Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bookshop Feng Shui, or "Giving the shop a good stir"

I'd like to say that stocktaking is one of those wonderful, quintessential experiences of bookselling, as enjoyable as spending time with a customer and pressing two or three hitherto undiscovered titles in their hand and watching them leave happy. Well, it may be quintessential, but in my experience stocktaking is tedious, laborious, exhausting and deadly dull. So perhaps we're doing it wrong. (Actually, I know doing it wrong. We use the Gardlink system, and unfortunately - and naïvely - we requested the handheld scanners too late this year, so none were available. Consequently we've had to bring the books to the scanner at the till, slowing down the process considerably. We won't do that again. Grrr.) Anyway, there are several upsides to stocktaking (no really). The big one is the opportunity to give the shop a bit of a spring clean, dig into all the dark and dusty corners and re-aquaint ourselves with some of the less popular titles: dust them down (literally in some cases) and bring them blinking out into the light for customers to see. I like to think of it as giving the shop a big stir. Or bookshop Feng Shui. I'm always amazed how even a minor reshuffle on the shelves can result in titles that have sat quietly for months with nary a glance suddenly get picked up and found a new home. So - what other things have we learned from this annual ritual? Books, CDs, etc with no prices on don't sell. Because the vast majority of books that come into the shop have RRPs (Recommended Retail Prices) on the covers, we've been a bit lax in pricing up those that don't. Audio is particularly bad for this. Customers feel uncomfortable when there isn't a price - I guess it breaks a cardinal rule about how a shop is set up (or perhaps they get a bit intimidated because of the old cliché "if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it"). Either way, people can get quite cross when something isn't priced, bringing it to the till and demanding to know what it is. It's been a bit of an eye-opener just how many items weren't priced correctly, so we've been remedying this (he says guiltily). Books wrapped in cellophane don't sell. When we first opened, some of our initial stock orders came in wrapped in cellophane. "Ooh, dead posh" we thought, "That'll keep the books nice" - and promptly put them on the shelf still wrapped. A few seconds thought should have told us that one of the advantages of coming into a bookshop rather than, say, buying off the web is that you can have a good browse of the books. We had a gorgeous Thai cookbook that sat for a year in cellophane and sold 3 days after we took the cellophane off. Slap. We're less precious about unwrapping them now (or - in the case of very delicate, expensive books with cream coloured jackets for example, we'll have two: one wrapped, one for inspection. You can't do that with every book however). Author balances can get out of whack. Some of our juxtaposed authors were out of kilter. For example, we had - inexplicably - 6 titles by Adriana Trigiani and nothing by William Trevor. Now don't get me wrong, Adriana Trigiani is a fine author, and we have some devotees who come into our shop, but I think we have to work harder at the whole Trigiani/Trevor balance here. We're a small shop. I mean, we only stock a maximum of six plays by Shakespeare... Bookshops get really dusty. Boy, oh, boy. I was like a bituminous miner at the end of Sunday... But the biggest discovery is (as last year): we've got too much stock. We knew we had too much stock. We always have too much stock. We probably always will. We love books. We can't help ourselves. We order more of them in than we should do, and I guess we'll just have to do better at selling them...


  1. Lynda3:57 pm

    I couldn't agree more. Feng Shui makes sense anywhere you are and no matter what your goals are. And while it might just be 'easier' to sell more books (here's hoping!), maybe decluttering and reorganizing will help the customer find everything they're looking for...and more!

  2. Nice point, but I think booksellers face a dilemma in that people expect a certain amount of clutter (part of the serendipity and joy of browsing) and yet nice, uncluttered displays can also provide a enhanced experience.

    I guess the thing to do is have uncluttered parts of the shop (the main tables and some key shelves), but still have cluttered shelves further into the shop for those looking for that slightly random browsing experience. But both need a stir now and again!

  3. 3 cheers for banishing cellophane!
    As forstocktaking, it could be a bizzalion times worse, you could be stocktaking something other than books.

  4. Yes, but that's also a bit of a problem. I think the ideal person to stocktake books is someone who hates books! The iron self-discipline you need to not to keep picking up books and going "ooh, I didn't know we had this in" is enormous (not a quality I am especially endowed with).

    I've been amazed to learn just how many people have ever done stocktaking in a bookshop, but I guess I shouldn't. We got family and friends in to help, why shouldn't everyone else?

  5. I can see how that would be a pitfall, and how do you have the restraint not to fil your house to overflowing with books when they are all passing through your hands?

  6. Mark,

    I would not totally agree about unwrapping some shrink-wrapped books : my business 'invests' in certain stock ranges such as photography titles, exhibition catalogues, New Naturalist etc. These are all premiun titles which often sell at an enhanced price when out-of-print and are sought after by customers in their 'virgin' state. Its very devaluing to have casual browsers' finger marks on photo illustrations.

    Another point which has to be considered is that there are a new breed of shop browsers who expect open access in bookshops merely to check the contents of a book before they go off and purchase the title on line. Most of the premium titles are in locked bookcases : my genuine customers realise that there is a very serious capital investment in quality stock.

    Best of luck with the bookshop award.

  7. Hello! Hope things are well in Abingdon! I'm tagging you for a meme... rules for it will be on my blog in the next five mins!

  8. Clive - thanks for the best wishes, and a really thought-provoking comment. I guess with experience in the book trade comes an intuition of just what those valuable books will be in the future, which gives you the confidence to invest in them.

    The New Naturalist example is also a good one, as the only requests for these we've ever had are for the out of print titles - and they go for hugely inflated prices online. Everyone thinks the Internet simply lowers prices, but for niche products like this, what it actually does is to create a highly efficient information-driven marketplace, where everyone can see that a title is scarce, and price accordingly.

  9. How true, about unpriced items - I always assume I can't afford them, and don't like asking if there's a chance I won't follow it up with a purchase.