Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Destination Bookstores: Hitting the Mystery Spot

With competition from the internet and different big box retailers covering the same products, creating a destination store is a big deal in the retail world. How do you get people to go out of their way to come to your store when they can easily (comparatively speaking) find the same product somewhere else? What experience can you offer them that will have a greater appeal than Amazon or Walmart?

Often this leads to bookstores expanding there focus; instead of just books, they carry books and coffee. They add in a line or three of semi-book-related objects (book lights, book marks, or book covers), and several things that have nothing to do with books (chocolates, box kits, lotions, etc). Books, while still a big part of the focus, are no longer the total focus as the owners juggle ideas to hit the jackpot combination that will draw people in.

While I would love a bookstore with a good wine and cheese serving café hooked on (a glass of wine, a plate of cheese and a good book? Yum!), these extras are not what I focus on when I walk into a store. My focus, upon entering a new bookstore, goes like this:

1. Window displays: do they draw me into the store?

2. Display tables and Wall bays: Are they up to date or stale? Do they contain titles unique to the store/area? Are they clean looking (note: something can be shopped, but still clean looking)? Is the overall composition pleasing to the eye (something I’m oddly OCD about)?

3. How s the store arranged?

4. Sections: At a glance can I tell the store’s focus? Are the sections representative of the clientele? Do any sections clearly have no one to take care of them? (e.g. Are they a lot smaller than other sections despite country demand for titles? Are they flopping looking?)

5. Do they have staff recommends? How are they indicated? Am I being forced to decipher someone’s illegible handwriting?

6. Do they carry Bargain or used books?

It’s only after all of this that I begin to notice the other things like:

1. What are the booksellers up to? Was I acknowledged when I walked by? (Note: I’m saying acknowledged, eye contact and a smile will do.)

2. Magazines: do they have them? Are the necessary? Is the selection representative of the clientele?

3. What other things is this store selling?

Now the order of these lists will change slightly depending on when or how I come across different sections or events. If I’m ignored by a bookseller as I walk in who’s chosen instead to talk about non-business related things to her coworker to the point where another customer has to make a noise to get some attention to be rung up? Yeah, I’m going to take note right away. In the Elliot Bay Book Company, we made the mistake of walking in the used books side of the business and that really messed up my thought process as the collectables are all spined, in glass cabinets or up above one’s head. Had we entered through the other side, I would have immediately seen all the display shelves with their recommendations cards, and my first impression would have been completely different.

Since I realize that I’m not the best person to talk about bookstore first impression with (as I enter them still thinking like a retailer and not necessarily a customer), I made my friends go along on my Seattle book adventures (partially because I wanted to hear their thoughts and partially because there was no way I would have been able to get around the city by myself). After our bookstore visits I would ask their opinions on what they did like, didn’t like, and what struck them about their experience. Our surprising consensus after visiting Elliot Bay, the University Bookstore and the Seattle Mystery Bookshop was that Seattle Mystery was our favorite.

At maybe a quarter of the size of Elliot Bay (and an eighth of the University Bookstore if you count the text book sections), the Seattle Mystery Bookshop was the smallest of the stores we visited. As the name would imply, they sold only mystery/thrillers with no add ons. Beyond a few store t-shirts/coffee cups and some mystery related magazines, the store was all novels all the time; specialized to the extreme of carrying only one genre.

The complete opposite of the idea many stores embrace to create a destination experience.

The stock did not feel limiting however. The sub-genres ran the gambit of historical to paranormal and the publishers from large down to self-published. My beloved SoHo Crime imprint was everywhere (their books, with the similar layout for all the covers, look so good when placed face up together. Again, it’s the OCD), but so where many other publishers that I always wanted to order in. The display tables mixed their presentation by placing hard covers, paperbacks and trades all together in a pleasing way that drew the eye. Staff Picks stickers helped differentiate the titles without forcing me to decipher handwriting, and white strips of paper folded around the outside of the book indicated when the author had been in (or would be) to sign that particular title.

Seattle Mystery took a very small space and maximized its potential. They let the book covers and displays speak for themselves with just enough signage to indicate the breakout (Northwest Authors, Culinary Mysteries, Small Publishers of Note, etc). The overall presentation was a store that embraced what it was—a mystery bookstore—and didn’t feel the need to improve upon the product, because it was that product that you came for.

Despite the fact that my friends and I are not mystery buffs (occasional mystery readers, yes, but its not something we seek out), we all left the store after purchasing at least one book. For my Seattle friend, the Mystery bookstore became a store she would return to when she was looking for a good read despite the fact she has no need to go down to Pioneer Square, and my other friend and I agreed that we would both return the next time we were in Seattle.

Does that make it a destination bookstore? I think so.

What do you look for/at when you enter a bookstore? What makes a bookstore a destination for you?


Diane P said...

I am a fan of mysteries so I enjoy the indie bookstores that serve that niche. I love Murder By the Book because of the way it is divided. I can go to the romantic suspense section and not find true crime.
It works for me. The only trouble is that I have to come into to town to buy their books and with traffic... I only make it in 3 times a year. I usually go away with atleast 5 books though.;)

Word Nerd said...

Oohh.. somebody else who's SoHo Crime fan! You're right... those covers always look great.

bhadd said...

This might be contradictory but I look for books that are not on the shelves of other bookstores, for example a Borders or B&N typically carry the big sellers in front that a smaller indie might have but not necessarily exhibit. But, this only works for comparison.

The Hood Company

quiche said...

I approach stores with my retailer's eye as well. Displays catch my eye first but customer service makes the difference.

Most displays are dictated by the company in big chains and don't wholly reflect on the staff or store.

I appreciate good customer service probably because I know how hard it can be. I've helped people who smelled bad, didn't speak English very well, asked to see every track on every CD by a particular artist, asked for that book on TV, had crying babies and fussy toddlers, talked on their cell phones at the same time and people who knew the title and author of the book they wanted and I hope I showed each one patience, courtesy and respect. If booksellers know a little something about the books they sell and seem like they are glad to offer assistance I'll go back.

Sherryl said...

I don't like bookstores that are too small, so that every minute or so someone is squeezing past me. We've got a small independent like that, and even though they stock a good range of books, it puts me off going there.
I need one store that stocks a wide range of writing books - here in Melbourne, Australia, that's Borders.
I love bookstores that display books in a way that makes them easy to see and pick up. Grub Street has long shelves along the front of the upright shelves where they lay books face-up - the ones they think are "good reads". It's where I discovered Barbara Kingsolver many years ago. Nothing like finding a great writer whose work you love. That's what a good store does for me - introduces me to new books and writers in an inviting, relaxed way.