Bargain basement

<p>Each January the frenzy of sales activity becomes more intense at Britain's retailers. Nerves have been strained this year: French Connection, Mexx and other fashion retailers put up the sale signs as early as 13th December, and after the surge of sale shoppers started to fizzle out just a few days after Boxing Day, Debenhams upped the ante from &ldquo;50% off&rdquo; to &ldquo;70% off&rdquo;, while JJB Sports moved to &ldquo;90% off&rdquo;. Why this whiff of panic? For most retailers, the January sales period is as important as, or more than, the full-price run-up to Christmas.</p>
<p>Not so for booksellers. Despite valiant attempts to muscle in on the appetite of shoppers to spend in the sales, there is a half-hearted look about most booksellers' January sales. Why is our industry missing out on this bonanza? Part of the answer is about authenticity. In department stores and fashion retailers, the decision to mark down stock is not a marketing artifice&mdash;there is an overwhelming need to clear space and free up cash to reinvest in spring and summer ranges. The winter coat that was selling at twice the price a few weeks earlier is, in the eyes of the consumer, a &ldquo;genuine&rdquo; bargain. Compare that to our bookselling chains, where the message seems barely changed from that which was running before Christmas.</p>
<p>Despite the economic and sustainability arguments for disposing of excess or outdated stock in situ, our industry is still addicted to the apparent panacea of returns. Another problem is lack of differentiation; the same titles appear everywhere, with only Blackwell's having a point of difference with its academic sale. And finally there is that old problem that sale stock in bookshops is, in a throwback to the Net Book Agreement era, tainted with the suspicion that these are bargain books or manufactured remainders, and not &ldquo;real&rdquo; books.</p>
<p>The answer? Conviction. Replicate the intensity with which department stores implement their sales: few merchandise sections, and even less window and instore display space, are untouched by the sales message. Do aggressive deals with publishers to save them the hassle of taking back stock, and make those initial price cuts the deepest. And don't just stick to what you have in store already; department stores supplement mark-downs with special purchases, and booksellers can similarly dip into remainder merchants' catalogues.</p>
<p>The trend towards deferring shopping until the sale period is here to stay&mdash;even the online retailers reported that 26th December was the biggest day of the year&mdash;so start planning for a bigger and better sale in January 2009.</p>