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Posts Tagged ‘Christian bookstore management’

Higher Wage Costs Mean Reassigning Responsibilities

Concern with pending higher hourly wage costs in Ontario, especially when Christian bookstore employees somewhat ‘donate’ their time by working for minimum wage, means stores need to rethink everything in terms of how basic store assignments are carried out. If everyone is working for minimum, those stores are facing a considerable increase in wage costs. (This is why we do a 1% wage increase every 6 pays, or every 12 weeks. It also acts as a form of employee retention.)

Being in a small(er) market means we’ve been forced to operate on a shoestring for quite some time, though our staff — all part time — are better paid than many in our industry. With some input from some other stores I worked with, here’s what’s in our secret sauce.

  1. Efficiency is a must. Every decision is made with recognition of how it fits with the bottom line. There is very little expenditure that might be considered waste.
  2. If we’re in the store, the sign is changed to ‘OPEN’ even if we’re arriving early ostensibly to work on some other project. We want to capture every possible sale.
  3. On the other hand, our store hours are basic. We do 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I’ve been in stores that are open to 6:00 PM and watched them losing money day after day during that last hour. Our staff will stay late to help customers and people can phone to say they get off work at 5:00 and will pick up their order at 5:10. We’re fine with that and we pay the staff for waiting. Nobody gets chased out at closing time. Nobody flashes the lights. But we maximize those seven hours by focusing customers into a narrower time period. (This isn’t without precedent; last year we were made aware of a rather high profile store that was opening at 11:00 daily.)
  4. There is no back room. Only one of our stores really ever had one, though another one had a basement. But everything from administration to order check-in to packing parcels for mail-orders was always and is now carried out full view of customers. They know we’re there if they have questions, we know they’re in the store. (This also means more of our monthly rent goes to square footage which can be productive.)
  5. Orders are checked in within minutes of arriving. That means the knife is often already cutting the sealing tape before the UPS driver has typed in our information. Orders are retrieved first, and customers are phoned or emailed before we’ve even formally confirmed prices on the invoice or added price stickers. Merchandise is available for purchase and only boxes for future sales or remainder shipments are allowed to be an exception to this.
  6. Staffing levels are minimal. Sometimes this means asking regular customers to come back if our usual service standard can’t be reached within the ten minutes following. In-store customers come first; phone calls are returned when there is a break.
  7. We avoid specialized job descriptions. Basically everybody does everything, with the exceptions being required to climb great heights or lift heavy boxes. I no longer feel I need the one to call in every order or deal with every damage or short-shipment claim.
  8. Advertising needs to be productive. That’s why coupon advertising is the very best; you get to gauge the results. Our primary product is print so we favour print advertising; newspapers, etc.
  9. We have a comfortable shopping environment, but we recognize that customers in bulky coats coming in from the cold will find the store warmer than it might appear to staff. We don’t wanting staff to get sick, but we scale back on heat. Similarly, in the summer we often hold back the air conditioning until noon. After rent and wages, electricity is our biggest expense.
  10. The money is in the bank at the end of the day. Many stores do a midday deposit the day following, but we pay our staff members a time and mileage allowance (consisting of one quarter hour) to deposit anything over $150 at the bank. When we had 3 stores that meant we had 11 bank machine cards in use. (Cards are set as deposit-only.) This allows us to make late-day (but on-time) payments to our various suppliers and utilities.

These savings allow us to pay staff well, and they also mean we can stock inventory carefully but more aggressively. (We’re known for our great selection on frontlist and backlist.)

The proposed increase in the Ontario minimum wage doesn’t scare us. The philosophy behind it is honorable; where the province has erred is in introducing too much too quickly. Would I feel the same if we still had three stores and more student help? First of all, I would not have hired students. Hiring mature staff from among our customer base has turned out to be one of our best decisions. It also means I have people better able to deal with the ‘issues of life’ that customers want addressed. In a multi-store environment with central receiving and pricing, it means that staff need to be busy and if they aren’t, it’s time to find out why.

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Christian Bookstores are Department Stores

October 13, 2017 1 comment

While our motivation for unlocking the doors each morning may be that we see our stores as local ministry centres, we are also retail businesses, with the exception of a handful that are using a non-profit model. Our business sector is retail which puts us in company with every other type of retailer across the continent.

For that reason, the announced closing of Sears Canada should at least give us a moment’s pause. Perhaps not coincidentally, my UPS driver said something yesterday about the number of daily deliveries he’s doing is resulting in 12-hour days. Jokingly, I said, “So you’re working for Amazon;” to which he replied, “Well, I’m definitely not working for Sears.” No one reading this has escaped the reality of a changing retail landscape.

We are not only in retail, but like Sears, we are essentially department stores. In addition to books, most of us stock jewelry, t-shirts, wall art, greeting cards, DVDs, CDs, toys, picture frames, kitchenware and much more. Some stores are also, to varying degrees, still identifiable as Church supply stores, with non-consumer items such as bulletins, communion ware, and at this time of year, candles.

So we have to realize the vulnerability of the department store model. Looking at just Canada alone, consider the casualties of the last two generations in an approximate chronological order:

  • Eatons
  • Simpsons
  • Towers
  • Sayvette
  • K-Mart Canada
  • Bi-Way
  • Consumer’s Distributing (catalogue store model)
  • Woodward’s (western Canada)
  • Woolco (and Woolworth’s)
  • Marks and Spencer Canada
  • Sam’s Club (a division of Wal-Mart)
  • Zellers
  • Big Lots Canada
  • XS Cargo
  • Target Canada
  • Sears Canada

Frightening, isn’t it?  (See a more exhaustive list at Wikipedia.)  In terms of specialty stores, how many in your community have lasted more than 20 years? If we’re honest, we have to agree that new stores and restaurants popping up mean that old stores and restaurants closed.

So every time you read an article about what went wrong at Sears Canada, ask yourself if there’s anything there that might apply to your store.

I know in my case there’s a number of things in terms of visual presentation I’d like to update, but time, money and the constraints of the physical location make that difficult right now.


Related: The YouTube channel Retail Archeology looks at dying shopping malls and retail chains. This was filmed a year ago in reference to the U.S. Sears chain. If you have spare time (!) look around the rest of the videos on this channel.


 

Fresh Fiche Weekly

For some of you, this is like a picture of an old friend. If you’re new to the business, you’re thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’

If you’ve been around Christian bookselling for awhile; time to gather the younguns around the screen — already halfway to recreating the experience — and unravel the story of using a fiche reader to look up products for customers.

The Spring Arbor microfiche arrived in the mail weekly. As I remember it, Title (sets; usually 3 – 5 sheets) was weekly, Author was every other week, Music and Video were monthly, and I had a long wait for Category coming once every quarter. Actually, the Category sheets were one of my favorites.

Believe it or not, a small store like ours didn’t think we needed that data with great immediacy. So we shared a subscription with another store. They got them first and mailed them to us. Then we took our set and sent it off to one of our other stores. (We were a chain of three stores at the time, and libraries were always selling off fiche readers cheap.)

The ability to search online made the fiche redundant, as the ability to order online made the Spring Arbor Telxon unit redundant. But we’ll save that one for another day, since the kids probably won’t believe we placed a suction cup on our phone to place orders.

 

What’s New? For Stores Without Sales Reps or Catalogues, the Answer is Elusive

I think largely at our suggestion, Anchor/Word Alive started a new release page. It’s one of four windows in the carousel when you arrive at their home page. When first opened, it featured new releases for January and February, a 60-day window, just as STL had.

It still does.

It was never updated.

If they are going to impose a $250 net minimum order for Canadian accounts to get the 3% freight offer, stores need to be able to know what is available to fill out those orders. Remember, all the major publishers — Nelson, Baker, Tyndale, Cook, Zondervan, IVP — are already covered here so we really need to know $250’s worth of products which are unique to Anchor/Word Alive.

That’s easy if you’re dealing with a normal supplier. But with the intracasies of their backorder system — which we’ve already covered here — it gets much more complicated. Even the owner or manager of the largest stores reading this may have reason that they need to pad out an order to get particular items through.

…However, the problem is more systemic. As Parasource prepares to wrap up YourMusicZone.com — and presumably YourChurchZone.com is going with it — one of my key backup sources for knowing about new releases is going to be gone.

The Forthcoming feature at Ingram is probably the most accurate, but in order to make sure I covered July, for example, I need to read it by June 29th, or the data disappears.

CBD — normally a great source of information — is rather random in how it applies its ‘Sort by Publication Date’ feature. You get a mixture of forthcoming titles and things already in their warehouse.

The rundown sheets (Book 1, Book 2, etc.) at Parasource are also helpful, but as the company grows, there are pages and pages of .pdf forms, and no way to refine the data if I just want to look at books, or Bibles or giftware.

I know the Top 100 stores in Canada probably see sales reps regularly, but even there, I would suspect there are titles which get lost in the presentations.

I just want to know what’s new.

Categories with Short Shelf Lives

Even in the Christian bookstore market, where our core message is unchanged in 2,000 years, certain book genres have a short shelf life, such as:

  • Family life books on coping with technology. I write this just as a new one is releasing. I know the author (Andy Crouch) and am looking forward to stocking it. But in this category, anything five years or older is probably out of touch with whatever is trending, though the principles may still apply. Good luck if the book references “your AOL account.” Most of these fall into the marriage or parenting sub-category.
  • Prophecy titles. I don’t read a lot of these, but I notice some of them turn up on remainder lists after only twelve months. I suppose you only have to get it wrong on a single page and then they stone you. Okay, we don’t actually stone writers, but having the print copies turn up at 99-cents on CBD is probably just as painful.
  • Personality-based books. Have you noticed all the Duck Dynasty product that’s reduced right now? Also many times that “rising” Hollywood celebrity or sports star fails to achieve the fame that publishers promised when pitching the books. Or the book has sales potential in the U.S. that never successfully makes the border crossing, except maybe in Emerson, Manitoba, which doesn’t have a lot of bookstores.)
  • Youth Ministry texts. Remember that game where you pass the Life Saver on a toothpick? Well, if you wanted grow your youth group, it probably worked in the 1950s (at least in the more progressive churches of that day) but today it might even have liability issues. Even a year later, these books only work when student pastors take the ideas and modify them.
  • Too good to be true trends. You didn’t think the adult coloring book thing would last forever, did you?

Did we miss any?

More to Cover Art than Just the Cover

One of the distinctives of the Christian book market is the ongoing strength of our backlist. I would venture that our per-capita rate of perennial titles is higher than any other book genre.

The downside of this — and I have been recently made aware how guilty I am of this — is that our vast libraries of books are often spine out rather than facings. (It was interesting to note last week that in the new Amazon retail stores, all books are face out, without exception.) The picture above, for something we did on Facebook called “Tozerama,” shows how many of our stores’ shelves appear, and how our customers have to turn their heads sideways to read titles.

So while we often “judge a book by its cover” and consider the sales potential of a title when the sales rep shows us the planned cover art, in many of our stores it’s the spine of the book that makes it stand out, especially months later when it has left the “New Releases” section.

So when Tim Underwood posted the link to this story on Twitter today, I knew it was worth sharing with readers here. Do you think that publishers in the Christian market consider how we shelve our books?

Click to read The Overlooked Art of Designing a Book Spine at medium.com.

 

Checking out the Competition

I try to get to Chapters at least once every 60 days. I think it’s important to track the titles that our suppliers are recommending to them. Things have improved there greatly. While we’ve written about the problem some customers could experience because there are not the same filters as one finds in a Christian store, and about the discernment customers need to have in that environment; though things are definitely improving.

Three things dominated at Chapters’ store in Markham.

One was the new packaging of the KJV Bibles. I suppose that if there’s one market where I would not want to encourage KJV purchases, it would be selling the most difficult-to-read translation to a broad cross-section of consumers. Wouldn’t it be better to steer customers in the general marketplace toward the NLT, Message or NIV? However, I got thinking about this more and decided that Chapters stores probably have a strong market demand for KJV that most of us neither understand nor experience in our stores.

Second, was the shelf of Joyce Meyer titles, which I suspect do well there:

Third, and not surprising was the C. S. Lewis collection. I liked the uniform look of the HarperOne covers and saw a few things I need to add to my own store.

Word Alive / Anchor Distribution System Lacks Christian Integrity

It always amazes me when dealers here simply laugh or change the subject when the subject of Anchor/Word Alive is mentioned. Everyone is beyond frustration, but most are unwilling to go on the record because we’re Christian stores and we’re Canadian and so we have two reasons to be extra polite. But let’s face it: Their system is set up so completely contrary to Standard Account Principles (SAP) and (today’s topic) standard methods of order processing that really, they are undermining the success of Christian bookstores.

One of the many, many problems — and we won’t even get into the joke that is their new website — is that you can’t build an order cart you don’t plan to clear through within 24-48 hours. Let me say that again in case I’m not clear: You can’t add to cart in the way you do with your other vendors. In their system, add to cart works as though it physically removes the product. No one else can touch it at that point, unless you default on your order. On the plus side, if you do complete the order, no one can shop product ‘out’ of your cart. (The best example of that, with which many of you are familiar, would be Book Depot.)

However — and this is a big however — it also means that when your backorders come up, they can also be shopped out. Do they remain on backorder when this happens? Who is prepared to answer that question? Not anyone who you try to get to address this, that’s for sure. And their left hand (Manitoba) clearly doesn’t know what their right hand (Pennsylvania) is doing. And vice versa.

Small, small case in point. We ordered the movie I’m Not Ashamed by PureFlix Entertainment. (We’ll leave aside here the whole other discussion about what PureFlix has cooked up with 100 Huntley Street to further undermine our DVD sales.) We actually placed two small order, one on January 11th and one on February 6th. We can’t buy these from their regular stock because of pricing issues, so we’re purchasing from the stock marked Canadian Sales Only. (We’ve asked if they can simply move a few copies from the regular shelf to the Canadian-designated shelf to get us off their backs. No response. Correspondence ignored.)

On Thursday at 5:40 PM — we had already closed — we were notified they were ready to ship. We couldn’t do the order on Friday so today, before noon we placed our order. Guess what? The product has vanished! Once again. Let me be totally honest here, I have reached the point of giving up trying to be polite. My customers are waiting. I am trying to be their advocate to watch this movie. (I don’t even want to watch it myself anymore, nor do I wish to cooperate with any future PureFlix releases.)

What this also means is this: Some store(s) which purchased this product spontaneously on Friday were able to get copies which were supposedly on hold for me without having to having to wait. Sorry, but if that’s your store, you jumped the line. You’re the person at the grocery store who simply walks to the front of the line and cuts in ahead of everyone else. But it’s not your fault. It’s Word Alive’s fault. It’s Anchor’s fault. And for the customers we may have notified on the weekend that their product was on the way, who we now have to tell that it’s not on the way, it just sucks.

This is a deplorable way to run a company. There ought to be laws. Perhaps there are, actually if you can make the case that this constitutes unfair trade practices. You might have to prove it was done to give preferential treatment to other dealers. But you might not. It might be sufficient to argue in court that Anchor simply acted unfairly in their dealings with their accounts. 

Furthermore, as Christians should not be aiming for excellence? Should we not wish to attain the highest standards?

I am filing a formal complaint with PureFlix on behalf of dealers here. We’re just in the process of framing who will formally receive that letter.

Publishers and media companies: We have two other independent distributors in Canada who are worthy of distributing your fine products: Parasource and Foundation. On their very worst days they will do a better job for you than Anchor/Word Alive.

How Thomas Nelson Killed a Book’s Sales Potential With a Single Word

one-god-one-plan-one-lifeI’ve sold this Max Lucado devotional several times. The author has instant name recognition. Each of the 365 devotional readings has a scripture verse, a story and some practical application at the bottom. A little light for some perhaps, but exactly what others are looking for. I’ve especially sold it to men. The cover has more of a masculine feel, I guess; especially in a market where so much is geared for Becky, the stereotype female customer. I’ve had good feedback from people who bought it for their husband or someone in their teens, 20s or 30s.

However, each time I’ve sold one of these for an adult, I’ve had to hand-sell it. The reason: Thomas Nelson makes no allowance in its book categories for students or young adults, which is the target market. That category designation isn’t available I suppose. But for every copy I’ve sold, we’ve had other customers who passed. Or the two who were buying it for a student, but got me to put some type of sticker over the offending word, Juvenile.

This is true of other Thomas Nelson products, but I don’t remember this particular problem with other publishers. It’s counterproductive. Better no category. Or Devotional.

Have you had a similar experience with this or other products?

one-word

Christian Bookstore Media Kit Now Offered as a Free Resource

Over the holidays we received a couple of updates from Derek Ouellette at Inspired Christian Storehouse in Windsor. First of all the bookseller resource Derek was offering no longer has a subscription fee and the pages have all been unlocked:

We cancelled the Christian Bookstore Media Kit membership site and opened it up to everyone. You don’t need to log in to access the content we created for it. All remaining memberships were cancelled.

Visit the site at cbmediakit.com.

…At the same time, Derek shared with us an interesting program he is trying at his store. Do you think this would work at yours? For a $20 membership fee, customers get a 20% discount on everything in the store for an entire year. It’s certainly a great reward program for regular supporters. Here’s a video commercial he produced for the service.

Beware of Top Book Lists

Top Ten Books by Jared Fanning

Retailers need to be careful not to be influenced by end-of-year lists of the “best Christian books.” It’s so easy to look at a list and say, “Maybe I should be carrying this one, or that one.” Here are some things to note:

  1. Some reviewers pride themselves on creating eclectic lists or focusing too heavily on esoteric items. Titles are listed which stores can’t even buy at a normal trade discount. The reviews sound appealing, but in the end the greatest market for some of these books are book reviewers, and they get their books for free.
  2. You have to check the source of the website making the list, many are aimed only at academic readers or pastors. While it’s true that if I had my reading life to live over again I would have chosen more IVP titles and fewer Max Lucado — nothing personal, Max — the average customer isn’t ready for some of the material contained in the more cerebral works on scholarly book lists.
  3. Advertorials abound. The list you’re reading may be from a particular publisher.
  4. Agenda-oriented lists are everywhere. A great example is this one. At first I was going to put this list of Children’s Bible story books on my store’s Facebook page, since we carry a number of these titles in our store. I passed on it simply because there was no denying the author’s blatant Calvinist bias. Many of the titles were from Crossway, which I have now come to view as a denominational publisher, and carry their titles only by special order.

In the general market, more attention is paid to lists and award-winners, but even there, I’m sure that stores have filters for knowing when to jump in and when to hold back. Here’s a better formula:

  1. The CBA lists are generally helpful, but Canadian stores need to avoid things which have a particular U.S.-interest. Also, the number one title on some of the monthly lists is often the Standard Lesson Commentary, but in 21.5 years, I’ve never sold one. So it needs to be read discerningly.
  2. A couple of British titles. I try to check Eden and Koorong frequently to see what’s selling over there and if the titles have distribution here, I’ll jump in. We’re Canadians, and just as our worship music is not entirely dominated by what happens in Nashville, so our reading shouldn’t be dictated by U.S. sales.
  3. Unique titles. This are items you feel will work in your store and you have dedicated yourself to doing the necessary promotion. We’ve done this a few times to the point where a supplier will ask us what’s driving the sales.
  4. Local-interest authors. In the summer of 2015 our #1 title and #3 title had a connection to our community, though the writers do not live here.
  5. Revivals. If the publisher thought the book was worth re-issuing in a new cover and we agree that it has greater potential, then I’ll play the game.

What’s not working:

  1. Christian Television. Remember the days when the simple breath of a title on Benny Hinn brought customers looking for the book? That’s long gone except for 100 Huntley Street, which (especially since the show’s last reworking) is still the bookstore owner’s best friend. Besides, many of the shows offer the books themselves and people are more accustomed to ordering online or by phone.
  2. Christian Radio. Even Focus on the Family has lost its influence.
  3. Reviews in magazines. These benefit booksellers more than anyone else. Beyond that we don’t see a stampede to the store when the new issue of Christianity Today arrives in the mail because so few receive it.
  4. Reviews on blogs. Publishers continue to ship great quantities of books (especially fiction) to bloggers, many of whom actually have very conservative followings. It’s the Calvinists who seem to have the greatest love affair with books, and many of them read on Kindle.

What is working:

  1. A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon.
  2. A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon.
  3. A mention by a pastor or speaker in a church service sermon.  I can’t state this enough. If the local church pastor recommends the book, people will respond. In droves. So…how do we make this happen more often? How do we make pastors aware of what’s available? When they do come in the store, they are often so busy and so single-focus-driven that there’s no time to chat, let alone point out key resources.
  4. Word of mouth.
  5. Word of mouth. This is especially evident among, but not limited to women.
  6. A book mentioned in another book or at a conference or in a video curriculum.

So again fellow bookseller, don’t be intimated by the end of year lists. Remember, those are reviewer favorites not charts of sales performance. Let other metrics govern your inventory choices.

Post 2,000 at Christian Book Shop Talk!

state-of-the-bookstore

This is my 2,000th article here at Christian Book Shop Talk. That’s a lot of comings and goings of publishers, distributors, stores and sales reps. A lot of new policies and ways of doing business to consider. A lot of ups and downs for the Canadian dollar. Perhaps mostly, a lot of rants and raves! I thought today, in honor of the occasion I’d share with you a thing I just posted to our store Facebook page. I don’t do this sort of thing often, but some customers have a sense of ownership and are often asking, “How’s the store doing?” I can give them sales numbers if they really need them, but I also like to share my heart for our street-front ministry.

This approach, and the content of what follows is not without controversy. I know some of you would not do this with your customers. I accept that. But it’s something that’s been brewing for a long time that I needed to share with my store community. Your store newsletter or Facebook page may just contain hours and sale items. Decide what approach works best for you.

-•–•- State of the Bookstore Address -•–•-

sotuEach year, the President of the United States gives a State of the Union address to a joint session of the Senate and Congress. Today I want to do something similar for our bookstore family.

Christian bookstores tend to reflect the character of the person who owns them as well as key staff and managers. Because I’ve always worked for Christian organizations (100 Huntley Street, Inter-Varsity Canada, Canadian Bible Society, Muskoka Woods, Cobourg Alliance Church, Northumberland Christian School, etc.) for me, Christian service has never been a Sunday thing or a one-week-per-night thing. I am somewhat immersed in mission. I’ve always been passionate and perhaps even a bit intense about things like Christian service, the Bible, spiritual authenticity, spiritual maturity and simply knowing Jesus.

For me, it matters to know the full arc of the Bible’s story. It matters to know how to present this to outsiders and overcome their objections. It matters to know the rules for proper Biblical interpretation. It matters to know the stories of those spiritual pioneers who went before us and the biographies of those contemporary saints who serve us today. It matters to know what Christian experts say about the standards for marriage and parenting and extended family life. It matters to better understand the nuances of my brothers and sisters in other tribes of the broader church. It matters to be able to access the tools which help us dig deeper into God’s Word. It matters to be able to discern practical application of the scriptures in our neighbourhoods and workplaces. It matters to know the words and melodies of the songs used to sing praises to God both today and in times past. It matters to have a window into what God is doing in the Church around the world. It matters to have the materials to communicate the Christ story to our children, teens and young adults.

That’s a lot of ‘matters.’ But honestly, some days I feel like I’m the only one. There are times like I feel like that nobody else gives a care in the world for these things.

Increasingly, we have days that are greatly dominated by non-book transactions. Don’t get me wrong, the mugs and the movies and the T-shirts and the jewelry and the cards help pay the bills. But I wonder sometimes if it’s true that I’m ‘the only one’ as noted above or if I should just take a cue from our friends at Chapters/Indigo and just remove vast sections of the books in order to spread out the giftware?

For me, the books matter. We have over 1,000 items in our store which would be considered Bibles in one form or another. If that’s true of Bibles, I can’t imagine how many books we have. However, having this great choice is useless if people don’t take the time to browse. Having an awesome selection is ineffective if people only want to read material by some fringe teacher they saw on a late night Christian TV channel. Having a selection of books at all is ill-advised if all your customers are buying is non-book commodities.

Sales were up slightly in November. It’s important that you know that. I’m not writing from a standpoint of financial discouragement. It’s about our mission. It’s about enhancing the Christian lives of the constituency we serve. That’s why we’re there.

If you’re a regular reader — and perhaps you had to be to read this today — obviously this isn’t directed at you.

If you’re a shopper for non-book things, we do still need you. However, I hope you’ll consider diving into a good book. I hope you’ll consider developing what BIll Hybels calls a “chair time.” If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll model reading for your children.

My wish for you this Christmas is that you’ll have a favorite Christian author and a favorite Christian book category.