Are you a Canadian publisher looking for information on new export markets? Today we continue our series of blog posts on working with mass merchandisers and non-traditional accounts in the US. Excerpted from our market guide Selling to Mass Merchandisers and Non-Traditional Accounts in the United States: A Guide for Canadian Publishers (2018) by expert Michael Johnson, today’s post shares some background on what to expect when entering this market.
On the business of doing business with these huge retail outlets, the most important thing to understand is that they simply don’t care about books or your business. Simply put, since they are non-traditional booksellers, they are not book buyers or book lovers. These companies have a certain amount of square footage allotted to each product category and all they are interested in doing is flipping/turning as much merchandise as possible in every one of those square feet. If the merchandise from a certain category does very well, that category may grow by “eating” space from a neighbouring category. If other merchandise does poorly, that category will shrink or be replaced. There is no particular prejudice against books, from Canada or any other country, but rather the necessary razor-sharp focus on what product is selling well enough to earn its keep, and its allotted space, within the overall store product portfolio.
On balance, books do suffer in that overall portfolio regardless of how well they sell, for two main reasons: 1) the turnover of books is slower than, say, batteries, eggs, or nails; 2) books, when compared to other items in the store, are typically viewed as a lower profit-margin category. When one combines slower inventory turns with lower profits, it is not difficult to see why a mass merchandiser is not overly excited about their book business.
It is also important to note that this category of merchants does not offer advice to its customers. Each shopper is pretty much left to their own devices to find whatever it is they need or want at that particular store. There is no staff to offer guidance or recommendations. This is true for all categories be it books, clothes, hammers, or lettuce.
The news is not all bad. Books do make excellent gifts for a wide variety of friends, coworkers, and family members of the regular shoppers who visit mass merchandisers. This is especially true of children’s books. If well priced and well placed, books can do very well in this type of store. Books can also be easily moved and merchandised (think rotating wire racks) to be near related items in order to set up a combination purchase; for example, gardening books located near gloves, digging tools, or bulbs at a DIY store. Or perhaps children’s books set up near toy or game merchandise at a general retailer.
Getting your books properly categorized and displayed is key in increasing sales. Bestsellers, especially paperback, are an easy item for the casual shopper to pick up and add to their cart as they cruise by the book section on their way to whatever they came to the mass merchandiser for in the first place.
Gift and novelty items are also strong sellers in this market. Books focused on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation, as well as self-help and similar genres also make good pick-up or add-on purchases for these general shoppers. Colouring books (for children and adults), puzzle books (crossword, Sudoku), and other “easy” paperback titles tend to do very well in these stores.
Localized travel books that explain places to visit and things to see in the region (within an hour’s drive of the store) are great “at the register” purchase items. City- or state- wide titles may still do well depending on the exact store type. Unless a Canadian publisher has US-based travel titles, the focus on this type of book should be kept to the US/Canadian border states.
Another strong but often overlooked book category that does well in these stores is reference—functional-informational titles such as dictionaries, cookbooks, thesauri, and atlases—almost always in paperback and generally below $10.
Almost without fail, mass merchandisers will be trend-trailers rather than trendsetters when it comes to new authors and new series. These stores are not the first places a shopper would think of to buy a book. Regular book buyers will go to their favourite bookshop or to Amazon to get those highly anticipated new titles. Once an author, or a series, is established as a regular bestseller, and typically, once the title comes out in paperback, mass merchandisers will happily join in to capture that next wave of incidental or accidental book purchases.
Strong backlist titles are typical solid sellers for this type of merchant category. In addition, any revitalized titles—like movie tie-ins or posthumous re-releases that can be cross-merchandised with other items in the store—become attractive to a mass merchandiser. These things can be specifically linked to the title (e.g., Star Wars, Wonder Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale) or more generally linked (e.g., Christmas, action heroes, mysteries, camping) to a concept or a holiday. Anything that gives the retailer an opportunity to sell your book along with other similar items to the same customer at the same time boosts sales potential.
New—sometimes referred to as “fresh”—merchandise is also an important factor for mass merchandisers. The typical customer for these stores will visit once a week, or perhaps more often, to solve a variety of shopping needs. By having a strong, regular rotation of goods for purchase, the merchant greatly enhances their chances of increasing the total purchase amount of each visit. Books, gifts, and knickknacks are excellent options to support that goal.
This text was drawn from our market guide Selling to Mass Merchandisers and Non-Traditional Accounts in the United States. For more valuable insights into this market, download the full guide.