Engaging Your Silent Sales Force

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

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 and 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?