Thursday, March 10, 2011

Promotions are like Rogaine...

...the minute you stop using them, they stop being effective.

Eventually, unless you keep spending the money and slopping the stuff on your head, you're stuck with the hair follicles you got -- weak and sparse as they may be. And you are stuck with the business you got, weak and sparse as it may be.

This may seem like an argument to keep doing promotions, but I'm saying the opposite. I'm saying, get your foundations strong and quit wasting all your time and energy on the extras.

For unlike hair, a store can strengthen it's roots, and create new ones. That is, you know, if you don't waste too much money on promotions and advertising.

I seem to spend a lot of time on this blog trying to argue with common wisdom's, at least those that contradict my own experience.

The biggest of these is the effectiveness of promotions and advertising.

This time, I think I'll approach this from a different angle. I won't deny that these things can be effective -- but I will question the "cost" effectiveness of most. By cost, I also include: Time, Energy, and Space. By the time you include all costs, I figure most promotions are more trouble than they're worth.

About the only current promotion I do, is the Free Comic Book Day on the first weekend of May. This has been, by all outward accounts, a huge success. And yet, I could make a pretty good case that it has been mostly ineffective. I get a big turn out on that day, but I'll be damned if I can see that it has created any new regular customers. In fact, as far as my subscriptions are concerned, I can't think of one.

This event costs me several hundred dollars a year (the "Free" comics aren't free for me, just much reduced in price.) I usually am paying to have an extra employee on hand, as well. You know, to hand out the free comics.

It's fun and all that.

But effective?

My feeling about most costs involved in advertising and promotions is that you would do better to get new or better product, or do an improved everyday job. (And you can ALWAYS get better or new product, or do an improved everyday job.)

Any promotion you do -- signings, events, music, whatever -- are labor intensive, and can quickly become rather stressful and time-consuming. To me, they distract from the main job I do, which to sell product on a day to day basis.

Street events? Don't get me started.

I think the benefits of most promotions and advertising are illusionary, and foisted upon us small retailers by the purveyors and the users. I believe that some small business owners get so caught up in promotions that they forget to do their job.

And any effectiveness you do get, is at the cost of time and energy and space, which is just as precious as money. Maybe more so. I'll say it again: I think as many or more businesses quit because of time and energy issues -- stress -- as money. (Though they are all inextricably linked.)

Storekeepers start to get a glimmer that it just isn't fun any more, but they don't know how to get off the promotional bandwagon. Customers have come to expect you to entertain them. Product? Oh, yeah. They might buy some of that, too. As long as you aren't being TOO entertaining....

And I'm saying this after 31 years of business, with the last five years being my most profitable, and at a point where I feel my store is solid. Good location, good inventory, longevity -- all those things count.

Balloons and clowns and music? Not so much.

O.K. O.K.

I admit. It's a bit of an overstatement. Obviously advertising works for some people; obviously having events can be beneficial to your business. I would hate to dissuade anyone from effective promotions. But I'm arguing that that should come second, not first. What I read on sites like Shelf Awareness seems to me to be strongly in the other direction.

But I think it's the wrong focus. If you want to do special events, and you can afford them or have people in your employ that want to do them and you can afford the extra hours, and you have space and time and energy, by all means...

But ... if your fundamental business isn't working, it won't save you. Bottom line, you need to sell product.

What I've discovered over the years is a brutal truth: you can't beat cheaper prices with bells and whistles (including all the free events you want). You have to find other ways. Having something the other guy doesn't have, is the best way. Being in a good location. Having face to face contact, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Customer loyalty is gained in a number of ways -- and all of them are good. But it's better to recognize that even loyal customers will buy elsewhere, frequently, without your permission.... seems like every interview with a bookstore that I read on Shelf Awareness, when they're asked what makes them different, what is going to help them survive; they'll rattle off:
social events, coffee shops, e-book access, and so on and so on. Books always seem to appear fairly far down the list, if they're mentioned at all. Like they're an afterthought, instead of the whole ball of wax.

What happens is all these bookstores are told that if they are public oriented; a 'third space' for people to gather, to have writer's coming to the store, or music, or reading groups or....whatever...that it will distinguish them from the big box stores, or Amazon, or the Kindle.

But it hasn't worked. Demonstrably hasn't worked. There are huge independent stores who've done all the above, plus work online, plus serve coffee and crumpets -- and they've gone out of business. Small bookstores all over America who has thought of themselves as public service arena's -- have gone out of business.

Because, they in a sense, have fooled themselves into trying to buy customer loyalty by entertaining them, by giving them free events. And they've focused on that, because that's what every other indy bookstore is doing, or telling them to do. It makes them keep late hours, and adds to their cleaning bills, and adds employees and hours, and stress and what to keep track of and.....

It's group think at it's worse.

Because, based on the number of stores that have gone out of business, it hasn't worked.

Any yet, if anything, the indies are doubling down -- proclaiming even more public services and promotions and gimmicks. Because, all the stuff they've been doing hasn't been working, so they'll do twice as much of it.

Make no mistake, bookstores are in the fight of their life. But it's as if you knew that a tiger was coming your way, and instead of running and climbing a tree, or sharpening a stick and laying in a supply of sharp rocks, that you decided to distract the tiger by blowing bubbles.

You were told this worked by the guy the next valley over (never mind he got et.)

Look, if people are buying books because of price and convenience and selection -- it doesn't matter how many concerts you have, because when it comes time to buy a book, the customers will buy from whomever is cheapest, easiest and has the mostest.

So you have to realize that, and work around it. Instead of spending all your time trying to create a warm and fuzzy 'local' resource.

Great. But what about the books?

It seems to me that most indie bookstores have mistaken the promotion for the business. Promotion is ON TOP of whatever business you're doing, but it can't make up for a lack of business. So all that time, energy and money you're spending on promotion and advertising and coffee and tea, might be money you should be using to improve your fixtures, or your in-store service, or your inventory.

You know -- books.

It's all about the books.


Anonymous said...

Nobody wants books anymore.

How about you telling us where to take our old books.

Nobody wants books. Not even Powell's in Portland, even they not want to buy back books anymore.

It's Bend-Over(tm) for books.

Promote all you want. I'm sure well into the auto age buggy-whip manufacturers kept believing they just had to promote buggy-whips.

Anonymous said...

CBS News
US Runs $222.5 Billion Deficit in February; Highest for Any Month

This one is all over the news today. So let's take off our dunc thinking cap, and think about this one.

1/4 Trillion US $ in debt for one month, that mean in just one month the US government spend 1/4 trillion more than it took in. In 6 months that is the equivalent of the California GDP at $1.5T. So where they borrow the money? Well they sell Treasury Notes, trouble is nobody buys them anymore, so who do the sell them to? Why the Federal Reserve.

Does anybody with the their dunc hat off really think this thing wil ever recover this a happy ending?

Anonymous said...

World Oil prices are dropping like a rock. Oil futures are now less than today's price.

What's going on?

The word is now out that all the oil dictators can kill their citizens and nobody is going to do a fucking thing. The USA still kills in Iraq&Afghan and nobody cares, so nobody cares about killing in Egypt or Libya. The consensus now is that oil dictatorships can kill every single human in their country, and all is good for oil consuming nations.

Kaddaffi today is only imitating is AIPAC masters in the USA & Israel. CIA&MOSSAD win, Europe loses. Who could have guessed?

Anonymous said...

Which States are bankrupt? Well most, too many in fact to list. So recently the Economic Journal published a list of those that aren't BK, and nicely OryGun is on the list.


Which U.S. States Are Not Bankrupt:

American Samoa*
Louisiana (really?)
Mississippi (really?)
New Hampshire
New Mexico
North Dakota
Northern Marianas Islands*
Puerto Rico*
West Virginia

* – U.S. Territories

Anonymous said...

The US and Libya are the only countries brutal enough to try to tax their citizens wherever they live on the planet.


Think about this for a moment. Libya & US are the same in the way they treat their people. They're the same in the way that a few elite family's run the government.

Anonymous said...

Just in - Reuters: "West Condemns Tidal Wave, Considers No-Tsunami Zone and Possible Air Strikes Against Wave".


God bless AmeriKKKa.

H. Bruce Miller said...

So if promotions and gimmicks aren't the answer for independent bookstores, Dunc, what IS the answer?

I think your store has survived and thrived because it nicely fills a rather narrow niche and has no real competition locally in its niche market. I don't see much of a future for small, independent, general-interest bookstores.

Maybe the only way for those stores to survive is to turn themselves into coffee houses with books as a sideline, instead of bookstores with a coffee shop as a sideline. Maybe they've got the right idea but haven't taken it far enough.

Duncan McGeary said...

Like I said, Bruce. By being diversified and carrying books no one else is carrying, and making it attractive and having knowledge.

Promotions need to be extra, not the main focus.

I think small bookstores actually have more of a future than the big chains.

I think new bookstores are going to need to have used books as part of their mix. They probably should look to specializing in something else, or two something elses.

For instance, boardgames would actually be a good addition. (Book and Game, in the Mountain View Mall actually had a pretty good mix, I think. I think other things brought them down....)

I'm not convinced the coffee part of a bookstore is money-maker, and besides, it isn't what I want to do.

I think that bookstores need to shake themselves up, and quit doing business the way it's always been done. At the same time, I think most of the group think is currently misguided. (sell e-books, and become a restaurant event center).

H. Bruce Miller said...

"I'm not convinced the coffee part of a bookstore is money-maker, and besides, it isn't what I want to do."

I'm not saying YOU should do it; what you're doing seems to be working for you, so you should stick with it.

I'm saying maybe the small, general-interest bookstore (you're not a general-interest bookstore, although you carry a few general-interest books) is obsolescent and proprietors need to think about a different business model. Maybe becoming coffee shops that sell a few books rather than book shops that give away coffee would work. I don't know; fortunately I'm not in the business.

H. Bruce Miller said...

"carrying books no one else is carrying"

That would work only in a market big enough to generate enough demand for those books. If nobody else is carrying them, it could be because nobody is buying them.

When we first moved to Bend we thought it was strange that the town had only one wine shop (Don Boller's place on Wall St.). "This town needs another wine shop," we said. "Maybe we should open one."

Fortunately, we soon figured out that the reason there was only one wine shop was that there wasn't that much demand for good wine in Bend, Oregon at that time.

Many people naively open businesses because they convince themselves the town "needs" one. But usually, if there's a need for one, there will be one ... or more.