Booksellers Say Gift Cards an Instant Hit With Consumers

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The new electronic Book Sense Gift Card Program is off to an auspicious start according to booksellers from around the country who described instant success and a painless transition to the new cards, when they recently spoke to Bookselling This Week. Booksellers' reports on consumer response to the gift cards bear out research conducted by the National Retail Federation 2003 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, which stated that there will be a significant leap in the gift card sector, with 48.4 percent of consumers indicating that they would like to receive gift cards this year, up from 41.3 percent last year.

In Port Orchard, Washington, DeDe Teeters of Armchair Books reported a banner inaugural day of selling gift cards. "The first day a local business owner bought 16 cards at $20 each. I learned quickly how to process the cards in bulk," Teeters said. She explained that the customer had been asking for the cards and came to buy them as soon as they arrived. She also mentioned that the cards are incredibly convenient to display since they don't have any value until money is loaded onto the card. "I've been able to put them all around the store, rather than in a binder in a drawer," she explained. Teeters sold six additional cards during her first weekend offering the cards.

Teeters was one of the latecomers to sign up for the gift card program, but when ABA dropped the minimum order number from 250 to 100 cards, Teeters couldn't not do it, she said. But first she spoke with the owner of Bell, Book & Candle (another Port Orchard bookstore) to make sure it was also on board. "I thought we both had to do it together."

The Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Wisconsin are using the Book Sense gift card to foster goodwill among their best customers. Schwartz's general manager, Mary McCarthy, told BTW that the bookstore always sends out holiday presents to their top customers. This year Schwartz Bookshops sent $25 gift cards to their 350 best customers. McCarthy said, "We wrote a really nice letter to our customers telling them how we appreciate them. I signed each letter personally, and it took a lot longer to sign my name 350 times than it took to activate the cards."

Schwartz offers a day of additional deep discounts to store staff, which they can use to buy their holiday gifts at the store. This year staff members have been asked to make their purchases using gift cards so everyone becomes familiar with the process by practicing on their co-workers. "They're all excited about the cards," said McCarthy.

In the Southeast, Nicki Leone, manager of Bristol Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, spread the word about her Book Sense gift card experience on the Southeast Booksellers Association (SEBA) listserve. She wrote that she was "really happy with the way [the gift cards] worked for us -- our gift certificate/card sales are up 55 [percent] from last year.

"I put it down to a number of things -- the high visibility of the cards, and the fact that customers are 'trained' by our culture to prefer such cards, and the ease of use and the ease of the transaction (no waiting for someone to write out the gift certificate). We didn't invest in the extra equipment -- we activate all our cards online (and we use a dial-up connection). I'm really pleased with how it has worked so far."

In fact, the SEBA listserve was alive with the praise of gift cards. At Malaprop's Bookstore, Linda Barrett Knopp wrote in response to Leone's entry: "Malaprop's has also experienced huge success with the gift cards. We really like the design we chose (the opened book) and the presentation of the card on the gift sleeve. Like Bristol Books, we decided to do all the transactions online, instead of buying [additional equipment]. Despite the immediate, almost overwhelming popularity of the cards, we haven't found it to be slow processing that way."

Another SEBA member, Chris Wilcox of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, North Carolina, had this to add to the discussion: "I think the gift cards have increased our GC sales for the period. While we've not redeemed any yet, the activation process is quick and easy using the Web interface and a bar code scanner."

Wilcox also told BTW that the cost of the gift card program was "really not as much of an expense as we'd feared. With the Web interface, there are no hardware costs and with the lower minimum on orders, so upfront costs are low."

Wilcox also stressed the importance of offering a more readily redeemable national gift card program to the consumer. "Until participation increases the cards will be considerably less portable than the paper certificates, but perhaps the fact that they can be redeemed at participating Web stores makes up for this drawback."

On the West Coast, Kerry Slattery of Skylight Books in Los Angeles offered more good reviews of the gift card program. "We sold five over the weekend," said Slattery. "There were some frustrating things, but we handled it. We had no Internet access at the register, so we had to get that. But we took care of it. Our credit card swipe didn't work with Givex, and we didn't know that until we got our Internet access. We called ABA and ordered the credit card swipe and got it the next day. The glitches were easily handled."

Slattery noticed that customers seemed very familiar with gift cards and just added them to their purchases. She also described how they were great promotional tools: "They look great. It's a permanent card that people can put in their wallet with their credit card. It has our logo, our address, phone number, and Web page. People will have our information with them. I like that, it's handy." -- Karen Schechner