If I may interject: In addition to being an author, journalist, and columnist, I've been a small business consultant and teaching seminars on small business marketing for 15+ years... a sideline which was developed after a multitude of requests from sources who got to know me through my own business successes.
So, here are some of my ideas for Indie bookstore success in the changing marketplace. You may agree or disagree; you may implement them or not. But rest assured of one thing--If you do not move in stride with industry changes, you could be left in the dust.
1. Acceptance: Let go of the idea that you don't like things a new way. Let go of insisting on continuing to do things an old way (unless, of course, it's working for you). Instead, accept that times are changing and make the decision that you are going to reap the rewards of success instead of staging a sit-in from which you may never get up.
2. Embrace the Internet: "But I don't like e-mail!" "But I don't like websites!" "Social networking is a waste of time!" Stop. Just stop. It doesn't matter if you like it... it's the new way of doing business and to refuse to participate is to refuse to grow your business. Notice that I said embrace the Internet. This means don't just set up a website, Facebook page, e-mail, and Twitter account. It means actually check them several times a day, interact with people, and use them to their greatest benefit.
3. Welcome Customers in a Different Way: Ever been to a Subaru service department? If not, it would be a worthwhile research trip. Every customer is treated as valuable. Every customer is treated as a VIP. Additional services are offered, but not pushed. There is no undertone of desperation of any kind. You arrive there, they know who you are, and they're ready for you.
4. What Do You Have To Offer That Large Chains & Online Stores Don't? (Capitalize on them!) Here are some things off the top of my head:
- Personal interaction: "Hi! I'm not sure if we've met before but my name is (Joe) and I'd be happy to help you find something. What's your name? Great to meet you (Wendy). Thanks for coming in!" (See below about a staff notebook to help you remember your new acquaintances!)
- An interesting attraction: Store cat? Store bird? Don't like animals?... How about a wheel of fortune that customers can spin to win something? A huge bulletin board with pictures of events, or even just happy customers with their purchases? A community bulletin board where your fellow business owners can thumbtack their info? Free coffee, including actual milk instead of the powdered stuff? A frequent buyer club where they eventually get a free book?
- Build a community: Get every customer's e-mail address. (Have a jar at the register where they enter their name & e-mail address to win a monthly drawing for a $15. gift card to your store.) Send out a weekly e-mail that includes a section that says, "We'd like to give an extra warm welcome to our new customers: Wendy, Mike, etc." (Don't include last names and you won't have to worry about privacy). "We'd also like to extend our thanks to other customers who came in this week, including: Mary, Tom, etc."
- Invite the community: Go to Meetup.com and sign up to offer a "Perk," offering your location for Meetup groups to gather. Spread the word amongst local groups: Book Groups, Women's Clubs, Men's Clubs, Rotary, Knights of Columbus, Veteran's Groups, Classic Car Lovers, Animal Rescue Group meetings... anyone who needs a place to meet!
- Make customers aware: You may be surprised how many people don't realize that you CAN get them any book they want! Let them know that you can order it for them. Make it easy. Consider even having a computer for customers to use so they can (gasp!) look it up online to let you know exactly which book it is. Is it cheaper online than you can offer it? Fine! Be confident: "I see it is $10 online and would normally be $15 in our store. I can do it for $14, and I hope that's okay. We really appreciate you shopping with us, but it's up to you." (Note the lack of any tone of desperation or resentment.) Try it... it works!
- Keep a staff notebook: So now you've met Wendy, right? Put her in the notebook! Jot down any things that will help you remember her and any personal things you may have learned (eg; she has a snake named Literati). Next time she comes in, try and remember her name. Or at least greet her and then go look up her name. Ask how Literati is doing, etc. This is not manipulative... you're building a community/family-like atmosphere in your store. You genuinely do care for her, because she comes there! And, it's what will keep people coming back.
- Think like a business person: I doesn't matter if Vinny makes the greatest pizza in the universe--if he doesn't do a good job running his pizza business, it is not going to be successful. The same goes for your store. Having an event? Don't just book it! Send a press release to your local paper, list it in every online directory you can find, submit it to all community event listings, tell people verbally, etc. Invite your Facebook and Twitter fans, your e-mail contacts, your Goodreads friends. Let the person/speaker/author know that you expect them to market the event from their end too.
- Set up incentives that keep people returning: Consider things like a book buy-back program (Perhaps you offer 25% of the book's price back when they return it to you in good condition? This will be in the form of a store credit of course.) Then set up a used book shelf where you can resell those books to profit from them again.
- Get involved with your local schools: Even if you don't deal in textbooks, you can find out what's on the agenda for your local schools and then offer discounts, incentives, and your buy-back program. My eighth grader was notified at meet-the-teacher day of the three works they'd be studying this year. Last year they read "The Outsiders." ALL of them! The entire seventh grade! Consider offering a discount on the book, then hosting a school field trip where you'll lead a discussion event about it. Prepare special things that you give out to the schools (maybe bookmarks) that include discounts, offers, special programs, etc. This can work with every school, from preschool through college. It also puts you in very good graces with the teachers, and guess what... teachers tend to be readers, and they work near your store!
- Get crazy with e-books and the Internet: E-books. They're killing you, right? Wrong! It doesn't have to be that way! No, it's not the same. Personally, I enjoy reading good, old-fashioned physical books. But the world is changing and to deny it would be to deny yourself the income. Instead, set up an online branch of your store. Make sure your customers know that they can order through your website online, or even in your store! Set up an e-book station (set only to your store's online shopping) where people can purchase their e-books using your computer in your store while sitting in your comfy chair, sipping the free coffee you've hooked them up with, and enjoyed your advice ("Didn't you buy a Jodi Picoult book last time you were here? Well, let me tell you about Elizabeth Berg!").