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Customer Service in a Fragile Era

Quick-Change Artists

I’ve been a full-time bookseller at McLean & Eakin since 2003, but I’ve spent my summers working here in my family’s store since its opening, in 1992. We’re located in Petoskey, a small city in northern Michigan, and are one of the few places readers can find the latest and greatest reads, like Peter Geye’s The Lighthouse Road, along with classics like Slaughterhouse-Five. Focusing on customer service and great recommendations was what built the store’s reputation, and it quickly became a treasured spot in our area. However, in 1994, an online retailer named Amazon was hatched and changed the bookselling landscape forever. In fact, these days, change is about the only thing one can really depend on, and being able to adapt will be crucial if indie shops like mine hope to survive.

McLean and Eakin Bookstore Image

I’ve often heard it said that our indie store customers buy one in four books from us, and that’s if we’re lucky. That statistic is in part because of steep discounts offered online, but it’s also because we haven’t continued to provide our customers with the content they want. Indie stores have been learning to sell ebooks, which is important, and there is about to be a new chapter written in this relationship that I’m very excited about. The American Booksellers Association’s (ABA) recent partnership with e-reader manufacturer Kobo means huge strides in better serving the digital customer. By partnering with Kobo, indie stores like ours will have the ability to sell over 2.5 million different titles electronically. Our customers will not only be able to shop on a variety of devices they may already own, like iPads, Nooks, or even their smart phones, but we will also sell a variety of top-shelf e-readers that will link directly with our store, which is how many people prefer to buy ebooks. Many stores like ours are seeing an increase in online sales, and I expect this improvement in our ebook offerings will increase those sales all the more. We owe it to our customers to find ways to stay with them as their buying trends change, and to do this we need to continue to widen the scope of what we offer online.

Focusing on ebooks as the only digital content worth pursuing would be a mistake, however. We need to revisit the bookstore of the ’80s and ‘90s and see what content they sold: books, audio books, music, movies, and magazines. Every one of these media has a digital form, and we should be pursuing the ability to sell them all. I also think that the natural evolution of media in a digital form is away from Digital Rights Management. DRM is intended to protect a file from being illegally copied; in reality, though, it is very simple to strip a file of its DRM, and this only results in frustration for the end user, as it creates additional hurdles for them when transferring their ebooks from device to device. The evolution away from DRM happened with music, it’s happening with digital audio books to a great degree, and it has begun to happen with ebooks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the day when we can buy movies and TV shows without DRM. When that happens, both retailers and customers will have a better experience, and more books, music, and movies will be sold.

I believe that if indies play their cards right they should expect sales growth for the foreseeable future. But we must be careful not to take this growth for granted. Each new face in our stores, each new customer purchase, should be treated like a gift. It’s a unique opportunity to connect with a customer and create a lasting relationship; if that opportunity is squandered, then a growth in sales will only be temporary. We need to value both the customer in our stores and online. The greater variety of materials we offer (digital or physical), the more we’ll become a destination for our customers. I want to achieve more than one out of four sales, and I think we can. Most importantly, I hope to see the day in our business when we can just get back to selling the stuff we love. No arguing about how you want to read, just discussing what you want to read. When that day comes, authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers will all be better off.

Matt Norcross and his wife, Jessilyn, have been co-owners of McLean & Eakin Booksellers since 2010. Matt has served on the board of directors of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (GLIBA) since 2005 and currently serves on the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association.

Matthew Norcross

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