Mini-Merch 101 for Libraries

Super-basic tips for merchandising small library spaces | Hafuboti

Warning: the post you are about to read is of an unusual size “P.O.U.S.? – I don’t think they exist.” [immediately attacked by a P.O.U.S.]. This is mainly because I love merchandising, and it’s easy for me to get super-talkative about it. Feel free to skip the parts about my background and why I’m writing this if you’d like, and skip to the tips sections. And that’s all they should be taken as: tips. Each library’s spacing, inventory, tools, and staffing is unique – I’m letting you know what’s working for us in the hopes that it may help or inspire you. Any of these ideas can easily translate to a larger space, but I’ve directed this post at small places. Also, I won’t be getting into displays in this post – I want this to be a to-the-point-ish piece on basic merchandising that should help boost circulation.

Warning Part 2 (Electric Warnaloo): something you should also know about me – I had to take several linguistics courses in order to earn my BA in English Lit. I bring this up because I will use a ton of jargon and “not real words” within this post (and others). I consider my blog an informal place, and not anything academic or professional – so I keep things loose. Pearl clutching and fainting may occur (even though I don’t think I use the particular word in this post) because I regularly use the word signage.

It’s fine if you don’t like that word, but don’t go off on it because it’s “not a real word.” I’m here to shake up your world – it *is* a real word because once you read it, you (and most others reading it) knew exactly what I meant. Sorry – the English language has betrayed you. My main takeaway from those intense linguistics courses is that all languages (but English in particular) are flexible and wonderful in their complexity. New words, ideas, and concepts are created all of the time and as long as people understand what you’re expressing, then it’s part of the English language.

If you hate that word (and I’ve heard people express hatred towards it), then maybe you should take some time and reflect on why it is that you hate it. And is it worth your time or energy to hate a merchandising-related word (of all things)? Also, think about why you’re judging others who use words you don’t like. Some words are hurtful and mean, but is signage one such word? Does the fact that you don’t use it make me a lesser person because I do?

I’m throwing these points out there for you to ponder over time – especially the next time you shudder or judge someone for using a word you think shouldn’t exist or should be pronounced a different way.

That’s all in terms of warnings. Carry on.

My Background: For nearly a decade I had worked at various Borders bookstores in various positions (from part time bookseller up to District Marketing Manager). The stores and my job titles may have changed a lot over the years, but one thing remained constant: my passion for merchandising. I loved doing it – and even found ways to keep loving it as it became more and more dictated from the higher-ups. I began my career at a good-sized store, and it ended at one of the tiniest free-standing stores in the company – so I learned a lot during that time on how to work with limited space and resources.

I bring this up because it seems like I’ve seen a lot of librarians online encouraging others to use bookstores as their template/inspiration for merchandising, and I totally agree up to a point. Unless you’re a huge library with multiple copies of your books (or have the time to keep replenishing empty spots in your displays), then many of the techniques that bookstores use are not doable.

But please, please, please note that those other librarians have great ideas in terms of bookstore inspirations and you should totally consider the ideas and concepts that they share. They’re fabulous. I’m basically here to say that you’re not doing something wrong if you’re having trouble translating bookstore merch to library merch – and once you realize that, then maybe you can go back and look at what those librarians have to say and be able to better apply their ideas to your library’s space/resources.

Tip One: faceouts! If you’ve never heard the term, then know that it’s when the item’s cover is facing the patron (and yes, I say patrons, not customers – I blame my years of working retail. I feel that “patron” has a much more positive working-together connotation than “customer” who, contrary to the popular – to the customer – adage, isn’t always right. But I digress! This is another thing that I have my own opinions on in terms of comparing libraries to retail).

What won’t really work based on bookstores: the tricky thing about faceouts is that at bookstores, they’ve made a deal with the publishers where the publisher sends a good quantity of books for the displays that they’ve paid for (the number of books depends on the size of the store).  Once the display’s time is up, you usually find those titles on a pull list to send back to the publisher so that you don’t have to deal with the extras. I’ve only worked at two libraries, but of those it’s rare to have more than two copies of any given title.

Also, when you see a faceout that’s within the bookcase itself, it means that either there are at least three copies of that particular book behind the front one, or there’s a metal backer that’s shoving one book forward. I’ve seen stores use a solitary book as a faceout, but unless it’s a huge tome, the other books tend to flop over in front of it (bookstores don’t mess with bookends – except to sell them), and overall it just looks bad. I think it looks anemic and I often worry about the damage the book may get as a result of the pressure placed on it.

What you can do: You pretty much want to have as many faceouts as possible without things looking cluttered. It gives patrons the quickest/easiest option to choose. They see some aspect of the cover that appeals to them and it goes into their hands. Boom. It’s very much like an impulse “buy.” Plus, it’s less of a commitment since it’s not like they’re going to have to actually pay for the item (unless they lose or damage it).

One thing I noticed right away is that it would take just one mom or dad to completely wipe out a carefully curated/themed display within minutes. Then we would need to invest more time and energy in either finding more items to fit the theme, or coming up with an entirely new theme.

Side note: We used to have a girl who worked for us that tried to stockpile themed items behind the circulation desk to make it easier for her to restock her displays and keep them pretty. I strongly argued against that. After all, it made it confusing to both staff and patrons when an item that would be hot right now (such as Valentine’s Day books in February) couldn’t be found in the stacks or on the display itself. “Oh, did you check in this hidden-away-behind-the-circ-desk-spot-behind-the-reshelving-cart place? Why not? It’s right there!”

My solution? Spineouts! The complete opposite of faceouts! But, the spineouts are done within the display itself. Take a look:

Spineouts within displays give a wider variety of books as well as make it faster/easier to fill the display when a faceout is checked out.

All of those books being held up between the windowsill and the bookend relate to that particular display. A faceout gets taken? You quickly refill the empty spot with one of the spineout books. Boom. Your display is pretty again. The only thing to watch out for is putting facouts in front of your spineouts. Anything that makes it tougher for the patron to easily browse is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

Books that are checked-in that fit the display go onto the top back of our shelving cart and are put into the display ASAP. Also, we’re careful to keep those books within their respective sections as well as alphabetized. So those books in the picture are all alphabetized picture books. This makes it easier for everyone if you happen to be looking for a book that fits the display’s theme.

On the other windowsill we’d have Easy Reader and Junior Fiction (even non-fiction) within their own categories. We try and make a clear delineation between age groups on this particular display because we love to crossmerch (i.e. bring in as many different types of items that fit the display as possible – CDs, DVDs, non-fiction, periodicals, etc. all displayed together). Again, we want to make it easier for browsing even if we load the space with lots of stuff.

And trust me – I regularly see patrons browse the spineouts more closely than the faceouts. It’s the thematic draw that gets people to the display and then keeps them there. I also think it subconsciously makes patrons feel better about checking more of the display books out (“Oh, it’ll be fine if I take all of these books – they’ll still have more for other people”).

I have also been known to use a book stand to put a faceout within a bookcase (you’ll see an example of that in the third tip‘s picture). I don’t do it a whole lot in the children’s sections because it’s easy for them to get knocked over whether it be from the shelved books slumping, or a curious child wanting to play with the book stand itself.

Tip Two: it’s okay to not do themed displays! Seriously.

What won’t really work based on bookstores: Generally, whatever you see in big bookstores there’s a purpose to it – and likely it’s been paid for by publishers (your jaw would drop if you knew how much publishers pay to get merchandising space). Again, the struggle here is having the quantity to have a nice full-looking display like a bookstore. Mainly here, I’m referring to have tables full of stacked books that are “new” or go along with a theme such as “teen paranormal romance.”

What you can do: Originally I had tried my best to have the tops of our picture book cases have themed displays. Again, one patron who’s in the mood and your display is done. Yes, it’s a huge compliment to your mad display skillz™, but again it sucks away time to have to rebuild a whole new display.

Our solution (which we took from this post at the ALSC blog) is to forget about the theme. Well, theoretically the (usually) unspoken theme is “Hey! Other people have checked these books out recently. Maybe you’d be interested in them too?” We first started this last summer and have happily continued it throughout the year with great success.

The basic deal is that any time you see an empty book stand on the picture book cases, you fill it with a picture book from the “to be shelved” cart. This saves time, keeps the “display” looking nice, and ensures that you have fresh “merchandise” featured. Everyone on staff loves it, and judging by how often we fill those stands, so do the patrons.

Side note: truly do try and keep your book stands or displays full. It’s so much more pleasing to the eye, gives people the product to reach for, and is so easy to do when you’ve taken some of my suggestions. I’ve been known to take a quick break to sweep through the library to fill any empty stands. Insta-feeling-of-accomplishment Achievement Unlocked!

Even the other day, I noticed that our already sparse St. Patrick’s Day display had been almost completely borrowed. I went to Mary and Brittany, asked them to “make it purty,” and boom. They did. We were almost completely out of St. Patty’s books – so what did they do? They added some books that featured green – whether it be topic, or the cover. And let me tell you – it gave new life to that display.

Tip Three: book layering! This is generally when you have a stack of books on a table, and then you put a book stand on top of that stack – that book stand will have at least two copies of the books upon which it’s placed.

What won’t really work based on bookstores: Again it all comes down to quantities. If you’re lucky enough to have a large quantity of the same title, then this is a great option to add height to a display. If you’ve read this far, then I’m guessing that this is not the case for you or your library. 

What you can do: I think a lot of solutions for our small space have come out of asking ourselves “is there a better way to do this?” This one came from the fact that we had received a HUGE amount of Easy Reader Non-fiction from several vendors. We had so much that we ran out of space on our “new ER NF” shelf. I went over there and just looked at the shelf for awhile, knowing that there had to be a better way to showcase our new items.

That’s when I thought back to my retail merching years and thought “oh, I wish that we had multiple copies we could stack under these book stands.” And as I thought that, I saw that we did, in fact, have multiple copies of our newest books!  They weren’t duplicates, but they were the same general theme, but different topics. So we had a bunch of new Mighty Machine books about bulldozers, dump trucks, tractors, etc, that go together. It was like “holy heck – I can stack these bad boys in our book stands!”

I grabbed three of each topic and put them all in one stand, fanning them a little bit so that you could tell there were more books similar to the top one underneath (and so that patrons would be a bit more careful removing the top book, knowing that there were more books behind it). I did that for most of our topics, and suddenly there was room for another book stand on our new books shelf. Here’s a closeup shot of what I did (I think it makes more sense to see it than try to comprehend it from my written description):

I did this a little before close one evening, and one mother checked out all of those Mighty Machine books I had displayed (she even grabbed the rest that were spineouts). By noon the next day, we couldn’t even fill the book stands with three books – we were settling with two from a series. And ever since then it seems like we’ve had to go over and remerch that area on a daily basis. It’s freakin’ awesome. I can hardly wait to look at our NF numbers for this month – I bet they’ll be noticeably higher.

I plan on trying this out in other areas – most likely keeping it to the non-fiction area, but I could imagine this working on our larger themed-display by our windows. Basically, you can think of each one of these as a themed endcap display condensed onto a single book stand.

Tip Three: avoid plexiglass shelves! These are the shelves that you latch into the wooden slats of your bookcases’ endcaps. Usually they’re filled with books that relate to a hanging plexiglass sign that’s also latched into wooden slats. Do an image search if you’re not sure what I’m trying to describe. Metal ones do exist, but cost more and you run into the same problem of not having the quantity of items you need to use the shelves to their best advantage.

I tried to incorporate plexiglass shelving into our Children’s Library back when we first opened. Two of our shelves died withing two months. It takes one toddler who sees the shelf as a cool looking thing to climb on, and it snaps. I also realized that they severely limit the number of books we could display at a time. We felt safe having three books per shelf, and even then, a patron could easily knock into the shelf and make all of them tumble.

What you can do: I need to take a short sidetrack to explain how I came up with our solution. Back when the Children’s Library opened, we had gotten this cute little blue cart to use for reshelving. Let me tell you – all it took was a weekend for the cart to be overflowing and a mess. I don’t even want to talk about what happened during Summer Reading Program.

I asked for and received our backup regular-sized book cart from our Main Library in order to solve this problem. And solve it it did! But then we had an extra cart that seemed like it belonged at Kids’ and not the Main library. Hey – what if we used it for our new Junior Fiction books? This freed up the top of our Junior cases (where the new books had been) to have more book stand faceouts – woot!

Small book carts are a fantastic option to use instead of plexiglass shelves on your endcaps | Hafuboti

But then, I got a little crazy: what if we ordered another one of these small carts, and put our new picture books on them? And we did indeedy-doodle do that (with the help of our Friends group). The heartbreaking moment? When we realized that because of the slant of the shelves, the top-most shelf we’d wanted to use for faceouts would not work – the books would slide off of them. Solution? Sticky-tacking down several of our custom made flyer holders to keep the books from sliding. It’s worked like a charm. I’m hoping to find a different solution (and I recently had an idea that I might try), but these have worked great so far!

Using a cart to display our newest picture books. It can also serve as an extra shelving cart should the need arise | Hafuboti

The other nice thing is that in the summer our regular-sized book cart tends to overflow. We can take either or both carts (usually we only take the blue one – nicknamed The C.A.R.T.I.S. by our library page who’s a Dr. Who fan), move its books to on top of the cases (using bookends to keep them upright), and then use the freed-up cart as backup. Usually we fill it with returned DVDs. Hooray for flexibility!

And I think I’ll conclude this epic post with “hooray for flexibility!” because that’s truly what it takes to merch a small space. I love coming up with new displays themes (the most fun is when it’s not what the patrons expect, but it still delights them – I may cover tips on small space displays in the future). I love opening myself up to consider possibilities and look at the challenges as the potential for some clever solutions. I’m always impressed when I present a space problem to my team, and they come up with a fantastic solution (and yes, we’ve had our share of duds – but at least we tried).

So get out there, have fun, and try out some mini-merching!

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