Wednesday, January 14, 2015

hey booksellers: say hello!

At a time when their online competitors are spending millions on enhancing customer interface, why aren’t brick and mortar bookstores friendlier places?

Saying hello seems like such a simple thing.  Why go into an intensely social occupation like bookselling if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s on my mind because this week I dropped in on a couple new bookstores in Chicago, and my “customer experience” was wildly divergent. 

At one store, I was greeted warmly the moment I walked in the door, and all three staff made it clear I was welcome.  (This was before I introduced myself as a book rep.  I like to scout stores as a civilian first.  Like most reps, I'm a bookaholic.)  Isn’t this Bookselling 101?

But at another store, I was invisible.  Despite being the only browser in the shop, one bookseller never looked up from a laptop, and the other shelved and tidied without so much as a nod to her only customer.  The store is small, essentially one large room, and it must have taken some effort to not make eye contact.  No goodbye when I quietly left fifteen minutes later. 

It’s a pretty store with a nice inventory in a promising location, and I hope they stock some of my books.  But if I’d been a neighborhood resident paying my first visit, I’d have left with a feeling of “guess I’m not the customer they’re looking for.” 

This puzzles me.  I was trained in the David Schwartz School of book retailing, where “greet the customer” was right up there with “take them to the book, don’t just point,” and “no eating behind the counter.”  But I visit dozens of bookstores every season in the US and Canada, and, sorry to say, the non-greet is often the norm, even among some of the loveliest, friendliest people imaginable.

To explain this phenomenon, I recall some of my own excuses from twenty years ago when David would see a customer slip past us without a hello.  I would explain that we didn’t want to unduly bother the browsers, that it was important to guard against “would you like fries with that” insincerity, that they could say hello to us.  Plus, booksellers can get stressed with multi-tasking, and everyone can have a bad day. 

But all of these rationalizations collapse on examination.   A simple hello is never an intrusion, and takes no effort.  If the bookstore is the kind of value-added public space we want and claim it to be, ignoring a visitor should be as unthinkable as snubbing a guest in one’s own home. 

Maybe the silent treatment is meant to protect the privacy and sensibilities of the introverted loner types, a core bookstore audience.  But I am that guy!  And I would not experience “hello” as an intrusion.

There’s a lot of space on the continuum between no acknowledgement at all and the robotic “welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens” that assaults me as I walk through a chain store.  Booksellers can be empowered to use whatever words they like to get the job done.  We get paid to talk about the books we love, what could be more personal?  The fact that the book business is one of the rare enclaves where it’s possible to bring your real self to work is an amazing thing, so say whatever feels right.

Personally, I like “hi!” or “let me know if you need any help.”  But whatever the terms, the point is to communicate the message: we see you, we’re glad you’re here, and even though we look really busy, we’re available.   

The cool paradox of the simple greeting is that it does double duty: it welcomes potential book buyers, but it’s also the most effective deterrent to potential thieves (or disturbed souls like the woman who used to come in and slit faces of movie stars out of our film books.)  For everyone entering the store, hello means “we see you.”

Customers can be strange.   You can ask someone if they need help and they will reply “no, I’m just browsing.”  But a minute later they will ask a question after all, a specific one they did have in mind.  The greeting was an implicit invitation, and works like a kind of spell in this way. 

If the lack of greeting is accompanied by robust chatter among booksellers, the customer’s feeling of awkwardness can be compounded.  Book-related conversation is no problem.  Customers often jump in when I’m going over new titles with a bookseller on the sales floor.  But if the chat is about how smashed someone’s roommate got last weekend, there’s not really a way for the rest of us to participate, and it can be a real browsing distraction.

Many booksellers are excellent greeters, and its one reason I feel at home in so many stores, even new or unfamiliar ones.  And I never hear outright rudeness in bookstores of the sort I routinely encounter at a Cambridge coffee shop.  But there’s work to be done on the friendliness front.

Though his greeting might be a bit exuberant for a bookstore, my dog Blake embodies the idea of welcome.   Whether I’ve been gone for weeks or just run out for groceries, he’s always glad to see me.  Every guest at our door is a cause for joy.  Return visitors are especially relished. 

No need for booksellers to lick my face, but acknowledging my existence is always appreciated.