In depth: the art of book shopping

In depth: the art of book shopping

People love shopping for books, right? Well, some people enjoy shopping for books. A lot of people don’t ever buy books, a lot of people buy books occasionally but really struggle in bookshops. Online makes it easy—most book retailers make buying books much harder than it needs to be; this article will discuss how we shop and what book retailers need to think about and how you can sell more books.

How do booksellers make decisions about how their stores are designed? Why are most book stores the same—different colours but same layouts, displays and signs? Isn’t it a bit strange that we invest so much money in shopfitting, signage and display without measuring its impact or understanding how it works?

Retail and retailing is full of myths about what works and how it works and as a result we end up reproducing the same mistakes: windows that don’t attract traffic; store layouts that stop people moving about the store; signage that isn’t seen; and displays that confuse shoppers rather than help them.

Perhaps an interesting place to start is to ask the big questions. How many people that come into the store make a purchase? Of those that come into the store and don’t purchase, why don’t they? The conversion numbers for booksellers, the proportion of shoppers that buy are reasonably high; roughly two- thirds of visitors purchase. Which begs two questions: why didn’t the one-third of shoppers buy? And even more importantly, what about all those people that are buying books on Amazon that never came into a store in the first place?  

Underlying retail behaviour is “the shopping mission”. Shopping mission is the reason why someone goes shopping. In the grocery world, for example, different shopping missions might be a main shop mission—doing the big weekly shop (a top-up mission, filling in products that have run out in between the main shop), an emergency mission (going to buy a product that is needed but have run out of). Defining these missions is fundamentally important because the mission determines the mindset of the shopper and how they behave. Of course, the same person can and does do differing missions.

Somebody coming into a bookshop on a gifting mission will behave differently to the same person coming into the store on a browsing mission. How they use the store, the kind of information they need, their response to promotions and so on will all change dependent on the mission. The railway station store and a market town shop will have shoppers with completely different missions. Think about the missions that drive buyers to your store; try asking some of your shoppers. Then observe what those shoppers do; are you satisfying their needs?

Windows on the world?
Store managers spend a long time planning and executing window displays. Are they wasting their time? The arrangement of window displays has long been recognised as an important part of good retailing. As far back as 1883 the classic book A Guide to Window-Dressing underlined the importance of creating a good first impression. Today, shoppers talk about “going window shopping” and a good window display is one that entices shoppers to come into the store. Or is it? We have measured people passing high street and mall stores and fewer than 10% will look at a window.

Why? Think about the direction of approach. Notably on the high street, shoppers approach your store from the side, not the front. Therefore they will often have a restricted view of the window. In fact, the most important aspect is the view through the door, not the window. The door view will give the impression of what your store is like. Does it look attractive, easy to use? Or cramped and difficult to shop?

What is your layout trying to do? Are you trying to encourage shoppers to go all around the store or are you trying to get them to the product that they want to buy as quickly as possible? Again, the answer to this must depend on the mix of missions that you have coming to your store. If the majority of people coming into your store already know the title they are looking for, you need to help them find it as quickly as possible.

When shoppers come into a store, they assimilate the size, light, smell and content of the store; there is very little processing power available for shopping. Generally shoppers take at least 1–1.5 metres to adjust to the environment; they won’t see displays at the very entrance to the store. Remember that shoppers normally use products to find where they need to go; shoppers rarely read. If I go into a menswear store, I look for a display of shirts to find the shirt department; I don’t look for a sign. Think about how you can use high visibility displays of products to highlight departments in the store. The cover design of differing categories of books tend to be similar—for example women’s light reading tends to have pastel colours and swirly typefaces. Think about how you can make this visible, perhaps with a product shot of a well-known title from the category.

In-store communication
Eighty percent of the p.o.s. that we put into stores is wasted; it has no influence on what shoppers think or do. Three factors influence whether p.o.s. works: format, content and location. Format; we naturally look downwards which means that eye level is somewhere between waist and chest height. If you are investing time and money into hanging signs, you are probably talking to yourself rather than your shoppers. The most effective place for p.o.s. is with the product itself. Amazingly, shoppers don’t come into your store to read p.o.s., they came in to find a book. That’s where their eyes will be focused.

When thinking about content, bear in mind that our brains can only process about seven bits of visual information at any one time. Books are by their nature very visually noisy. Complicated selling messages won’t work.

Observe where your shoppers go in the store; p.o.s. not placed in high traffic locations won’t be seen. It may be convenient for you to stick a poster on the wall but if hardly anyone goes to that part of the store, it won’t be seen.

Promotions are generally lazy retailing; it’s easy to give stuff away. It’s much harder to sell it. Again, think about the shopping missions coming to your stores; most promotions are bought by people that were going to buy the product anyway. Which products are bought on missions that are promotionally insensitive (e.g. the gift buyer)? Some booksellers promote so much that you can’t see the titles for the p.o.s. and still shoppers don’t see the deals—again shoppers are looking for books, not for deals.

For many shoppers, buying a book is a risk; will they like it? Have they wasted their money? Most know that the comments on the back of the book are not reliable. That’s why charts are successful; it’s called the wisdom of crowds, people like the reassurance that lots of other people have bought the book. Think about other ways of reassuring shoppers of their choice. Manager’s recommendation, critics’ endorsement, etc.
Whoever decided that selling books is best done by displaying them on a bookshelf? Publishers and authors agonise over selling messages on the cover, debate endlessly what the graphics should be. And then we try and sell them by displaying nothing but a spine with the title and author written the wrong way up.

Book retailing is not easy; it faces a fundamental threat from online retailers. Yet still people come back to the store and it is not just the Luddites among us. Our job is to make that experience as pleasant and as successful as possible because if the bricks and mortar retailer has a future it has to do everything that the online retailer does and better.

Siemon Scamell-Katz is global consulting director at TNS Retail and Shopper (WPP Group). He is the author of The Art of Shopping: How We Shop and Why We Buy (LID Publishing). He will be speaking at the Booksellers Association conference in September.