Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bargain Shopping

The Boulder Book Store marks each new year with an all-store sale on January 1st. We've turned what used to be the slowest day of the year into one of the busiest. I remember working New Year's Day in the years before the sale, when you could play a hand of solitaire at the front register between customers. Now, we welcome all the exhausted, the hungover, the stuffed, the seemingly shopped out, the football-hating customers and give them 20% off. It's not an original idea. We stole it from Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona.

Yesterday, customers came to the register juggling stacks of books, eager to spend their holiday gift cards. My favorite shoppers were the ones looking for the super discounts. They trolled through the remainders and used books, looking for the deal of the year on books that were already absurdly cheap. We even had a number of customers down on their hands and knees wading through our used book markdowns that normally sell for one to three dollars. I didn't want to break it to them: they were only going to save 20 to 60 cents on a book they may not ever read. Didn't these bargain shoppers get the memo? Spend more, save more.

As I waded through dozens of customers in our upper north room who all seemed to be looking for the perfect calendar, I started thinking about the psychology of a sale. Let's face it, most of our customers could easily afford everything they were buying at full price. In the case of the calendars, they would have had a much better selection two months ago and they would have had the added bonus of being able to circle our January 1st sale on their brand new 2008 calendar ahead of time. Instead, they chose to come out on a cold holiday and brave the crowds to save just a few bucks. Most of the shoppers were our frequent buyers who get 10% off all year round, so they were really saving an extra 10% yesterday on items that are already priced as low as one dollar.

I don't think it's the money that is saved. After all, you could go to the library and save 100% on most of these items. It must be the perception of finding a great deal. The excitement of the hunt. A customer's perception really is everything in the retail business. About three days before Christmas, I had a customer approach me to discuss the "pricing" of our items. He was holding Tony Hillerman's new paperback Shape Shifter ($9.99) in one hand and the "Planet Earth" DVD ($79.99) in the other. He wanted to know how we had the gall to charge $9.99 for a flimsy paperback.

My mouth dropped open as I stared at the "Planet Earth" DVD that was in the hand that he wasn't shaking at me. Finally, I focused on the Hillerman. It was one of the steroid mass market editions that are becoming more popular from the major publishers. They look like the old mass markets, except they're an inch or two taller. I personally wouldn't be caught dead reading something that appears so ungainly, but I tried to remember the reasons the publishers were giving for the new size. The main reason the publishers gave to retailers was that it would allow them to effortlessly milk an extra two dollars from the customers. Their words were, "a more attractive price point for the retailer." That reasoning wouldn't work in this situation. The next explanation was that the print size in this format would be bigger for the aging baby boomers. I tried that one.

"I don't need bigger print," he said through nearly clenched teeth. "I've been reading Hillerman for 20 years and never complained." I was sorely tempted to comment on the fact that he had no qualms about spending nearly 80 dollars on a DVD. It was hard to resist pointing out that our net profit on the DVD was about three times the cost of the Hillerman book. Instead, I offered him my 30% employee discount on the book. In the end, I didn't want to jeopardize the DVD sale. It was almost worth giving him the book for free. My god, even the Boulder Book Store is reduced to using books as a loss leader.

At least I didn't get any bitter comments yesterday. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and everything in the store was a bargain, or at least in the case of Tony Hillerman, it was priced just right.

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