Yesterday we spoke with Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com, about
the present, and future, role of bookstore Web sites, as well as the
relative merits of Booksense.com Web sites in particular. This time we
ask him about the dark side.
Robert Gray: What are the disadvantages in using Booksense.com?
Len Vlahos: There are no disadvantages! Just kidding.
The product is templated, so of course the look and feel is somewhat
restrictive in that booksellers must work within the framework of the
template. We did add a new template at BEA this year, so we now have
two main families of templates (each with multiple color choices and
backgrounds). Here's an example of each: Fountain Bookstore and Village Books.
That said, there is a non-templated solution we refer to as a
"self-authored site" or SAS. In this case a bookseller develops,
maintains and hosts the front-end and integrates our back-end
tools--database, search engine, shopping cart, etc. Here are a few
examples of stores using an SAS solution: Cody's Books, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Elliott Bay Book Co.
In addition to being templated, another current shortcoming is that we
don't yet handle non-book product (DVD, music, toys, used books,
apparel, etc.) in any significant way. However, in preparing for the
ISBN-13, we're well positioned to add non-book modules in the future.
It's on our development to-do list, but we don't yet have an ETA.
RG: Some bookstores have been loyal BookSense.com stores for a long
time. Others have been with you for a period and then left. Still
others opted from the outset to use alternatives to build and sustain
their Web sites. Having observed these patterns and talked to your
clients for some time now, do you have a sense of why booksellers stay
with you, leave or never join in the first place?
LV: I think the booksellers who STAY with us do so for a few reasons:
a. The product is very good for the price. It provides a way for
booksellers to promote their stores, promote their events and allow
their customers to search for and buy books. This is all available at
below-market cost. If a bookseller were to try to build a comparable
system on their own, it would be much more expensive. (As noted
earlier, having a presence online--BookSense.com or otherwise--is
becoming a reality and requirement of 21st century retailing.)
b. We're continually improving and upgrading the product in response to
user requests. We spend a lot of time talking with, and, more
important, listening to our users. Most of the innovation and technical
change in the BookSense.com product has been the direct result of
bookseller feedback. We hold a users group meeting at BEA every year,
and we convene the BookSense.com Users Council (a group of volunteer
booksellers providing advice and feedback) at least once a year.
c. Our customer service is excellent. Our team is very quick and thorough in responding to member questions and concerns.
Most often members LEAVE the program because they perceive the cost to
be high: BookSense.com costs $225 a month ($245 if you're uploading your
inventory), and we know that's not an insignificant sum, particularly
for smaller-volume stores. Some of those stores come to the program
with an expectation that they're going to pay for their Web site
directly through online sales. When that happens, it's the exception,
not the rule. We try help our members understand that the Web site is
at least as much a marketing tool as it is a sales tool, and not to
enter this arena with unrealistic expectations. In addition, we know
that a lot of transactions that may start online (with a book search or
event list), are completed in the bricks-and-mortar store.
As to why booksellers NEVER join at all, there are probably a few
reasons. First, you need to be an ABA member, a storefront retailer and
a participant in the Book Sense marketing program. I also think the
notion of having to manage a Web site can seem overwhelming. There are
only so many hours in the day and we definitely appreciate how many of
those hours are quickly filled with the myriad tasks facing
booksellers. (A lot of us, myself included, are former booksellers.)
What we've tried to do with BookSense.com is make the management of a
site as simple as possible, hopefully shrinking the demand on a
bookseller's time, but that message is not always easy to communicate.
RG: Many booksellers who tell me they became disenchanted with the
service cite the monthly fees versus online sales as a prime reason for
leaving. Were their expectations unreasonable? What can or should an
indie expect from a BookSense.com site as far as selling titles online
is concerned? And if they aren't selling books, what do you tell them
to convince them to stay with the plan?
LV: I think I've answered the money/sales questions, but would like to make two other quick points here:
a. ABA doesn't try to "convince" members to stay with the program if
it's clearly not to the benefit of the member. We're a not-for-profit
association, and our mission is to promote and protect the interests of
our independent bookstore members. If BookSense.com isn't working as a
solution, we advise our members to drop it, and have, on occasion
steered them toward other solutions.
b. That said, it's hard to evaluate the success or failure of a Web
site (as either a marketing or sales tool) if that site hasn't been
properly promoted, so we do encourage our members to market their Web
sites adequately. Often I find myself in a great bookstore with a great
Web site (BookSense.com or otherwise) and see no evidence that a Web
site exists. We've been preaching this message at our educational
sessions, and I think it's starting to take root; I'm hearing of more
stores including the store's URL on store signs, window posters, etc.
In Part 3, we'll discuss the Booksense.com search engine and Len Vlahos
will share examples of some of his favorite bookstore variations on the
Booksense.com theme.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh