Bookstore Self-Exam Proves Invaluable

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

At last month's Winter Institute, there was the planned, organized education, and then there was unplanned, spontaneous education. At the "Customer Surveys" session led by ABA COO Len Vlahos, "someone brought up Paco Underhill's book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping(S&S)] and asked if anyone had hired a consultant to review their store," Christie Olson Day told BTW. While Olson Day, the owner of Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle's Children's Books in Mendocino, California, couldn't speak to the value of hiring a consultant, she was able to report to her fellow booksellers in attendance that a bookstore self-exam conducted by Gallery staff had provided enormous benefits, including sales-boosting results.

"From a purely financial point of view, [the self-exam] proved very valuable," she said. "And it was very inexpensive. There would be no reason for anyone not to do this once a year or more frequently."

"Why We Buy is a great read, and that the fact that it features a bookstore makes it all the more cool," said Olson Day, adding that when she finds a standout business book, she will ask staff to read it, and offer small thank-you gifts to those who do. 

It was a Gallery Bookshop staff member who came up with the idea of conducting a store self-exam, based on Underhill's more than 25 years of researching various characteristics of shopping, as explained in Why We Buy

"Obviously it was not going to involve the same level of sophistication or time described in the book, but we were willing to try it," Olson Day said. "The timing was good, too. We had an opportunity to reconsider our layout." The store, which will have its 50th birthday in 2012, is 2,700 square feet. 

One bookseller picked a quiet spot in view of the front door, the "transition zone" according to Underhill, where customers first enter a space and reorient themselves. "The staffer sat with a book in her lap, and a notebook and pen inside the book -- classic spy technique," said Olson Day. "She watched as people came in, she watched where they physically moved, the path they took through the store." She did this in several locations around the store. 

As Underhill promises, the results revealed more than anyone anticipated -- where customers stopped and didn't stop, dead zones, what got ignored because it was too close to the door. "When you take the time to sit and spy on your customers, it can reveal some surprises," said Olson Day. 

 "It helped us identify what we now call the 'magic spot.' We discovered that there is this one corner -- where we now have our front table -- if we put the right book with a shelf-talker, we can almost guarantee that it will be the bestselling book in the store. We've sold enormous numbers of books because we now know about the magic spot." 

Gallery Books made some large changes, too, based on its self-exam. The cashwrap was moved so staff could greet customers as they enter the store. But most modifications were "quick, easy little changes that made a difference," such as moving locations of posters and placement of key books.

Olson Day said running the evaluation provided surprising benefits. "It was empowering and was a morale builder for staff," she said. "It was just a neat thing for staff members to do. It was something that we could do for ourselves. The payoff of useful information, along with intangible benefits, was enormous." --Karen Schechner

For a previous BTW interview with Paco Underhill, go here.