Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Fine Art of the Hand-Sell

The October 6 issue of Publishers Weekly closed with an editorial by journalist, Emily Grosvenor called, "The Gospel According to Paul." Grosvenor writes about Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights in Iowa City, one of the country's last great independent booksellers.

Ingram selects what he believes to be the "Best Book of the Year" in some twenty categories, packs up dozens of copies of each, and hauls them to a local church for his "Ministry of Books" event. Ingram has created a new context for book lovers to congregate and for him to make suggestions, and sales. He sells several books at top dollar at the event, that go on to sell hundreds of copies of titles based on word-of-mouth recommendations coming out of the event. Brilliant.

The small town where I grew up is dying. As Wal-Mart and other big box stores moved in, there was this outcry from local business owners that residents should feel an obligation to shop at their Main Street stores. It is an ignorant point of view to expect people to ignore higher prices, lack of parking, and other inconveniences to support local business. Inflicting a sense of guilt doesn't work. People want value. Value doesn't have to mean discount prices. It can mean service. Hand selling. Community. Independent retailers need to find ways to make themselves valuable to their customers. Prairie Light's "Ministry of Books" is a perfect example.


Lisa said...

There’s something about your story that I don’t understand. Let’s just say that Prairie Lights is located in Nashville and I went to one of the ministry of books events. Let’s say I bought a novel there that I loved and I recommended it to a friend who lives in M’boro. That friend is unlikely to buy her copy of the book from Prairie Lights bookstore in Nashville just because that’s where I found out about it. More than likely, she’s going to go to her neighborhood B&N or BAM or order it from amazon. So I just don’t understand how the ministry of lights event translates into selling hundreds of copies of the 20 recommended books. Now I guess since Iowa City is a much, much smaller town than Nashville, people are more likely to support an independently owned bookstore because there wouldn’t be as much competition from the chains. Maybe that’s the explanation?

Last year the independently owned Ace Hardware store in our neighborhood closed. They’d been in Madison for more than 30 years but eventually the big box stores pushed them out of business. Unlike Home Depot, where I have to hunt down an employee in an orange apron if I have a question, at Ace they always asked me if I needed help as soon as I walked in the door. I also bought my pet food there when they started carrying the brand we buy. But obviously they didn’t do enough business to stay in business. The store was well stocked, they were friendly and helpful, and they gave out discount cards on pet food to make up for the fact that they couldn’t compete in price with chains like PetSmart.

Americans, on the whole, support the chains. What more could this Ace Hardware have done? Let’s admit one thing. Americans are obsessed with “saving money.” They’ll drive 5 miles farther down the road to a Wal-Mart to save 50 cents on a tube of toothpaste (and most of them will also buy their cheap groceries while they’re there instead of supporting an independently owned organic grocery store). But instead of saving that 50 cents and putting in the bank, they simply spend it on something else. I read the other day that the French save about 13 percent of their income. American’s save zero. That’s right, zero. I guess what I’m saying is that it seems to me that most Americans want cheap goods so that they can, in turn, buy more crap. I don’t agree with you that Americans want value more than anything else. I think most of them want cheap goods at any cost, and if that shuts down the mom-and-pops, so be it. THAT is the America that we have created with OUR choices.

Paul Mikos said...

When I said, "People want value," I mean people are willing to pay for what they value. Your example of someone driving an extra five miles to save fifty cents on toothpaste is a good example of paying extra cost to get a deal. Getting a deal is not something everyone values. That is why you will find toothpaste at double the discount store price at a "convenience" store. Other stores succeed because they provide an experience, or a quality product, or both, ala the $2.13 cup of coffee.

The saving issue is interesting too. American people are not as interested in saving money as they are in spending money. Like you say, if I can spend less on toothpaste and have enough to buy better coffee, all the better.

The point is not to criticize consumers for what they want. The point is to recognize what consumers want and provide it. Whether a mom-and-pop, or a big box chain, if you are selling something, you must create value to stay in business.

lisa said...

Yesterday I was buying pet food at Dizzy's Dog Wash, a small independently owned specialty pet food shop, and I thought about this post and our exchange. I asked myself why I choose to buy cat food there instead of buying it elsewhere. After all, there are plenty of places that sell pet food such as walmart target walgreens petsmart, etc.

I concluded that the primary reason I buy food there is because the food is a higher quality than what you'd find even at petsmart. In fact, there's VERY little to ANY overlap of brands. In other words, the kind of food I buy there I can't buy anywhere else.

But the reason I started going to Dizzy's was not because I was disappointed in the quality of the food I was buying at PetSmart. I started going there because it was an independently owned shop, owned by 2 women entrepreneurs. After meeting them and seeing their store and what they had to offer, I wanted to give them my money instead of the chains—even if that meant I had to pay more. In return, I get a very high-quality product that I can’t find elsewhere.

So your point that you have to offer something that the buying public wants is of course a valid one, and I didn't mean to suggest in my previous comment that it wasn't. I am a person who intentionally seeks out independently owned businesses. Be that a garden store, grocery store, pet store, bike shop, etc. I know that plenty of people are like me but I guess what I was trying to say was that I wish there were many many more people who did the same. It makes me sad to think of all the businesses that shut down because people flock to the chains.

I also thought about what Ron said in our staff meeting this morning: Don't make selling a 2-part activity. Don't try to change people. Don’t try to convince them that they want something that they really don't. It’s hard enough to sell them something they do want. That is exactly what you were saying in this entry and I appreciate your point of view.

slb said...

I love this thread. Having lived in Iowa City and frequented Prairie Lights...there's a reason people are loyal to it--it is AWESOME.

In fact, I soooo miss not having a store like it around here. Think way cool, hip, with their own version of Starbucks mixed in with a local flair and staff who recognized repeat customers and remember what they like.

Emily said...

There is an easy answer to Lisa's question. Prairie Lights can sell books like this because readers in Iowa, specifically in Iowa City, love the store and couldn't imagine not supporting it. Many readers I have talked to make special trips there each month to stock up. And to hear about a small press publisher's story collection being touted at Prairie Lights and then buy it at Amazon... well, if you're reading small press collections, you are probably love independent bookstores. We have a Barnes and Noble in Iowa City. I don't know anyone from the university communnity who shops there.