Do You Keep Hoping For the Best?

Yesterday, I spent $624.17 in a bookstore.  The old school bricks-and-mortar kind where you can actually touch and feel the books.

If I had bought the same books on Amazon, I would have gotten them for under $400.00.  ($363.20 to be exact.)

I read everything on my Kindle, my iPad, my Tablet, my Droid, my iPhone, sometimes even my BlackBerry but unless the publisher isn’t selling an ebook version or it’s a cookbook, I rarely buy “paper” books any more.   Except for the tiny terrorists.   They get REAL turn-the-page books.

However, this post isn’t about how much I overspent or my nephews — which according to the missile mail I got last week, I talk about FAR too much.  Cute considering blue moons come along more than I blog as of late.  But I digress….

I was waiting to meet a friend for lunch.  I was early and since he is Iranian (translates to he will undoubtedly be at least 45 minutes late at all times) I knew I had some time to kill so I wandered into a small children’s bookshop.

The place was cluttered and just-a-little-bit-dusty in a magical sort of way.  There were all sorts of nooks and crannies filled with overflowing beanbags and little chairs.  There was a tot-sized stuffed animal tea party going on in the back.  The entire store was dotted with colored 3×5 index cards with handwritten reviews.  And the owner, a doppelganger for Angela Lansbury,  had a pink name tag on that said “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” one of my favorite children’s book characters.  (I still have my Mom’s copies of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books from when she was a child.  Yes, Sherry Chiger, I do have a mother.)

It was absolutely perfect.

“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” spent about an hour helping me find new children’s books.  I told her what my nephews liked and she found all sorts of things for them.   The boys have a lot of books so for every 10 books she showed me, there were about 2-3 I didn’t think they had.  

I read the first six books she suggested and then I just took whatever I thought was missing from their collection and added it to my stack.  I totally trusted her recommendations.  The quaint little lady who smelled like lemon and gingersnaps knew exactly what she was doing.

When I went to checkout, I gave her my credit card and asked her if she could keep my number on file and just send me new books every month.

“Why would I do that?” She inquired in earnest.

“Because I love your recommendations and it’d be great to send the boys a surprise package of books each month that have already been pre-approved.”

“That’s a lot of work.” She said in a somewhat exasperated voice.

I looked at her and smiled.

I wanted to explain to her that another $300-$400-$500-$600 (or whatever) order a month was a lot of money – especially since she DIDN’T DISCOUNT A PENNY and WAS MAKING FULL PRICE ON THE BOOKS.  (Not to mention I had been the ONLY one in the store for the better part of an hour — at lunchtime on a very busy street.)

Or that the UPS store was just two doors down and she could basically drop off the books with our account information and they’d take care of the rest.

Or a bazillion other things that would help her make money. 

But I knew it was a lost cause.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle knew her children’s books but things like deploying triggered emails and mailing packages were way outside her comfort zone… and her scope.  Her strategy was, in her words, “to keep hoping for the best.”

Haven’t we already proven this hope stuff is sort of depressing? 

Customers tell you what they want all the time.  They tell you what would make them happy and how they would spend more with you if they could.  Sadly, most of us choose to ignore it.

What would happen if you didn’t?  What would happen if you tried a bunch of new things to see which one(s) worked so you could add them to your arsenal?

Chris Hansen co-owns a company called Great Garden Plants.  His business is growing like weeds, er,  gangbusters while the other behemoths in his industry are falling and failing.  Why?  Because he’s always asking his customers what he can do to make their gardens better.  He’s not like me – he doesn’t say “I want to sell you more stuff” – he says “what do you need that I am not offering?  What problems are you having in your garden (i.e., are the deer eating your trees?) that I can solve?  What favorite things are you not growing because you think you can’t – I know I can find something similar that will work for you.”

Great American Business Products is a much larger company and they do the same thing.  Take their Convenient No-Hassle Refill Program for example.  You pick the products you want to receive on a regular basis and they’ll automatically ship them to you FREIGHT-FREE on your schedule.  They guarantee you’ll never run out and that you won’t get price increases.  Their overworked-and-often-frazzled customers LOVE it — they lock in the product AND the savings and they lock out the stress!

Stave Puzzles customizes your puzzles JUST FOR YOU – not just in the level of trickiness but in the pieces too – you can get different shapes, different words, different whatever in your puzzles.  (As an aside, they are my VERY favorite puzzles on earth.)  Eastwood offers instructional product videos.  Stonewall Kitchen and King Arthur Flour both have recipes.

What are YOU doing?  How are you listening? 

P.S. Remember, for every 10 things you try, you only need a couple to work.


  1. says

    Wow. What started out as a how brick-and-mortar-retailers-can-distinguish-themselves post morphed quite neatly into a missed opportunities message. Well done.

    This happens all the time with small entrepreneurs whose passion is their wares, not business itself. Back in the days of mystery-only themed shops, this would have been a natural. Ditto cookbooks. Or pretty much any enthusiast-focused bookstore. And if said store focuses on new releases, the chances of having to deal with returns are hopefully limited.

    Hell, break this down by seasons (“Here’s your summer beach reading list! Here are 10 books for fireside reading to get you through the winter!”) and cut down on the work. Quarterly may prove less daunting than monthly. A handful of customers opting into this should pay for itself quite nicely.

    And no, I haven’t lost your larger point: Customers do come up with some pretty good suggestions. (They can also come up with some self-serving ones, granted.) The primary barrier is often a retailer’s unfamiliarity with creative marketing.

    One caveat: There can be a great gap between what customers say they want and what they’re actually willing to pay for. You were ready with your credit card, which is a pretty strong proof. Let’s see what the sales results for Happy Meals at McDonalds are once fruit is official integrated – per consumer demand — into ‘em, come September. Personally, I’m betting on the French fries.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Richard.

      Totally agree about customers being self-serving at times. With that said, I know a lot of folks who’d buy more or more often from companies they really like if the company would actually make it easy/possible.

      “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” could easily have sold me $5000 worth of books a year — at FULL margin — if she had been so inclined. That’s a lot of money for a little bookshop. It’s not easy for Chris Hansen to customize someone’s garden — and it was a hell of a lot of work for Great American to integrate CRP with their backend legacy systems — but they did it, and it’s paying off in a BIG way. Sometimes you’ve just got to bite the bullet.

      Speaking of bullets… Anyone who has ever tasted that rock-hard, chemical-y thing that McDonald’s calls an “apple” is betting with you.

  2. Sappho Charney says

    So true! I sometimes think that what a lot of us miss about online buying is the shopping experience itself — the colored index cards on the walls, the tea party in the corner, and most of all the smell of lemon and gingersnaps. Sites that can manage to keep us browsing and interested — amazon is the king of this for me, with its lists and recommendations and reviews — have a much better shot at getting our business, especially during those visits when we don’t intend to buy a thing.

    • says

      Well, as you know Sappho, I HATE shopping with the ONE exception of a good bookstore. With that said, Amazon gets a boatload of cash from me from my Recommendations section — and it’s stilll not the same as someone handing me a book and saying “you’ll love this.” What about you?

      • Sappho Charney says

        Not nearly the same. And each day when I get my two emails from Powell’s Books (the review-a-day and the daily dose, both of which I read religiously), I feel guilty that I don’t buy more from Powell’s. On the other hand, would they even be on my radar without these two excellent services? And would I scroll their newsletter quite as scrupulously, looking for bargains?

        Sometimes being a library is a necessary part of being a bookstore!

  3. says

    So true. Specifically the after thought, “for every 10 things you try, you only need a couple to work.” Too often folks get deterred when the first idea doesn’t pan out. This has to be looked at like a stock portfolio: Buy 10 stocks if only 1 is a star you are ahead of the game!

    • says

      Especially if it’s an Amazon or a Google!

      Thanks for commenting Mark!

  4. Sappho Charney says

    Okay, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is haunting me. This story perfectly illustrates so much of what’s wrong with marketing, whether from the bricks-and-mortar building or the website.

    When Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle responded to your offer of an open account to which she could charge new books at random, she said, “That’s a lot of work,” but she didn’t mean that at all. This is a woman who spent an HOUR showing you books, and probably would have spent just as much time if you had bought only one, or even none. She’s not afraid of work; in fact, she obviously loves her job.

    What she meant was, “I don’t have the faintest idea how to keep your credit card information safe here at the store, so I’m going to have to carry it around in my purse, which makes me feel like a criminal. And I’m scared I’ll be committing fraud if I randomly charge books to it. I need to get some sort of verification from you, but I don’t even know how to ask for that, so can we just forget any of this ever happened?”

    Think of the parallels in our business: we want to set up a mix-n-match program and we know customers would buy more if we did, but we have no idea how to do it, and the thought of opening up that Pandora’s box makes us quake. Ditto a “good customer discount” program that would track purchases and reward customers when they hit specified targets for number of products or dollars spent. It all sounds too good to be true, and too difficult to do, and how would we keep up with it even if we knew how to do it? –because we sure aren’t hiring anyone new . . . etc., etc.

    If we spent just a fraction of the time we currently devote to worrying about the problems with our business on learning new skills, reading up in our field, or even networking among our savvier colleagues, we could probably break through a lot of the barriers holding us back. But it’s counter-intuitive: like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, we pride ourselves on being narrow and deep instead of wide and shallow. Like her, we know everything in our area of expertise . . . except how to make it marketable.

    . . . Or maybe I’m just describing myself! Anyway, thanks for the great post, Amy. It really got me thinking.

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