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Booksellers Looking to the Web to Connect with Local Customers

Independent booksellers nationwide faced a slew of setbacks last year. They included an early 2006 slump in book sales and the news that Americans are reading less for pleasure, as the National Endowment for the Arts spelled out in a report released in November. Rather than ceding to these challenges, many independents are capitalizing on the technologies offered by the World Wide Web to reach their communities. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.On Lexington’s south side, Joseph Beth Booksellers is more than a mere book store. There are kids playing in an area downstairs and adults sipping warm drinks in a café complete with a fireplace on the main floor. Talk to someone amid the stacks here, and you’ll likely find customers who maintain their rapport with this bricks-and-mortar establishment by visiting the store’s Web site more often than they visit the store itself.One is Alicia Hart, who lives about 20 miles north in the town of Midway."I’m a member of a book club that meets here once a month," she says. "I do like to check out the Web site to see if there are going to be writers here reading their works or signing their books or anything, if it’s something that my book club has read or would be interested in reading."While polling several people here, I find that they use the site to learn about more than events. They purchase gift cards, join awards programs, read staff recommendations, and even check out the café’s menu. Store manger Gary Cremeans tells me these functions harness the passion and expertise of the company’s sales staff and give people reasons to ultimately come to the store.Using the Web in this way is not new, but only in recent years have local brick-and-mortar stores begun to embrace specific Web tools that drive foot traffic and strengthen customer loyalty. Charles Steinfield is a communications professor at Michigan State University. He’s has studied how brick-and-mortar businesses are using e-commerce. He says booksellers, along with restaurants and malls, are brick-and-mortar industries that have experimented the most with Internet capabilities to enhance their services. He says putting the Internet to good use is vital for today’s brick-and-mortar retailers."You have to manage for a multi-channel retail process." he says. "You can’t just assume it’s going to work by itself."Many in the independent bookselling community share Steinfield’s views. One indication is the attention the American Booksellers Association gives to the subject. This week when 500 members from 300 stores meet in Louisville for its winter conference there will be sessions on Web-site development, online social networking and printing books on demand.¼br> One of those attending is Dave Weich, who is director of marketing for the behemoth independent bookseller Powell’s Books in Oregon. For the past ten years Weich has worked to develop Powell’s dot com so that it draws people nationwide to purchase books on the Web site and get locals in the Portland area to frequent its six stores there. Its site has search engines, blogs, contests, e-books and more. But Weich is quick to point out that these features aren’t just bells and whistles."Inevitably the work that we do has to generate a return." he says. "That return does not necessarily have to be strictly a sales measure but it has to be customer loyalty, media attention. I mean there has to be something to justify dedicating resources to it."Weich readily admits resources are scarce in the book-selling business, with its small profit margins. Still, he says that experimenting on the Web and constantly evaluating those efforts are crucial to staying alive. That means maintaining current readers and cultivating new ones in the marketplace where the younger generation is so engaged by technology.It’s an outlook that isn’t lost on Michel Link who works out of Joseph Beth Booksellers’ executive office in Cincinnati."We look at the interests and the values of this coming generation and how we can best get reading front and center for them," he says. "Because that’s ultimately our goal is to provide the discourse that happens in books."That discourse could provide people with the inspiration to read in a time when Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 spend almost two hours of their daily leisure time watching TV and only seven minutes reading.Listen to the story.