I was trying to keep up, but it was not easy. My mentor and boss, Clara, was showing me the ropes of my first Christian Booksellers Trade Show (nearly twenty years ago now) and I was exhausted. We had been going from publisher to publisher placing orders, looking at new books and quickly moving on to our next appointment. Somehow, we visited and placed orders with eighty different vendors that week. In preparation for this trade show, Clara had spent considerable time reviewing catalogs, checking in-store inventory and preparing orders. It all seemed so time consuming and overwhelming. The trade show itself extended over an area larger than several football fields put together and just getting from one appointment to the next could give you a good work out. Was all of this really necessary?
As the years flew by, I became the manager of the bookstore, installed new technology, read extensively about best practices and attending training seminars and workshops. We began using the internet to look up product information and place orders and learned about the benefits of just-in-time inventory. One of our distribution partners was located in the same state and we had the great fortune of being able to place orders by 4PM and got next day delivery and free freight. If our primary book distributor did not have something in stock, we simply cascaded the order to another distributor and never had to deal with the book publisher at all. Who needed product catalogs and long meetings with reps if you could look everything up on a website? Efficiency was king. We were dashing into the future.
Over time, we got really good at using our technology. The young people we hired learned our systems quickly and even taught us “older folks” a thing or two. Then it happened. So much change had happened in such a reasonably quick period of time from when I had first started that I didn’t notice it at first. One day I was listening to one of our team members helping a customer and it became clear there was a disconnect. The customer has asked for a particular book by a well-known author of the past and this team member had never heard of it. She offered to do a quick product search on the computer and nothing came up right away. Without blinking an eye, my colleague turned to the customer and said, “I’m sorry, it doesn’t look like we can get that book for you.” Since I had been trained by Clara many years before never to give up that quickly when helping a customer, I offered to do some research and get back to her. We called the publisher of the book and learned that the book was still in print, but had a slightly different title and a new ISBN number. At that moment, it struck me that maybe this was not our first customer that had been disappointed by our technology.
When that light-bulb went on, I began to listen and observe our customer interactions more and more and realized that we were frequently defaulting to what was available in the system. This was also true for the way that we ordered. We simply allowed this wonderful technology to tell us what had sold well in the past, what we were currently out of stock of and what was a suggested order. While this does work pretty well, it does not account for new items that we had never had in stock before or unique items our customers wanted that were not in the system at all. Something had to change. We had to become curators again and not simply good technologists. In fact, it was time to embrace the lessons of the past.
Abandoning the technology was not the solution, but using it differently was. We needed to take time to meet with vendors again, learn from their vast product knowledge and then apply our store metrics and systems to their suggestions. More importantly, we had to find way to become great booksellers again. This would involve actually reading new books that were being suggested to us, listening to customer recommendations, becoming detectives to discover “the next big thing” and reading blogs and on-line book reviews on a regular basis. Then we had to share our stories again. I remembered how Clara used to rave about particular books and authors she loved and how those moments impacted our customers. That needed to become our reality as well. A simple question like, “What are you reading right now?” became a great conversation starter with our teammates and customers.
As I head to the International Christian Retail Show in Cincinnati in a week, I am looking forward to interacting with the next generation of bookstore owners and managers and encouraging them to follow this path. While most will not be placing eighty orders and the trade show floor is considerably smaller these day, the lessons of the past still hold. We need strong partnerships with our publishers if we are going to run successful Christian bookstores. We need to be more committed than ever to be subject matter experts that are “ready in season and out” to help make life changing recommendations to our customers and to love what we are doing as we open the doors every day.