How to Integrate Used Books & Remainders Into Your Store Operations

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Village Books in Bellingham, WA

Used books and remainders play a key role in the independent booksellers' ongoing quest for increased margin. On Thursday, May 29, at BookExpo America in Los Angeles, Dee and Chuck Robinson, owners of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, discussed the ways in which booksellers could add these products to their existing business and have them benefit their stores. "When Village Books opened in 1980, we sold only new books," Dee Robinson noted at the opening of the session. "And friends in the used book business said we were crazy for not selling used books."

In 1994, Village Books decided to incorporate used books into their inventory, and it turned out that the bargain book annex became the "fastest growing and most profitable part of our business," said Chuck Robinson. "It's offering our customers different price points and a better cost of goods…. It increased the value proposition for our customers, and it meant better margins for us."

The Robinsons noted that incorporating used books was a scary decision. To learn about that side of the business, Chuck Robinson and a staff member spent three days at Powell's Books, where they picked up, among many practical tips, three key pointers about the business:

  1. It's not rocket science;
  2. You know more than you think you do if you are already selling new books; and
  3. Do not just take any book that comes in: You are saying no to the book, not the customer. ("We just say, 'These are the books we can use right now, and these are the ones we cannot,'" Chuck Robinson explained.)

Booksellers should look at the start-up cost of creating a bargain section as they would any new initiative, said Chuck Robinson. Importantly, no major overhaul is necessary to begin. "We use the same [POS] system -- we just use a different colored label for remainder books," said Dee Robinson, who added that the store also tracks used books on its POS system.

In terms of how much space to allocate to bargain books, the only rule is, there is no rule. "I think you can do it at lots of different levels," Chuck Robinson said. "I know people who have done it with one shelf. I'm not sure there's a hard-and-fast rule to it."

After several extensive discussions, the Robinsons decided to keep their remainder and used books separated from the new books. One consideration was aesthetics. "Do you want to mix books that may not be in pristine condition [with new books]?" Chuck Robinson asked. On the other hand, he pointed out that they may lose sales by separating the books. "It's a question you want to think out carefully for your own store," Dee Robinson concluded.

Once the decision to sell bargain books is made, pricing is then left up to the bookstore owner or the staff. The question remains, then, how to decide what to buy and how to price them. "We go through books carefully and take books we want to sell," Chuck Robinson explained. Village Books does not normally take a hardcover that is already released in paperback -- unless it's very popular. In that case, "we match the paperback price," Dee Robinson said. "We're not talking about collectors."

Village Books tracks used book sales by category, as well as by individual title, which is a good way for the bookseller to learn what types of books sell well in the bargain book category. Chuck Robinson noted, "The number of mass-markets we sell new is low compared to used; more mass-markets sell in the used section."

It's not surprising, then, that a used book section often allows the bookstore to carry books it normally wouldn't carry new, said Chuck Robinson. And "sometimes a used book we found selling well, we brought in new."

As for pricing a used book, "we sort these things out on a per-book basis as to what to sell it at retail," Chuck Robinson said. As a general rule of thumb -- open to exceptions, of course -- if a book is $10 new, Village Books might pay $2 in cash or $3 in credit and sell the book at $6 (assuming that the book is in good condition).

Also, Dee Robinson noted, "Ninety percent will take store credit. That's an advantage [booksellers have in selling used books]."

As for remainders, the pricing is a little bit different, said Chuck Robinson. "There's a suggested price," he explained. "We make a decision on whether that is an appropriate value. We try to build in freight cost as well."

Overall, "there isn't a set formula," Dee Robinson concluded. "It's a book-by-book basis." -- David Grogan