Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Do You Want Chocolate with That DVD

In the retail business, you make your initial judgments on how your store is performing based on month-long chunks of time. Even though we, at the Boulder Book Store, know that being slightly up or down in a particular month doesn't really mean much in the overall scheme of things, it can give you a morale boost to finish a month up and it's a real downer to, well, finish down.

On Monday, I was greeted with our November numbers. It's a month that gets a lot of attention because these sales are seen as being early indicators of how the Christmas season will go. It's also the one time of year, that our regular customers commonly ask with some degree of concern, "how's business?" I was a bit nervous. I knew that going into the last few days of the month our sales could swing either way. Again, it's just a few bucks but the psychological impact could be great, especially after we had a less than stellar September and October after a really strong Harry Potter summer. Who wants to enter December after three consecutive disappointing months? The news turned out to be wonderful. We rallied, partially on the strength of a huge signing by the poet David Whyte on the 29th, and posted a much bigger than expected gain.

All is right with the world. At least for a few days. I'll get the preliminary December sales by Thursday and that could quickly burst my bubble. As I looked at the numbers, my intuition told me something didn't quite add up. We don't really have many hot books. My section sales aren't up. The other new book buyers aren't enthused about their sales. Just what are we selling?

It turns out, as I suspected, the answer doesn't lie in new books. Our sales of new books were actually down a bit for the month. I've been doing this long enough to know a weak season when I see one. The store is being carried by just about everything else. Our DVD, used book and remainder book sales are up tremendously. Christmas cards, calendars, magazines and gift items posted substantial gains. The only section, besides new books, that is losing ground is our tiny music section. There is even some good news there, our music sales -- in a year when the bottom has completely fallen out of the record business -- were pretty close to even.

For years, we have been trying to diversify our selection and push more business into other categories. Now that it is happening so dramatically, I have mixed feelings about it. We have all these people in the store buying chocolate, cards, the DVD of Planet Earth and old editions of the Artist's Way, surely there must be some way to get more new books in their hands. There must be a way to grow both the book and the non book items in the store at the same time.

We are only one independent store in a nation of stores, an island of bookselling at the foothills of the Rockies, but from our point of view, it is painful to have all these shoppers in the store and not have many exciting new books to sell. My plea to the publishers is that they don't let this happen again next November and December. The customers are just getting trained to go straight to the remainder and used book tables and perhaps to the chocolate case. They will continue to be our customers, but I'm not sure if the publishers will get them back.

The beginning of a new month is also interesting because we post a new bestseller list based on the previous month's sales. It's always fascinating to look at the list because it is an eclectic collection of national hits, author event books and quirky Boulder titles.

November's list is headed up by three Penguin paperbacks, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, 3 Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, and Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Gilbert is about to go back on Oprah for a full hour, so I think it is safe to say she will have yet another month at number one when we do the list in January.

Also in the top ten are three books by authors that recently signed here. River Flow by David Whyte garnered most of its sales on the 29th. Whyte might have been able to break the Penguin stranglehold on our top three, if we hadn't sold out of his title. It's pretty impressive for a poet to sell that many copies of a $29 hardback. The crowd was over 350 and spilled into our upper north room where 40 people watched the event on closed circuit television. His audience was composed mostly of very devoted women. Whyte charmed them with an excellent reading and talk and we scrambled to find every last book of his that we had in the store. Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman and The End of America by Naomi Wolf (which I featured my October 22nd posting Brownshirts in Boulder) also were in the top 10.

Of course, we weed out the non book items from our bestseller list that we post and display in the store. Here's the Boulder Book Store's real top 5, available only on Kash's Book Corner.

1. Colorado postcards.
2. Chocolove bars.
3. Vosges chocolate.
4. Quotable magnets.
5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Perhaps we could put those items all in one special holiday gift wrapped package for our customers. Sounds delicious.

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