Marketing Meetup Recap: Holiday Marketing

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The American Booksellers Association recently presented a Marketing Meetup focused on holiday marketing strategies; attendees heard from fellow booksellers about when they start planning for the holiday season, how they decide on which books and gifts to promote, and more.

The August 22 Marketing Meetup featured guest speakers  Len Vlahos from Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado; Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York; and Cassie Clemans of Roundabout Books in Bend, Oregon.

Bagnulo told meetup attendees that her store’s holiday marketing centers around its Holiday Picks List, which is an eight- to 12-page printed booklet featuring 60 to 80 titles the store will be promoting for the season. Each title features a 100-word blurb from one of Greenlight’s booksellers on why it makes the perfect holiday gift.

Bagnulo shared that she and her business partner, Rebecca Fitting, who is also the head buyer for Greenlight, begin the process of compiling the list during buying meetings with sales reps, when Fitting will tag titles as “Holiday pick?” in Edelweiss so the store can keep them in mind.

In early October, Bagnulo shares a longlist of about 150 titles via a Google Sheet with Greenlight’s staff, who can choose which titles they would like to create blurbs for based on what they feel most excited about recommending for the holiday season.

Once the blurbs have been written, Bagnulo and an assistant compile them into both a newsletter and a dedicated page on Greenlight’s website, which goes live the week before Thanksgiving.

Bagnulo added that before shopping for the holiday season really begins, Greenlight determines key dates for the season, including the last day books can be ordered and shipped to arrive in time for Christmas. This information is also posted to the website so the store is not only transparent with the customers, she said, but booksellers have an easier time communicating these dates to customers.

Web traffic is increasing year-round, Bagnulo said, but especially around the holiday season, so Greenlight is training more booksellers in web order fulfillment to ensure constant coverage in that area. Additionally, Greenlight offers a “skip the line” service for the holiday season, where customers can pay for books online and pick them up in-store without having to wait in line.

Bagnulo shared that Greenlight also promotes titles through dedicated e-mails sent two to three times a week during the holiday season; these e-mails highlight different categories of staff picks and remind customers of the different services Greenlight offers, including its free holiday gift wrapping.

The best way to plan for the holiday season is to start as soon as possible, Bagnulo noted: “Create a skeleton of a schedule for when you’re planning to do each piece of marketing, but also leave some room for some spontaneity.”

One of Greenlight’s methods for dealing with the stress of the season is offering coffee and drinks every afternoon during overlapping shifts in December. “Everybody gets their choice of tea or coffee,” said Bagnulo. “It’s a really minimal expense on behalf of the store and it puts us all on the same team and gives a little boost to help everyone get through the craziness.”

Vlahos told attendees that the holiday season is very important at Tattered Cover; sales double in December, with transactions coming in at a 50 percent increase than other months, and 20 percent of the store’s business for the year is done in that final month.

Staff discuss plans for the holiday season year-round, he said, but begin putting initiatives into place in earnest in August or September. Plans begin with frontlist buys and what the store will focus on selling for the holidays, and he noted that some booksellers are sent to a gift show in Las Vegas to gain inspiration for what to sell in terms of non-book items for the season, like games for adults and jigsaw puzzles.

To focus on holiday marketing and promotions, Tattered Cover limits author events after December 5, Vlahos said, unless something really big comes up. Instead, the store hosts an annual holiday reading with a well-known Denver stage actor, which attracts about 150 people yearly. While it isn’t a big sales event, he said, it brings together the community. Tattered Cover also hosts readings of How the Grinch Stole Christmas a few weeks before Christmas at each location. 

Vlahos said Tattered Cover also participates in Small Business Saturday and Cider Monday, which are great ways to kick off the holiday season.

The store also invested in its IndieCommerce site after noticing that the sales spike during the holiday season came later and later each year, which, Vlahos said, happened because customers are buying online before going out to shop. Vlahos and his wife and co-owner, Kristen Gilligan, had the site redesigned, integrated it with the store’s POS system, and lowered the price of shipping. For the launch of the new site, Tattered Cover offered a 15 percent discount, Vlahos said, and that week sales doubled and stayed up. Websites are particularly important going into the holiday season, he noted, because customers need to know they can still shop locally online.

Additionally, Vlahos shared a tip with booksellers about what not to do. One year, he said he had the idea that the store wasn’t communicating enough with customers; to combat this, he decided to launch the 24 Days of the Holidays, which consisted of a scheduled daily e-mail with a book or gift pick from the store’s buyer. The store saw no increase in sales, he said, and a few customers complained of being spammed.

When planning for the holidays for the first time, Vlahos recommended booksellers start with the basics. “There’s no magic,” he said. “If you haven’t done a lot of holiday marketing or thought about it, ask yourself the obvious questions. How do you reach your customers? Who are you customers? What motivates them? Get your staff together, brainstorm, and make lists. And don’t be afraid to fail. Try something. If it doesn’t work this year, you’ll learn something from it.” 

Roundabout Books is a smaller store that has only been open for three years, Clemans told attendees, so while planning for the holidays is still a process of trial and error, she said it’s also been very successful.

Clemans said she gets the whole staff involved in holiday planning through monthly staff meetings to talk book picks as well as an all-staff decorating event. Each staff member gets their own shelf, and each person can choose their own category for the shelf and curate the featured titles. Examples of categories include “Nerdy by Nature,” “The World as I Know It,” and “Literary Masters.”

A small advertising budget means Clemans partners heavily with local organizations that will advertise for the store; Roundabout is involved in the neighborhood local tree lighting, as well as book drives and giving trees, among other events. This year, Clemans said, Roundabout will also be partnering with a local boutique that would like to use the bookstore as a backdrop for a photoshoot, which will help expose the store to the boutique’s large audience.

The store’s primary form of communication with its customers is its newsletter, which is delivered on the first of every month and covers the month’s events and programming as well as book picks, she added, noting that people in the community plan their month around it. Around the holidays, the newsletter contains information on seasonal events like the store’s bookmark contest and story time with Santa.

Clemans added that Roundabout's customer base includes a strong retirement community, so it also offers an in-store wishlist. Children can write their names and titles of books they’d like to read on an index card kept in a box in-store, which grandparents can reference when they come in to shop for the holidays.

Roundabout does other holiday-themed events, such as a Halloween celebration, said Clemans, which coincides with the store’s anniversary, as well as posting daily staff picks in December and hosting a book club book talk in November. The book talk, she said, covers books that will be great picks for clubs in the following year and provides a bump in sales.

Also in November, Roundabout keeps the store open later on Black Friday and partners with local businesses to offer customers tea and chocolate tastings, in addition to celebrating Small Business Saturday and Cider Monday.

Clemans noted that booksellers can start small when it comes to planning for the holidays. “Pick something you want to do and just do it until it’s done,” she said, noting that as far as having a stress-free holiday season is concerned, she learned the hard way that it’s important to plan time for herself and for her family. “This year, I already have the days set for me to shop, for me to grocery shop, for me to cook, to spend time with my long as I have time for me to spend time with my family, I can work around the clock at the store.”

A recording of this Marketing Meetup can be found on the American Booksellers Association’s Education Resources page. Booksellers must be logged in to to view the recording of the session.

The American Booksellers Association now offers two opportunities for live online education: a twice-monthly Marketing Meetup and a monthly Technology Meetup. All member booksellers are invited to participate in these online discussions; subscribe to the mailing list here to receive invitations for the Technology Meetups, Marketing Meetups, or both.