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Engaging Your Silent Sales Force

Updated: Apr 15

Your customers will spend more time with your fixtures than they do with any employee. So it may be helpful to think of the fixtures -- the shelves and tables and displays -- as your silent sales force, helping you connect with customers, provide quietly curated suggestions and engage in a path of discovery.

First: The Goal

Your customer comes TO the store for an experience, a feeling, a path of discovery.... You give them that with your engaging self, through your employees and most definitely, through your fixtures. Shelves are for storing books and you're selling, so we call your shelves and tables fixtures because they have a job: selling things. And like employees, your silent sales force needs to show up every day with renewed enthusiasm.

Like you did when you hired your staff, consider the qualities you want to see in your fixtures. Generally, we want them to be: orderly in appearance, communicate clearly and engagingly, be a source of customer knowledge, proactively provide suggestions to customers, make eye contact and "hand" sell books and other products. We also want them to be safe, protect the merchandise and to help the customers find a planned path through the store. The fixtures and their displays create much of the ambiance and experience of your store.

We don't want them to lurk in the shadows, appear disorganized, turn their backs toward the customer or appear bored or boring. We don't want them to appear stale and tired of this job or overwhelmed and chaotic. We want them to try -- try to display and engage our customers.

Finally, as Amanda Sutton of Bookworks points out, we want them to carry the personality of the store -- quirky, fun, serious, exciting...

Second: Performance Assessment

How is your Silent Sales force doing? After you've worked with them a while, it may be difficult to see with fresh eyes.

Step 1: See it in black and white

We suggest taking some photos and turning them into black and white images... then looking at each as if you've never seen them before.

Step 2: What do you see?

  • Are they safe -- in no danger of falling, collapsing or spilling merchandise onto the customer or a child? If a customer picks up a book from a stand and it falls -- or falls over as they place it back, they will quickly move away. And nothing is so important as the safety of our customers.

  • Are they protecting the merchandise: t-shelves are a common way to keep the backs from damaging a book in an angled shelf; metal side standards and brackets often cause damage and should be avoided; merchandise should be placed in ways so as not to be brushed or damaged by passing customers.

  • Do they communicate a sense of order, sorting and simplification?

  • Are they a source of knowledge -- "talking" to the customer?

  • Are they providing suggestions beyond a single book of interest (do they have other merchandise integrated and near, or other books grouped as suggestions)?

  • Are they making eye contact through properly angled shelves?

  • Do they interact with waist high display (people buy waist high)?

  • Are they "hand selling" some things that appear extra special right now?

  • Do you have a plan for what you are selling in each area and why -- and are your fixtures supporting that plan?

  • Are they providing a path of discovery that feels natural for your customers?

Third: Improve Their Performance

Generally, just focusing on a performance gap of your silent sales force from above will automatically improve things. You're smart. You're creative and you know your customers. The photos alone will go a long way... And here are some improvement tools for discussion and focus as you work.

Safety first:

Anchored units, proper heights, removing malfunctioning pieces or sharp edges, ensuring that nothing is ready to topple -- we'll all agree that this is the first improvement priority.

Meeting the Eye:

We humans like to absorb a lot in a blink -- so angle those shelves or place books on stands that angle, use objects from your life (that are stable and interesting) or book risers or bridges to get table objects to a place that they can easily meet the eye.

Pro Secret: Use feature face out shelves (shelves made 2" deep and 8" high that are easily interchanged with your normal shelves). Bookstore consultant Donna Paz recommends 10-15% of shelves be like this and Amazon's brick and mortars have copied this best Indie practice and are using these shelves almost exclusively.

Straighten up and look interested & interesting:

Straighten up -- if perused, your fixtures may require some constant attention. Based on our research, purposeful groupings of series, authors, etc. will allow customers to see 3 times as many titles in a blink.

Look interested and interesting -- face outs, mixed in with spine outs and other merchandise add layers of interest to your displays. Provide something unexpected.

95/5: Improving the 5%

Like employees, chances are that 95% of your fixtures are likely doing o.k. Which is that one fixture or area that really needs some work? Is it a neglected front corner, middle area or simply one really dated fixture that is too deep and positioning books and objects in the shadows so that it all looks sort of creepy?

Find ONE area and improve it. Get help from colleagues or call a professional for help -- Franklin Fixtures, Donna Paz of Paz & Associates and Heather Duncan (regional leader of Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association) are all ready to help.

Make them friendly talkers:

How do you want your shelves to talk with customers? Should every face-out book have a shelf talker? Sub sections? Staff picks? Do you want this to be handwritten, have artistic images or be typed? Should these messages be detailed or super simple?

Many book experts say it's impossible to have too many talkers and this is another great Indie practice that has been copied by brick and mortars that want to be like Indies.

Some shelf talker options:

- bent card stock printed and folded

- laminated card stock, printed and folded

- paper, taped to shelves

- acrylic shelf talkers that fit onto the shelf

- frames placed with merchandise

- professional clip-on shelf talkers (sold by Franklin)

Improve the path of discovery:

What are you selling, where are you selling it and how are you making it clear that this is a focused offering for your customers?

It may seem nice to get a free metal spinner or even a nice acrylic or wood display from a supplier, but generally these have the effect of cluttering your path and making it harder to understand the merchandising maze you've intended. Be strong. Find a better way to integrate new merchandise. Those gifts usually over-emphasize one piece of merchandise and take the focus away from your layered selections. Like wire hangers in a closet, it partially gets the job done, but with some tangles to the eye.

Perhaps most importantly, the focus needs to be on the things that are going to make the business strong and provide the margins you need to build and expand your offerings. Do some analysis -- identify what you want to be selling and where and be diligent about protecting that plan.

The elements of good surprise, mystery, specialness and scarcity:

They come to your store for an experience. They want the familiar, but they also want something that delights and surprises, something new, fresh and interesting. And we are hunters and gatherers that love the art of the deal and finding something rare and precious. How do you communicate these things in your display?

Go toward the light:

Pools of light should dot your store landscape and we all "know" that the things that are in a spotlight are most important, don't we? We also know that nothing sells in the just feels weird. So if your books are lurking at the back of the shelf in a shadow, if you have a whole area that is shadowed and dark, consider strategies for improving that. Light is a sort of oxygen to your store. And if you have too much of it -- it will make your store feel like a large department space. Pools of warm light are our friends. How do we create them and pull our silent sales force out of the shadows?

Fourth: Check and Adjust

This is the most important part. After you've made an improvement, measure, test, ask and check to make sure that it's had the intended result. If it hasn't, adjust and check again.

This sounds simple -- but it's profoundly important.

Fifth and Last: The Constant is Change

This is a daily focus that deserves some human help so that your silent sales force can really extend your efforts and interact well with customers.

When I tell new bookstore owners that they'll want to change their displays at least every couple of weeks, they often have such looks of trepidation and panic. Your shelves shouldn't be fixed, but move with the movement and changes in your merchandise mix. Your tables will benefit from regular shifts in intriguing display so that both the product and the display strategies are constantly fresh and new.

Every working store has some things that are working well and some things that would help the silent sales force (fixtures) work more effectively.

Paying attention to the Silent Sales force and cultivating its engagement and help will yield immediate and continuing dividends for your store. It will give it that feel that everyone talks about, create the sense of space that is so important to your locally owned identity. Measure the sales before and after you do your own quick renovations and improvement plans with the Silent Sales force -- and please share your results! We're all encouraged by the changes you make and share.

Photo credits: Books Are Magic, Story & Song Bookstore Bistro, An Unlikely Story, White Whale Bookstore, Plenty Downtown Bookshop, Rivendell Books & Baubles, Battenkill Books.

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