What was your best business move?

I have a question for you seasoned sellers, those that have a thriving shop (or maybe two).
Have any of you made one single change, after having been open a few years, that threw your business up a level – kicked it into gear.

I find that as our own business nears the three year mark the growth is not as robust as I would have hoped for. In our case our slow growth (8% – 10% yearly) is mainly a result of our small floor space. We decided to keep the risk to a minimum when we opened and rented a little 600 ft. hole in the wall. We have just added a new room, an additional 150 feet and reconfigured the look of the place enabling us to add 2 000 more titles. Business has been improving and I’m pleased that we are at least heading in a postitve direction but…
I keep wrestling with a few ideas that may or may not help us. One thought is to give my employee more hours while I spend more time in the field hunting for books to list online. We all know the drawbacks of this; employees are a huge expense and books listed online may not sell for a year or more. Another thought is to break out into a serious location of 2500+ feet. This is something I am sure we will do within the next two years but for today it would be too expensive an investment. So my question to you all, have any of you made a drastic change that drove your business to the next level or has it always been a case of slow but steady growth? You can answer by hitting the comment button beside the title of the post, thanks.

12 thoughts on “What was your best business move?”

  1. I wish I had one – we’ve tried a number of things with this is mind, but each is either a qualified success or a qualified failure. Even our failures aren’t very exciting. I’ll tell you what we’ve tried and how well each worked though:

    Move: Added Espresso bar
    Effect: Little sales but staff much more energetic

    Move: Added skee-ball table
    Effect: Good word of mouth advertising, plenty of quarters, will pay for itself any day now

    Move: Expanded into additional 600 sq. ft in basement.
    Effect: Sold more but increased tendency to forget about sections (e.g. the biography ghetto downstairs)

    Move: Started selling prints and maps.
    Effect: Great around Christmas, good decoration, good sales per sq. ft., still not getting rich

    Move: Selling new graphic novels (literary).
    Effect: Blah. People love it but, alas, more with words than dollars.

    For comparisons sake, we’re around 1600 sq. ft. of retail (with another 800 or so of internet and storage) – on a major street but a somewhat forgotten block at the edge of a neighborhood shopping district in Boston, MA.

  2. Here’s another comment from another Bruce from Star-dot-Star books

    I like the question and look forward to the answers, which will hopefully be posted here as well.

    As for my own business (Selling books online since Aug 2003, is that impressive or what?), This month I’ve seen a significant increase in orders, which I chalk up to:

    1. putting my entire inventory on sale at 25% off at my website only and for probably the first time since I’ve had the site almost 50% of my orders have come from my site.

    2. increasing the prices of my entire inventory on Antiqbooks by 15% (because of their impending fee increase) and seeing sales blossom there also. I’ve had the highest number of orders from Antiqbooks this month than any other month since I started listing there I believe.

    3. well ’tis the xmas season.

    Number 2 above is a real conundrum. I can’t figure out the reason for the increase in sales there unless it’s that increasingly Europeans (and others) want to buy from European sites rather than amerikan ones.


  3. It appears you have done the same thing most of us entering this business have done – gone for the cheapest rent possible thereby limiting your possibility for success.

    That remains the mentality of many bookdealers in the business.

    I believe it is the biggest reason the used book business as a whole has never gained a foothold in the minds of the bookbuying public.

    But if you are in a hole in the wall with a very limited inventory you have not just shot yourself in the foot – you just barely exist in the minds of the buying public.

    We started with 7300 books in 1988 in a poor location one block away from a viable retail district in a 4300 square foot basement location paying $400 a month.

    One year later we opened a booth in the busiest flea market location in Calgary and started to send customers to our store – often the flea market sales for 2 days almost matched our 7 day sales in the store.
    The second year our gross revenue tripled our very poor first year sales.
    The next year we opened another booth in yet another flea market location and our gross sales doubled again to a point they exceeded one of my mentor’s best years by 40%.

    My guess is you need a better location with triple the space you now rent and you need to start building toward an inventory of 30-40,000 quality books as quickly as possible.

    Location! Location! Location!

    You need visibility!
    Every day you are in a poor location you are doing yourself a disservice because you are not in plain sight for people to sell you books and are not serving the best interests of your customers if they can’t find you.

    There are chain stores in the United States with average per store sales exceeding $1,000,000 per year – they are not doing that amount of business in holes in the wall locations.

    Our best decision? – 5 1/2 years ago we started to build a computerized point of sale and database program to attend to every detail important to a used book store operation.

  4. We’re even tinier than you at roughly 460 feet in an oddly shaped space in a converted Victorian. We’re just one block off the downtown, which is glaringly apparent whenever they have a “downtown” event… it actually depresses our sales that day! Boo!

    However we also have sales numbers from the previous owner who was in a prime location downtown, right next to the post office and across from the library. It’s now occupied by another bookstore. While the gross sales were higher, the net wasn’t really better once you accounted for hidden stuff like snow clearing and other things that varied wildly. The net is about the same and we have way less aggravation.

    And there’s a hidden cost with moving, you’ll lose some customers no matter what you do. I have customers come in now that say “didn’t you move?” yes, TEN YEARS AGO. (previous owner moved from current location, to the prime spot, moved BACK to this location) And they’ve never heard of the book store that occupies that alleged plum spot!

    Unless you are absolutely crunched for space or in a really hideous location, you need to be assured of a BIG change in number to account for that hidden loss of customers when you move. And you’ll almost certainly have to be closed for a month or more, or pay rents on BOTH locations while moving and have extra staff to have both locations open. Unless you can do that, you’re probably better off making your location a more desirable location.

    Pick up the trash, do some landscaping (use barrels if necessary), make it easy for people to find you. Outdoor maintenance goes a long way towards making a somewhat crummy location a pretty good one. I spent $50 and one day on building a two tier cinder block wall we painted white and wrote the street address on. (it doesn’t even have the business name on it due to regs on signage) Best $50 I ever spent.

    It’s unmortered white block with foot high letters with the street address (one of the only visible street numbers on the whole street!). There’s a nice little flower bed behind it now. People sit on it while waiting for school bus. It looks much, much nicer than the patch of sand and trash next to the marlboro sign for the gas station. We couldn’t get rid of the marlboro sign entirely, but it’s a 100% improvement.

    You can basically see that work anytime anybody puts serious attention into cleaning up area around a business. We cleaned stuff up and nicely asked business abutting us if we could trim down part of their parking lot that was infested with kudzu. They took the hint, repaved the lot, towed the broken down cars, killed the kudzu, leveled the ground, and put in new fences.

    What did that cost? About a day whacking weeds, picking up trash, and a phone call. Sometimes some sweat equity to turn a less desirable area into a nicer one is better than moving.

    Aaaaanyway, on the original topic, what was the biggest change we made that panned out? We computerized the inventory and went online. That made a huge difference. yep, that makes up a big percentage of sales, but online advertising also bring people into the physical store. Majority of that is done through big sites like ABE, alibris, biblio, etc, but we’ve worked on building website for awhile.

    Here’s a trick for building traffic to your main site, host something else! if you have the spare bandwidth and server space available, stick something on subdomain that has nothing to do with your main business and have prominant links back to the business page (along the lines of “webpage hosted by NiceCommunityMembers Bookstore” on the bottom of every page). Offer it up to some group you’re involved with or give money to like a school group, the girl scout neighborhood, local artist collective, etc. Or a hobby your really love that there’s not lots of webpages about. You’ll get a lot of spillover back from that. I host a site for a game I play on part of my website. It gets about 5X as many visitors per day as the business site… with practically no advertising. I do actually buy advertising for the business site. But about 10% of the incoming actually come from the unrelated site of people go “hey, who’s the host?”

    Just let a local group have the bandwidth and let them update it (with that stipulation that it display you’re the host) and you’ll get a lot of free visitors and a lot of local goodwill.

  5. Yet another difficulty to consider when moving your shop.

    Maybe it’s because so many used bookshops go out of business but most of your existing customers will just think you have gone out of business.

    I saw my mentor suffer a 40% drop in sales the year he moved one block away when his landlord asked for more rent.

    My recommendation would be to stay open at both locations (sales should support them both)and keep sending your customers to the new location for at least six months.

    We have moved locations a couple of times and each time we operated at both the new and the old locations for at least six months while directing people to the new location before finally abandoning the old location.

    In one case, where we had been in business for 10 years and built up a sizeable clientele, we spent 3-6 months gradually cutting back on our hours at the old location while going full bore at the new location.

    Sure enough, one of our competitors moved into our old location but by that time our old customers were happy with the new highly visible location which had lots of parking, a larger inventory and was only 5 blocks away.

    Abruptly moving to a new location without effectively communicating with customers can be like starting all over again from scratch.

  6. That’s a great piece of advice George, thanks. We are considering a move and I hadn’t thought about keeping both places open.

  7. I have a 1600-square foot store selling new and used books. We made several changes this year that compliment each other and have resulted in increased sales.

    1. This summer we begin adding gift items after I heard Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands Bookstore speak at the Spring Book Show in Atlanta. We’re now carrying Melissa & Doug educational toys & puzzles, ICU reading glasses, Zarah jewelry, Leanin’ Tree greeting cards, Peeramid Bookrests, and a few other odds and ends. The idea was that even if we weren’t attracing new customers, we could extract more money from the customers we had since everyone has to buy gifts at some time or another and they don’t always want to give books.

    2. We joined our regional association, SIBA, and particapted in their free holiday catalog. You can get as many copies imprinted with your store logo & info as you want. We drove around neighborhoods and stuck them on mailboxes or in newspaper bins. This, plus our gift items, are causing people to start thinking of us as a place to shop for Christmas presents. Before, we had pretty flat sales through the holiday season but now we’re getting a nice bump.

    3. Based on advice from the SIBA trade show, we began encouraging reading groups to register their club with us. In exchange for telling us what they’ll be reading and giving us their emails so that we can communicate with them, we give 15% off their bookclub choice. This has helped me manage inventory and keep sufficient picks in stock. We also have a disply of “local bookclub choices” that help other customers decide what to pick.

    4. We began doing a children’s storytime. We’ve never done events before and publicity is not my forte so I wanted to start small. I have a high school kid who reads the story each week in exchange for a store credit and I post the event to all the local calendars, do a press release, store handouts, etc. We have gotten at least 5 totally new customers since we started this last month.

    5. We’ve carried a small selection of new books since 2002 and I always ordered through my distributor, Baker & Taylor. I’ve recently begun ordering directly from publishers on a non-returnable basis so that I get a 50% discount (instead of the 40-44% I got from B&T). The first publisher we added was Penguin. We were able to do this because we’re now ordering more new books thanks to the SIBA holiday catalog and the bookclub registration.

    -Jill Hendrix, Owner
    Fiction Addiction

  8. First of all, congratulations on entering this wonderful lifestyle.
    I envy you facing the myriad opportunities for personal growth you will experience and pity your facing the extremely steep learning curve you will encounter during the next several years.

    Sorry, I am not a fan of selling books on the internet – I see it as limiting your future consideration as a contributor to the local community by grasping for short term monetary gain.

    You recaptured your funds by sending many of your saleable books hither, thither and yon through alliances with those who feed off the perceived need for quick money many booksellers succumb to.

    Now, if you live in a city and aspire to continuously grow and prosper, I would recommend you become a brick and mortar (not clicks) store and concentrate on building a local customer base and serving their needs.

    Good luck.

  9. My best move was actually opening a retail bricks and clicks store. I picked up 30,000 books on the cheap from a bookstore that was closing in another state and moved them to my basement where I began selling on Alibris, Amazon, etc. I recouped my investment in 6 weeks. When my house sold I moved to a neighborhood location with 800 sq ft and began my bookselling career. But I can only fit 12,000 books in it, with no space for my other plans. I have been profitable ever since, but now business has taken a dive. The new restaurant 3 doors down cut their hours back drastically and my walk-in business disappeared. The large empty building next door was supposed to open as a new restaurant and then never did. So now I am looking to move to a larger, more visible, and yes, more expensive location. But this new location has parking, is on a busy street, and has pass thrus into a coffee shop and a bagel place. Thanks for the suggestions. Paul @ Xenith Booksellers.

  10. I find that as time goes on I do more of two things. 1 – I tend to only list the more obscure listings on the net and keep a lot of the nicer things for our local buyers. 2 – I tend to price most books that are listed on the net a few dollars cheaper in-store giving the local buyers a better deal.

  11. Gottwals Books (www.gottwalsbooks.com) has undergone a few key moments in its two year history that made drastic changes to sales:

    1. We began accepting trades after about 6 months of being open… duh, we should have done it earlier

    2. We expanded our nicely located (and expensive) store from 1500 sf to 2700 total sf. We rebuilt bookshelves, etc. and took our inventory from somewhere around 10,000 to approximately 50,000.

    3. We began advertising more heavily and even had the local news station come out to do a report on us. You can see this report by going to 13WMAZ.com and typing in “Gottwals” into the search box. It has video and everything.

    I hope this helps!

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