Last week, 290 booksellers responded to our survey about the current state of their business during the COVID-19 crisis. The vast majority of stores report that they are open in some capacity – albeit perhaps with closed doors, limited hours, and/or limited staffing. Depending on their location, some stores are allowed to be open with social distancing measures in place. While it may not be business as usual, stores are adapting to ensure they can continue to meet their customers’ needs, getting books into their hands in new ways. In fact, 66% are offering curbside pickup45% are offering local delivery, and the vast majority have moved much of their business and customer service online. 

Online Orders  The Hero and the Villain 

For many stores, online ordering was a small part of their business pre-pandemic but has quickly became a lifeline. Of those surveyed, 84% are now taking online orders and 76% are taking orders by phone or email. Some stores are getting creative by offering Facebook Live store tours, virtual personal shopping, or private in-store shopping appointmentsWe go live three times a week on Facebook and feature a brief talk about items we have for sale, reports one store. 

To process online orders, 40% of stores surveyed report using IndieCommerce, 16%, and 45% “other,” which consisted of a mix of POS systems, website solutions, and manual processingHowever, moving from mostly onsite sales to mostly online sales has not been an easy transition – especially as many POS systems used by bookstores were built with onsite selling in mind and many eCommerce solutions are not integrated with the store’s POS system. Unfortunately, this means that some kind of manual entry or time-intensive process is required to track online sales accurately. This wasn’t a big deal when online sales were a small fraction of total sales and stores were fully staffed, but it is now a huge pain point for many. Our process to do this is manual and cumbersome. We hope to restart this again soon, but it may be a couple of weeks. Keeping safe means only having the owner (me) in the store, and that's barely enough to keep up with shipping orders, let alone anything else,” reports one store. 

Despite these challenges, the vast majority of stores reported that they are tracking online sales in some way – many quite successfully. However, others admitted that their timeliness and success in doing so depends greatly on what systems they are using, and this varies greatly across the indies. For many stores, this process is completely manual and imperfect. The use of external fulfillment systems such as Ingram Direct to home and has complicated it further. “We aren’t yet able to report Bookshop, but we are reporting our own website sales, says one store. “If the book comes through us, we add it to stock and then immediately ring it out. If it's going through Ingram's processing, we have no way to upload that sale,” says another. 

Moving Events Online  

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact communities, social events moved online, and many stores reacted quickly to this new reality. Of those surveyed, 30% have moved their book clubs and store events online, and 27% are hosting virtual author events. Many stores mentioned that they have not done so yet but plan to start. The good news is that stores report that planning virtual events is done in much the same way as onsite events in the past – through the use of Edelweiss+ event grids, publicity contacts, and direct outreach to authors.  

We are just starting to do this, reaching out to publicists to see what might be possible. We have also worked directly with some authors,” says one store. “We're filling out grids and communicating with publicists as normal. Some publishers have reached out with new opportunities, but we're largely rescheduling the events we had planned for in the store,” says another. 

For stores inexperienced with virtual events prior to the pandemic, there has been a learning curve – not just when it comes to technology but also in how to monetize the events. While there’s the opportunity to scale up attendance with virtual events, it can be harder to convert attendees to sales. Clearly, for many stores, the biggest barrier to planning successful events right now with limited staff in place is simply time. “There is little bandwidth to do this. It's hard to know how long, how to monetize, and how to reach your audience - but we are trying,” reports one store.  

To measure the impact of an online event, many stores are tracking online sales before and after. This is thus complicated by the issues tracking online sales generally as mentioned above. “Some sales have been associated with pre-order campaigns, so it was fairly easy to tally up sales of one title and assume they are associated with the event. Others are more sporadic and manual,” reports a store. The general consensus seems to be that virtual events are part of the new reality and stores will get better and better at hosting them. 

Connecting with Customers Virtually 

In addition to virtual events, many stores have ramped up digital communications to reach customers even though their doors may be closed. Not surprisingly, 95% of stores are using social media and 76% are using their website to communicate updates. Stores are hustling to maintain connections with customers in other ways, too. Many stated that they are also reaching out personally to many loyal customers via phone or text. Others report getting creative with window displays and sidewalk signs to catch the eyes of passersby while others still are finding success in online advertising or local print and radio outlets.  

A majority, 80%, are also using email newsletter and marketing to notify customers of store news and promote titles or store events. However, again, time is the biggest constraint for many store owners “because it’s all we can do to keep up with orders.” 

To make this easier, more and more stores are taking advantage of free access to Edelweiss360, an email marketing platform that allows stores to create custom, targeted campaigns that promote titles or events in just minutes. Targeted campaigns are generating an impressive average of 38 sales per 100 customers emailed, allowing stores to continue successfully handselling to their customers in new ways. The new Collaborative Consumer Marketing program allows stores to benefit from optional publisher marketing dollars as well. 

“The indies are working many times harder for a fraction of the profit right now, and it’s hard. We built Treeline Analytics 15 years ago to help stores remain solvent during the recession, and I have always been impressed by the grit and creativity of independent booksellers. They never cease to impress with their adaptability and determination to serve their community. This pandemic will shape our industry in ways we have yet to fully understand, but we likely won’t return to business as normal. Online handselling and online customer experiences will remain a bigger priority for stores than they once were, and we will be there to help them succeed in that new world,” says John Rubin, Founder and CEO of Above the Treeline, the company behind the Edelweiss+ platform.