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Book Trade – Return to the shop floor

On British TV, Back to the Floor programmes are a ‘must-see’. Viewers watch bosses mix with workers, sometimes culminating in an epiphany of goodwill after their stint at the coalface, sometimes not!  Management Today runs a monthly piece where it sends one of their unwitting writers to spend a day in a workplace. Well, in July, CLC did similarly in placing me for a spot of holiday cover in Guildford.

Guildford is one of CLC’s smaller branches – probably they didn’t want to tax me too much – tucked away somewhat off the main drag. This shop has been trading in upmarket Surrey for many years; first opened by Challenge Literature Fellowship in 1930, and subsequently acquired by Wesley Owen in later years, it was one of the six shops rescued by CLC from the STL Distribution demise in 2009.

CLC Guildford - front

I was really struck by the shop, its history, the staff, customers and the locality. I asked myself, what would change in this community if this shop was not here? This is an unremarkable shop. It’s small-to-medium in turnover and similar to many other shops up and down the UK. But it’s there. And, for me, that makes the difference. Keeping shops open is a particular burden of CLC. Of course, shops sometimes have to close as they reach a natural end point. In this case, the shop is there – and I think Guildford is all the better for it. What about those towns and cities where there is no shop? My contention is that these places are poorer spiritually without such a presence.

Once again I saw the importance of ‘talking up’ Christian retailing – It’s not at the bottom of the resources food chain. Christian retailers can be poorly regarded, even by fellow Christians. I applaud the Waterstones initiative raising the role of ‘Bookseller’ to an enhanced status within their branches. We rightly demand a lot from our shop floor staff, but we need to applaud and encourage them whenever possible.

This entire experience reinforced a cast-iron conviction that an on-street ‘Presence’ is critical to our Christian witness. I came away with this clear challenge to suppliers: Why are you not more supportive? Why do you act as if it doesn’t matter if shops disappear? Now I know these questions can seem subjective. I’m sure that, right now, some of you are indignantly putting pen to paper – but please hear this; this really is how it feels on the ground.

Anyway, to return to my experience of ‘Back to the Floor’. I’d been for a day’s induction as it’s clearly some while since I stood behind a counter. What fun … for me, at least. Although acting manager, Jill may have thought otherwise, she didn’t voice it, not to me anyway!  I’d forgotten so much, but like riding a bike, things came back fairly quickly and I’d actually hand-sold a quality, leather NIV Bible towards the end of that first day. A truly good feeling!

The manager impressed me. She showed sheer tenacity and a real dedication to the job, well beyond the call of duty. There was an incident in the street involving the Police and a couple of ambulances. This was well handled by the staff; they were on-hand, got stuck in and this put the shop in a positive light as a part of their local community. Time and again, I was struck by the dedication of this small team, often with very limited backup. And this doesn’t just happen in Guildford; it happens all over the UK on a daily basis. When you open your shop today, you will make a difference to the people you come alongside.

I found it hard. I found it physically demanding and on occasions, I found it boring! It was the hottest day of the year so far, the till was situated in the front window and it felt like I was being cooked every time I served a customer. I battled to get home on that first day. The trains were delayed due to the rails buckling in the heat and my 30-minute journey took two hours. In the shop, I had a schedule but it was next to useless as everything took far longer than planned. Customers and phone calls have this habit of obstructing the routine! Then there are the practical difficulties caused by having too few staff or volunteers to call on. You’re pulled in so many directions. You’re tied to the till. Having a break and even getting to the loo becomes a logistical challenge.

As you can see, it was all going so well. It got worse. I became irritated by someone using the shop as a library, spending literally hours reading their way through the books. Do you know; they were back again the next day? Oh dear, I knew that I was supposed to be welcoming and caring but in a rather small shop on a very hot day that too was hard. I decided that there are some really odd customers out there; an eclectic bunch indeed. Can I also say with some authority that people buy the oddest of items in the gift line! But there again, we were the one’s stocking them. Oh well …

I was blown away by how technology is now so central to the whole operation. It really is a whole lot easier to run a shop; from mobiles for texting customers to websites for accessing information. In the past this would have taken forever and then the result would probably have been wrong! The sheer immediacy of information was the most striking. There is so much bibliographic help available. PubEasy was a delight to use and I was able to build my order as the day progressed. Then there is the delicious irony of using Amazon as the shop database. Amazon is obviously a double-edged sword but it’s superb for in-store use – providing you don’t show the interface to the customer (as I did) and then spend ages having to explain pricing policy to a disgruntled purchaser! Credit card usage, especially for inexpensive greetings cards, made me smile. The daily cash take is minimal as more and more customers use plastic for even the smallest of purchases. It makes end of day cashing up much quicker and the card companies cannot really lose as they gain from both parties. As purchasing moves on to Smartphones, this too will have an effect on retail procedures.

What did I learn? That I loved working in the shop. Despite what I’ve said, there was an enjoyment of the day and particularly of serving people that you’d have to go a long way to beat. Good people skills remain absolutely key despite the tech. It’s still possible to hand-sell; indeed I think it’s a requirement! I know licensing is contentious but there is something when playing CD’s that does help the sale of music. On two occasions in as many days, I sold music that, at the time, was being played in-store. I noted the strong appeal of fiction. Fiction sells and it’s not correct to say otherwise.  Authentic, CWR, BRF and Lion are each producing beautiful Children’s books, the standard of which is second-to-none and a delight to sell.

To me, the sale of the Bible remains central and deeply fulfilling. The range of Bibles available is extremely good, regardless of version. All Christian shops must concentrate on Bibles in depth as their core stocking statement. At the time, the lack of Tyndale NLT’s was a huge frustration resulting in two almost empty shelves – not good for all concerned. Hodder Faith have a superb range of British text NIV’s in attractive bindings and boxes, although I’m certain an enhanced large print series would be welcomed.

Bible department, CLC Guildford

The necessity of good stock knowledge was rammed home yet again to me. For shops, it’s an Achilles heel and one where we fail so often. We do have to get a whole lot better at this. Basic product training is absolutely key. Publisher core lists are useful but I’d like to see the ‘must-haves’ from each publisher; a smaller selection of titles you simply cannot do without, as core stock lists tend to be way too long. I cannot over-estimate the importance of office-based staff being ‘hands on’ in the shop. It set me thinking – the general market has held a number of successful ‘publisher/retailer swap days’. Why not the same for our niche – and for authors too? Anyone up for it? There’s such a lot we can learn from each other. It’s totally different when you move from the spreadsheet to the till; from theorising about what should happen, to seeing what actually does happen on the ground.

Two stories and I close. Two young foreign students came in. Initially I was fairly suspicious as they took what seemed like ages checking the shelves. I wondered why they were there (shame on me). As they paid, they told me in their limited English – I speak no Spanish – that the two books they were buying were presents for their mothers at home. A pointed lesson not to judge either appearance or motive too quickly!  Someone else came in and told me they’d been healed of a condition through prayer. He was clearly OK now. As he left, he said to me, ‘God bless you’. His words really cheered me that day and I was moved both by the power of blessing and by the power of encouragement. That’s what you and I do, despite the daily challenges. We bring a mixture of blessing, encouragement and presence to our local communities.

Well, what great fun. It had been an age since I’d done this. Anyone out there interested in holiday cover, do let me know – but only if you’re by the seaside! I cannot promise to double your turnover but, on the strength of these few days, I will at least keep the doors open! Oh, and by the way, CLC have asked to return but funny this … I’ve not been given a date yet!

This article was written in early September for Together Magazine (October – November 2013)

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  1. November 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm

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