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Business Advice for Establishing a Bookstore

One of the great things about blogging with WordPress is the quality of the span filtering. But every day the “Discussion” page here attracts dozens of comments, and since it hasn’t been used regularly since 2009, I am deleting it.  Before doing so, I found this exchange which I thought was worth preserving.

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I would have had more investment set aside for marketing and establishing a presence in a local market instead of trying to do it on a shoestring. I would have done more general advertising to the community at large than expecting that I was reaching people by contacting churches. I would have “bit the bullet” and hired others sooner so that the store projected more than just a one-man operation; thereby also spending more time with family.

How large a part does creativity play in your particular business?

I wouldn’t call it creativity, I’d call it flexibility. The landscape is always changing and you need to adapt to that. When you lose a distinct music supplier, and then 15 days later the leading book supplier AND a chain of bookstores are wiped off the map, and then two weeks later the Canadian dollar crashes; well…you don’t get a better example of the changing landscape than that. Fortunately most of the events in a year are a little less dramatic. But it can also involve adapting to your local market. Knowing when you’re seeing the beginning of a trend in the popularity of a subject or author (the tip of the iceberg) and when you’ve sold the only copy you ever will (you’ve seen all the iceberg).

Are your rewards tangible or intangible?

Shoot for the intangible rewards — they do exist — and treat any tangible rewards as a bonus.

What was your best advertisement or promotion?

I’m still waiting for my best advertisement or promotion. (Rim shot!) Whatever it is, it will probably work the best the first time. Our experience has been that you can go to the well one time too often and then you get no returns.  Updated answer: Our Christian Events Calendar and related email campaign has been the best thing we could ever “give back” to the Christian community where we live, and we know it is appreciated.

What makes your business unique?

We’re two stores in one: A full service Christian bookstore and a Christian Book Outlet. Over 80% of our book intake is red-tagged specials. We’re in two small towns, and many customers know we aren’t on a fixed salary with the business.

How important is price? Would a price war increase your customer base?

Economics 101 teaches that if you cut the price too much you won’t get enough volume to offset the discount. Our customers are price conscious, but if you put too much emphasis on price, you devalue the “priceless” quality of what we sell. So for us it’s not about price, it’s about giving customers “good values;” an intentional double entendre.

What other knowledge is needed?

You really have to know your products; not the 4 – 10,000 SKUs in your store, but the 168,000 Christian products you do NOT stock but have available through your suppliers. You need to know the needs people face. You need to visit churches of at least a dozen different denominations and join them in worship. You need to know the needs of street ministries, crisis pregnancy centres, Christian camps and retreat centres , house churches, hospital chaplains, touring musical groups, youth ministries, concert promoters, Christian schools, and on and on and on…

There was also this section from a larger comment:

I need to know if I should focus all my ordering from the US, where I can have an order filled in a week, should I do only my special orders from the US… Getting this info is like pulling teeth. I only spoke with customer service, who repeatedly told me she had no idea, but I could expect 2 – 3 weeks. I did ask to be put through to purchasing, and after putting me on hold, the same lady told me she was right, 2 – 3 weeks, and at best if it was in stock it would ship in about a week.

I know that suppliers are keeping a tight rein on inventory. Let’s face it, we all saw the liquidator lists from the RGM fallout; inventory was simply way too high in that case. I think we want stability and suppliers who will be around for the long haul. As the economy improves, they can be more “reckless” with their inventory.

…I don’t agree with the statement that “a lot of booksellers are shopping US for almost all product…” I asked some rather pointed questions in the short three hours we were [at a wholesale event] and I didn’t get that vibe at all. I can see western stores opting out more easily because of freight and lead-time issues, but they were the very ones who were most upfront about being loyal…

A final consideration is to remember the story of the Russian buyer, Oneofeach. (One of each. Okay, it was bad joke then, and it’s a bad joke now.) It works when test-marketing stock items, but when it comes to special orders, I find that if one person in your community wants something, someone else might also. If you were around the industry in the late 1980′s, I was working for the company that later became CMC, and circulated a letter across the country about why “two” should be the unit of order for special orders. You’ve already proven demand exists in your local area. Similarly, re-read the item on this blog about  “padding the order.” Done rightly, you can fill out orders to where they make sense to ship, without creating inventory headaches.

Some of the issues that were important in 2009 are still important today.  Feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

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