In the five years that I worked at a big-box chain bookstore, I witnessed a lot of half-hearted attempts to boost foot traffic and sales. Some were successful, but many flopped spectacularly. Time after time, I listened to customers muse that what they actually wanted was an intimate shopping experience with a local feel. Although most book lovers appreciate any bookstore, this personalized experience is something that big chains struggle to capture.
That’s what indie and used-book stores offer that the national chains can’t. Opening an independent bookstore is often born out of a deep passion for literature, and your design and marketing styles can be as unique as you are. Being a small business, however, can often mean that drawing customers in is an up-hill battle.
That’s why we’ve rounded up the best bookstore marketing ideas. You’ll find tips for getting involved in the community, using digital platforms, and how to use visual marketing to help make your indie bookstore stand out.
When it comes to bookstore advertising, social media can be a good place to start. Anyone can use it. You don’t need photography or marketing skills for it (although they don’t hurt). And it is, of course, a cost- and time-effective way to get your products seen by more people.
Social pages are great ways to highlight new releases, sales, and events. But don’t limit your posts to promotions. Engage with your followers by asking them to comment with their favorite authors and what kinds of events they’d like to see. You can even run the occasional giveaway to encourage people to like and share your posts. The more you use it, the more likely it will be that your posts will reach new customers.
Another way to fortify your shop’s online presence is to start a website for it and learn how to run an online bookstore. With the popularity of e-commerce remaining strong in recent years, the best time to bring your bookstore online is, well, yesterday.
Online independent bookstores with ordering systems for their inventory have the potential to reach customers in a wider radius. But your website doesn’t need to be just for online purchasing. While it’s important to keep your website customer-forward and make the online shopping experience user-friendly, you can build out your brand by using the platform for blogging, newsletters, and promoting your events.
Best of all? You can make the process budget-friendly by building the website yourself. Templatized website builders such as Squarespace and Wix make it easy to create an online store without much HTML knowledge.
Book clubs, author signings, and children’s story hours. These are the Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen of bookstore events — classics. And they are cornerstones of bookstore marketing and getting customers in the door. But don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path when planning events for your bookstore.
Think about what you know about your customer base and ask yourself: What do I think they would like to see at my bookstore? This could even be a good opportunity to start asking your patrons for feedback and suggestions. If many of your regulars are poetry lovers, it might be time to start hosting open mic nights. Or maybe you have a lot of crafters who would enjoy a knitting club. You could even partner with local tabletop gaming communities and see if they’d be interested in game nights. And speaking of partnering…
Getting involved in your community can be great for business. For an indie bookstore, boosting your shop through community involvement could mean:
Community involvement also can extend outside your bookstore’s doors. More and more booksellers are going further afield to reach more customers. I’ve heard of local bookstores converting vans into bookmobiles. They can pack the van with books and set up camp at community events.
But you don’t need a bookmobile to bring your bookstore out on the road. Look for boothing opportunities at farmers markets, musical festivals, and antique fairs. My hometown’s library sets up a huge booth at the local yearly art festival. The booth is bursting with used books they’ve received as donations throughout the year, which they sell for a flat fee, and there’s always a line around the block to get in. Now, libraries and bookstores are not the same so it will depend on your location and area. But their target customers are.
You know what they say: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, this quote turned idiom didn’t fully account for the impact of visual marketing. For indie, used, and local bookstores, visual marketing can be key for boosting foot traffic. Without strict corporate merchandising requirements, your indie bookshop has the opportunity to get creative with how you present your inventory.
Start with clever merchandising. Keep up with bookish current events and themes, and leverage them into curated shelves, tables, and end-caps. Take my experience, for example. During my bookselling tenure, poetry experienced an astronomical rise in popularity with readers young and old. To capitalize on this trend, we designed poetry displays, combining popular and indie titles with related products like pens and journals. Make sure your bookstore is jumping on similar trends and putting them front-and-center.
Knowing how to use visual marketing isn’t the only aesthetic tactic you can use. Bookstore interior design is another way to elevate your shop’s look. Your store’s layout can make a huge difference — in sales, as well as brand development.
Design your floor plan with customers in mind. Books and other merchandise should obviously be high priorities, but don’t forget about how the customer interacts with them. Your floor plan should allow shoppers to browse comfortably, without feeling cramped or getting in each other’s way. The interior design also should ensure that the space is inviting. Chairs and reading nooks encourage customers to stay and get comfortable, and may be what turns your bookstore into customers’ favorite hangout.
As a bookstore owner, your story is always exciting. Every page brings new and unexpected twists, like an action-packed thriller and a dreamy fairytale all rolled into one. Make sure you’re prepared for whatever the next chapter holds.
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Whatever your story is, don’t let unexpected obstacles become major plot holes. Protect your bookstore for the future — we can’t wait for the sequel.
Being an indie store may make you “the little guy,” especially when competing with online retailers. But remember that you have something the big corporations could never replicate. While online bookselling behemoths offer convenience and selection, consumers are learning that buying local is often a better way to support publishers and authors. Use that to your advantage. Let your love of books shine through with how you market your shop. A little creativity can go a long way.
After several years of working in insurance while also freelance writing, I've finally found where the two interests intersect. I'm a writer with Simply Business with an insurance processing background and a love of research.
Kristin writes on a number of topics such as small business trends, license reciprocity, and BOP insurance.
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