In Los Angeles, Calif., Skylight Books recently reopened its art annex to browsing, though the back third of the space is still being used for website order fulfillment, and the store has expanded both its weekday and weekend hours. General manager Mary Williams reported that even with these changes, "we don't feel much closer to normal." Each day, about half of the store's staff is focused on web orders, and the store has had to hire additional booksellers to accommodate the increased hours and reopened annex. Sales are still down significantly for the year, added Williams, but there's "more work than ever to be done and much of that work is happening online."
|Skylight's Arts Annex
One silver lining during this difficult time has been rethinking a lot of the store's systems and "reinventing the wheel in a few places," particularly for Skylight's online order processing. Williams remarked that it was a lot of work, so it didn't exactly feel like a silver lining at the time, but the store is "much better off now" for having done it. She noted that during the summer, when the store saw a huge surge in online orders for antiracist titles, she and the team had to contend with all of the "slow spots, inconsistencies and opportunities for mistakes" in its existing workflow. After a complete rethink, Skylight now has a much smoother and more streamlined system. And whenever things do return to normal, Williams expects online orders to remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.
About ordering for the holidays, Williams said the store has been a bit conservative this year, but is also wary of popular titles selling out early and becoming impossible to get back in stock. After a spring and summer of low inventory levels, the store has been stocking up, and shelves are "looking full heading into the holidays." She wished she could say the store was following a "magic formula," but with so much uncertainty surrounding the holidays, it is taking educated guesses.
When asked if Skylight is encouraging customers to shop early, Williams admitted that the store is running about two weeks behind on its holiday marketing, partly because it had to squeeze in a full inventory two weeks ago. The store's holiday catalog went to the printer this week, and once a "clickable version" is on the website, it will start marketing in full force. Encouraging early shopping is a big part of that marketing plan, and Williams pointed out that in normal years, serious holiday shopping doesn't begin until about two weeks before Christmas. The team also plans to encourage customers to choose in-store pick-up over shipping whenever possible.
Eleanor Thorn, owner of Lake Forest Book Store in Lake Forest, Ill., reported that her store was able to reopen in late May, when Governor J.B. Pritzker allowed most businesses to resume operations. Customers are required to wear masks and sanitize their hands, and the store enforces a limited capacity. Aside from those precautions, Thorn added, things are "as close to normal operations as they've been since earlier this year."
Thorn's customers have been "immensely understanding" about the precautions that she and her team are taking, and there have been no problems with shoppers refusing to wear masks or follow safety protocols. She said she's been very fortunate to have a great staff as well as "supportive and loyal customers" who have kept the store going during difficult times.
One of the surprising aspects of the pandemic, Thorn continued, was that it forced the team to rethink and invest further in the store's website. While both customers and staff are glad that the store has been open to browsing since May, the team intends to continue making improvements to the website, and to further boost the store's social media presence. They've also noticed that since reopening in May, the store's window displays have been a bigger draw for foot traffic than they have in the past.
As for holiday ordering, Thorn said she is being "quite proactive" due to concerns about availability in the coming months, and is ordering large quantities up front. Customers have already started shopping for the holidays earlier than normal, and she noted that the pandemic has reinforced the need "to shop local and independent more than ever." --Alex Mutter