Selling a book by its cover?

Interesting article in the WSJ about Borders books:

In a radical move aimed at jump-starting sales, the nation’s second-largest book retailer is sharply increasing the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out. Because that takes up more room than the traditional spine-out style, the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%.

That makes the strategy a big gamble for Borders. Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers’ efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation’s largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories.

“We always had face-out titles on the shelves and on tables, but they were used as punctuation and tended to focus on popular titles,” says Anne Kubek, senior vice president of Borders U.S. stores. “Today we’re showing the front of books even when we only have two or three copies.”

[ . .]

The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard’s Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out. So he recently decided to test sales of books shown with the cover visible at a newly built prototype store in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the company has its headquarters. Results were so encouraging after the first two weeks — sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores — that all of the retailer’s superstores have been told to adopt the new strategy.

“The concept store gave us the opportunity to start from scratch and do it exactly as we wanted to do,” Mr. Jones says. As for what books to trim from inventory, he notes that the chain has many titles that sell only one copy per store in a year. “There are a ton of them out there,” he says. Borders plans to launch its own Web site by May 3, giving the retailer the ability to offer online orders to shoppers who can’t find what they want in a store. “We aren’t cutting back on the promise of the superstore,” adds Mr. Jones.

The retailer says customers throughout the country should be able to see the difference in displays within six weeks. While books shown face-out will still be in the overall minority, as many as three times the titles as in the past will be shelved with covers showing. Certain categories, such as books about food, cooking, travel, art and photography — and children’s books in particular — lend themselves to the new approach, Ms. Kubek says.

Fiction book shelves will also feature more face-out titles, but fewer than other sections of the store. At its prototype store, Borders is also testing a special display that highlights covers of classics from Charles Dickens and Jack Kerouac, as well as movie tie-in titles such as Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.” “It’s a way to offer you something if you don’t really know what you want,” says Ms. Kubek.

I have to say this makes a lot of sense to me.  I am often first attracted to books by the cover or style of a book.  If something grabs your attention you are more likely to buy it right?  Make sense.  If I were an author I would also be excited about the chance to have my book face out and more prominent instead of just the books on the front table.

But will this have a big impact on fiction or is it more aimed at other more graphically inclined books?  What do you think: smart marketing or meaningless gimmick?


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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