVE this blog and have been reading it a long time now, just haven’t commented before.

  3. Carolyn

    I should’ve added that my local Indie small bookshop consistently offers to special order books that I’ve inquired about with the understanding that they would be ordering it for me to look at and decide with no pressure. Every time they offer to do this I decline, I would feel horrible if I didn’t like the book and then they were stuck with it.

  4. Barbara

    If I’ve gone to the trouble to special order the book, I have no problem with paying up front – especially after my last order – the salesperson never said the book was only available in hardcover. I would never have ordered it. Unfortunately, they got stuck with the copy. But if you feel uncomfortable, maybe a reasonable compromise is a 50% pre-pay with the remainder being paid at pick up. But on the other hand, if I knew I preordered a book and really wanted to read it, I think I’d call the bookstore I did the preorder with prior to buying it somewhere else. That just seems like common courtesy.

  5. Ellie Miller

    Sometimes it’s hard at 76 for me to get out and about, so I tend to make a lot of my book purchases either on-line or by phone order for in-store pickup. You’re doing ME the favor! Getting something I want (or at least believe that I want) and then holding it for me to pick up at my convenience. Special orders (if you don’t have it in stock) also obviate the disappointment of not finding something during a drop-in store visit. So I don’t see that giving you a credit card number if I ask you to special order something as any different from guaranteeing a restaurant reservation in advance with a credit card or ordering merchandise online with a credit card. My one-and-a-half-cents’ worth as an avid reader and former book store worker.

  6. cbt

    My recent experience with a special order went like this: my mother-in-law had asked for a book for her birthday that we couldn’t find anywhere. The local bookstore offered to special order it for us, but they weren’t sure how much it was going to cost because they couldn’t get it through their regular channels and were going to need to track down a copy. So I told them the range that I wanted to pay and waited to hear back from them. About a week later they called back and gave me the price, which was far more than I was willing to spend. So I told them not to bother ordering the book and I’d just get her a different book. Yes, they had to spend staff time researching a book for a customer who didn’t end up buying it. But they hadn’t actually ordered the book until I was certain that I wanted it, which meant that they didn’t need to keep a book in stock that they were unlikely to sell. And the other book I bought did come from their bookstore, so they weren’t completely out a sale. But that was a special situation. In the case of a book that can be instantly ordered for a customer on the spot, I think it would be fine to ask for at least some kind of deposit on the book, if not the complete price of the book, especially if the customer is certain that she wants it and you can tell her approximately how long it should take for it to arrive and how much it will cost. But then, I’m the type of conscientious customer who would never ask a bookseller to special order a book and then buy it somewhere else without at least doing the store the courtesy of letting them know I no longer needed the book. I don’t understand why someone would do that. And no, I’ve never worked in a bookstore.

  7. C. Bailey Sims

    Perfectly fair to require payment up front. Perfectly understandable. In the words of Rod Tidwell (character from Jerry Maguire) “SHOW ME THE MONEY!”
    Shame on those folks who order and then are not responsible enough to pay later.
    And, if you somehow can’t get a book that someone has paid for, you can always issue a credit if necessary.

  8. Kat Kan

    Many comics shops do this – demand a certain amount as a deposit – for customers who want to set up a pull list. A special order is somewhat related. I used to work in a chain bookstore (that no longer exists), and we didn’t ask for deposits; most customers came in right away after being called, a few we had to call several times. I do know we got stuck a couple of times with some very obscure special ordered titles that we just couldn’t sell after the customer bailed on us. The company considered it part of the cost of doing business – I can see that a smaller, indie bookstore would find this very problematical.

  9. Michael Dwyer

    As a former bookseller with Borders in San Diego, I can testify to the many problems of Special Order books. Borders policy (before the meltdown began) was to go ahead and order any book and hold it for the customer for 30 days. If and when the customer came in to look at the book, they had to examine their SPO at the register and decide if it was what they wanted. Many times, unaware or uneducated employees would just hand the book over and the SPO would either disappear into the stacks or end up being rung incorrectly. The number of returned SPO books, over the nearly 4 years that I was with Borders, was amazing and took a lot of payroll hours that could have been used more effectively. I would make them pay in advance and arrange with the supply house to have the customer return the books on their own. Otherwise, you are in for a neverending cycle of ordering and returning that will take a huge chunk out of your profit margin.

  10. Mark Z

    If you feel you must require pre-payment, I would suggest a $5 deposit that’s credited to the future purchase of the book (at lease that covers the shipping costs if they don’t buy it).
    I would also utilize the wholesalers direct to home programs–this way you get the full sale before they leave, they get the book shipped directly to their home or office, and your store doesn’t have to receive/shelve/hold/return the book. –mz

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      We do love the direct-to-home feature, but only use it for out-of-state customers, since we can save our local folks the shipping costs by placing their special orders with our regular bulk publisher and distributor orders during the week.

  11. Carol B. Chittenden

    We don’t require advance payment, and I doubt we’ll start. Once in a great while we get stuck with a Special Order Gone Bad. But we do several things a little differently from the procedure you describe. First, if it’s a book that would fall far outside our normal inventory (price, subject, difficulty to obtain), we discuss it briefly with the customer: “Are you pretty certain you want this? We’re happy to order it if you are, but it’s one we couldn’t absorb if you decide against it.” This comes up once or twice a year.
    The form on which we take orders has different categories for “Order” meaning that we understood it to be a definite order that the customer expects to purchase; “Notify” meaning that we’ll let them know when it arrives, but we’ll put it out on the shelf and they’re not obligated to take it; “Inquiry” meaning that someone has asked about a given title, which provides staff a mechanism for letting the buyer know there’s buzz; and “Recommended”, meaning that someone has enthused about a book with the implication that we might want to carry it. I take our customers seriously, but their recommendations with a grain of salt.
    Finally, we call people as soon as their orders come out of the box, but we’re very clear to mark “Left Message” (or e-mail) as distinct from “Called,” which means we spoke in person with the individual who placed the order. Either way we try to do reminder calls once week. I would say 10% or less go bad, and nearly all of those sell off the shelf.
    Our biggest problems are our fast-moving summer visitors who leave before we can get the order into their hands; and people who call back before they listen to their cellphone messages, leaving us scurrying around to connect the dots of why they got a call from our number.
    When special orders arrive

  12. Amanda D

    Can you order a book at the store with prepayment and have it ship to the customer’s house? I figure there must be a reason why stores don’t do this because it seems like an obvious solution to me. Logistical difficulties?
    If you take a deposit or prepayment up front, you’ll have to deal with people who expect to get cash back if they don’t pick up their book. It might be worth it though.

    1. Stacy Whitman

      I’ve experienced this before at certain chains–looked for a book, didn’t find it, and had the salesperson offer to ship it to my home instead. I generally declined the chain, because I felt like if I was going to have it shipped, I might as well just order it online (and then I don’t end up ordering the book), because often I was looking for a book I needed for some grad school class within a short time frame, something that was already checked out at the library for example.
      But if an indie offered (and none I’ve dealt with has so far) to ship it directly to me, I’d go for it. It’s supporting an indie (which is why I was in the store in the first place) plus convenient. I tend to avoid bookstores unless I’m looking for something because I *will* spend money in them even when I don’t have it to spend. So I might only go to a bookstore every few months, and I’d worry about fitting another visit so soon into my schedule/fitting another book into my budget when I was already planning to buy this one. Win-win to have it delivered to my home via an indie.

  13. Heather Lyon

    We’ve been requiring full pre-payment for special orders for seven years now. It works great. We still have a few books that don’t get picked up, but I don’t mind because we’ve been paid. We offer a no-questions-asked refund if they don’t want and don’t take it home. If they take it home and then bring it back, they can have store credit, but not a refund. As far as difficult-to-obtain books go, I take their money and then, by gum, I get that book no matter what. Sometimes I lose a little money. But this is what my customers wanted when I asked them “What would we have to do to be your only bookstore?” The response: “Never send me somewhere else.”

  14. Paul Riddell

    I’m all for prepayment for multiple reasons, mostly to encourage customers to come back, instead of ordering something and never following through. (I’m in the horticulture business, and I get lots of calls from wannabe customers seeking rare or expensive plants. Half of the time, their claims of how urgent they need said plants really translates to “I want to know how quickly you can get this, so I can decide if I can wait an additional week for delivery from an eBay seller.” Getting a deposit means that they’re serious about purchasing and not price-comparing, and that they trust me to get back with them as quickly as possible. I reciprocate that trust as much as I possibly can.)

  15. Diana

    When I’m special ordering books it’s often over the phone on a referral from our other store (which is all used). That makes it awkward to take a prepayment without it getting lost in between, especially if the book doesn’t arrive or there are other problems. One of my (now) regulars told me a while back that if I’d asked him to prepay for his first special order he wouldn’t have reordered with me. It’s a trust and convenience thing for him. For me, it’s a $ thing. Now I’ll order a book for somebody, and even give them 10% off, assuming it’s a new book, if they pay with cash or check. If they don’t pick up their order I make a notation after their name, just a little “PP”. That means next time I’ll be asking them to prepay. I’ve been doing that for 2 years now and realistically I’ve only had to ask 1 woman to prepay, most of the others don’t come back. Maybe I’m better off without them as customers. But losing the money on that book they never picked up hurts every time.

  16. Jerri Patton

    I think you should have everyone pre-pay on special orders. I worked at Borders and we lost so much money on obscure books that were never bought, plus paying the postage. At one point Borders did require pre-payment.

  17. Vickey B

    I’m just a book customer, not a seller. However, I think you should ask for pre-payment for special orders, especially for obscure books for which there will be a very limited level of interest beyond the original requestor.
    As for notifying people their book has arrived, perhaps you could mail a postcard advising them the book is in, in cases where you don’t get to speak directly to the person who ordered the book when you call. That way, there may be less chance they can claim they “didn’t get the message.”

  18. Tone Blevins

    We always do a lot of special orders at the store where I work. Mostly it goes fine. We do pretty much the same as everyone else. We do not take money for the service of ordering the book. It happens that people do not pick up their orders for a variety of reasons. It’s a hassle but usually we can return the book. We also use the Ship-to-home function, which is amazing; but for the customer not any better than them ordering on line personally…I frankly don’t see why a customer would order a title from a bookstore which was an old title or somewhat obscure, when they could more easily do it themselves online…

  19. Dena

    As a customer, I always expect to prepay with a special order. In fact, I just ordered a friend’s book from a local indie and I had to pay in advance, and I have no problem with that. It’s rarely enough money that I’d be upset that someone is ‘holding onto it,’ and if you can’t get the book in a refund is fine.
    When I worked in retail in a different industry (high end crystal) we either collected the full amount of special orders up front, or a percentage, depending on the crystal manufacturer’s return policy. FWIW.
    – D

  20. Robert Sindelar

    We’ve converted a lot of higher priced, non-returnable, and short discount special orders to Ingram Direct to Home orders. This requires prepayment, and the customer doesn’t even have to come back to the store to get it.
    We’ve actually noticed that some customers who weren’t going to special order with us change their mind when they hear the Direct to Home option.

  21. Diana H

    I work at a bookstore that does not require prepayment, and inevitably we end up with books not picked up. On our special orders that were a book with a short discount or perhaps something non-returnable we will occasionally ask for prepay but it’s rare.
    Our customers that are not regulars are always asking if they need to prepay, when we say no they are surprised. I take this to mean that since most people understand that they will be paying for the book, whether it be now or later, it’s not as big of a deal as we think it is as the seller.
    However as a customer, I personally am leery of places that ask for prepay, only if I’m new to their business. So maybe a compromise? Your first book order no need for prepay, after you’ve established a relationship with the customer then prepay for any orders following.

  22. Tint

    At the bookstore where I used to work (many moons ago) we didn’t require prepayment for customer special orders but with two exceptions: 1. STOP orders for titles not readily available from a wholesaler and generally coming from a more obscure publisher who more often than not had a less than stellar discount policy for single title orders. For those we usually asked for at least a 20% deposit and 2. Those customers who time and again had requested a special order and then failed to come pick it up (regardless of how many calls we made or how many extra weeks, sometimes months we held the book on our SPO shelf).

  23. Becky Hatley

    From a personal perspective I don’t think that people mind prepaying anymore. Once you have become acclimated to ordering online where you must pay days (or weeks) before you get your merchandise has desensitized this issue a lot I believe.
    From a professional perspective we have taken the approach that says if you want to prepay for a special order we would prefer it, so here is a little discount to encourage it. For most orders we offer a 10% discount (which in our area basically equals sales tax) for prepaid special orders. If they don’t pick it up we offer to have it delivered or we just continue to hold it. Of course for short discounts sometimes we can’t offer the discount, but that tends to be an exception to the rule that rarely occurs. With short discounts, books over a certain $$ amount or non-returnable items we require the prepayment. Typically the customers are happy to do this (especially if they get to save a small amount in the process).
    In today’s economy I don’t really think that customers will have an issue with prepayment if you approach it from an aspect of providing them with more specialized & personal customer service.

  24. Amanda

    Perhaps you could offer a discount in exchange for pre-paying. This would make sense to me because you didn’t take the up-front risk of carrying that book in your store (at least at the time), and is is an inconvenience to the customer that it isn’t there right now. It cuts into your margins, but would be better than no sale or an un-picked-up book.


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