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Volume 16, No. 1 • Jan/Feb 2002
• Customer-Based Marketing •
Stores and Libraries: Both Serve Customers!
by Christie Koontz

Editor's Note: MLS is excited to welcome Christie Koontz as a new columnist. She has presented marketing sessions at many IFLA conferences as well as others in the U.S. and around the world. We plan to run this column in every other issue.

I am walking through a shopping mall, thinking about libraries, thinking about retail stores—thinking how we are alike, and what we can learn from each other. There are some obvious similarities.

At the end of the workday, retail stores tally up sales, and libraries tally circulation and other uses. Both count up goods that people consume. Both strive to increase volume. And both ultimately want to maximize consumer satisfaction. This article will examine retail marketing concepts that can translate successfully into the library environment, and will discuss retail practices that libraries can adopt (with very little expense) to achieve a lot of customer satisfaction.

Semantics: 'Customers' vs. 'Users'
Hmm ... retail stores call them customers; we call them users. When contrasting retail customers and library users, there is really little difference. A customer is a purchaser of products or services, and a library user is any person who chooses the library to fill his information needs. Both choose products and consume.

Looking around the mall, I see three sporting goods stores. But there is only one library within 2 miles of the mall. No wonder libraries do not think "competition." Theirs is not "in their face" the way it is for retailers. Successful retailers assess the strengths and weaknesses of competitors and look for that advantage that will keep more customers coming through their doors than their competitors'. Libraries have only recently recognized an ever-growing competitive environment in which people can and do choose from myriad information sources. As I discussed in a recent MLS article (October/November 2001), libraries are no longer the only community information provider. That simply means we have competitors.

And it is this element of competition that is turning library users into customers. Like it or not folks, we no longer have "patrons" who graciously accept what the library profession selects and offers. The new library user demands, chooses, and selects among information products. And that means that the "patron" of old is really a customer! So, if library users are now customers, what should we know about the characteristics of customers?

Customers have expectations. As I walk through the door of the first sporting goods store, I look for the running shoes I want. I've been here before, so I am sure there will be a good selection. If not, I will saunter to the second store in the mall. When people walk into a library, I reflect, they too are seeking that certain something. But are they sure they will get what they want? Will they come back if they do not? Will we know?

Customers expect to be appreciated. Customers want you to recognize that, without them, your business will fail! How many of us really believe the library will fail if we do not provide the best service? Customers choose an establishment and spend hard-earned money. Customers want employees to exude appreciation through the attitude that "we aim to please, the customer is always right, service is our business, and quality is our middle name." It is this mind set that puts the customer in the center. Customers expect it. Any library can adopt a customer-centered response today!

Customers have ever-changing wants and needs. I spot the shoes I want—extra cushioned and under $70. Last year I did not prefer cushioned running shoes, but now I'm a year older with new aches and pains, so I want a shoe with added support. Multiply me times the tens of thousands who run, and you have a dynamic customer market for one shoe in hundreds of shapes and materials. The library market is dynamic as well—product by product. Just think of the changes in information needs that can affect our product offerings.

Customers expect to get what they 'ordered.' Opening the box of running shoes, I see that extra cushion and broad support. The shoe is in fact what was advertised and what the packaging suggests. Likewise, if the library purports to offer Internet access, the customer does not expect it to be available only from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays. Today, with more information providers to choose from than ever, there's a greater expectation that information will be reliable, timely, and accurate.

Customers want the best value for their money. As I plunk down $70 for the shoes, I know I am getting value, dollar for dollar. While we do not envision library customers pulling out their wallets at the front desk, they are still expending a valuable resource—time. The time we ask people to spend waiting for access, staff assistance, material orders, and so on may be too high of a price. We have to know for sure that we are offering them better value than our competitors are. (A future column will explore inexpensive methods of evaluating customer satisfaction.)

Customers come from diverse groups. The whole group of actual and potential customers (a market) can be effectively broken down into many small subgroups (segments). Each segment has specific wants and needs that must be addressed and prioritized if an organization is to serve it successfully.

Librarians have grouped (segmented) users and potential users that share similar wants and needs for over a century. We have used such categories as materials (fiction and nonfiction), age groups (children and adults), or volume of use (high and low). Yet retailers have learned that more subtle segmentation is better. They've added different levels, such as geographic, demographic, lifestyle, and product value. I'd fall into these categories: female, over 30, long-distance runner, no other sports, lives in the south in temperate weather, runs for health. That's a lot of information that creates a profitable customer profile—this information sells shoes!

The customer market becomes far more intricate in description, therefore allowing more precise pricing and targeted communication that directly fits the needs and wants of the markets. (A future column will discuss and describe successful ways for libraries to segment their markets.)

Products vs. Library Services
Customer products are defined as anything that can be offered to a market to satisfy a need. That means products are tangible and intangible. Library products include books to peruse or check out, Web access, homework centers, story hours, computer-aided instruction. Any one retail store can either specialize in a product, or have a product assortment. Libraries can also specialize, but most offer a wide range of products.

When it comes to offering a range of products within one entity, libraries can probably best be compared with shopping malls (no, I did not mean to say bookstores). A shopping mall shares these characteristics with libraries: There's a group of individual departments managed as units (like the children's department, local history and genealogy, etc.), and product offerings are based upon an analysis of the community served. Changing norms, such as women working outside the home, burgeoning numbers of children under 5, diversity of ethnic groups, and increased desire for online access, all affect both shopping mall and library products.

Product Prices and Library Costs
Pricing is a difficult concept for librarians since we hear no clear ring of the cash register, but it is also problematic for retailers. Basically it is more tangible and exciting for retailers to develop new products, decorate stores, design Web sites, and create winning advertisements than it is for them to struggle to set prices that will mean profits. Price also covers business costs, and communicates what that product is worth to potential customers. For libraries, while we may set a cost for delivering a service (i.e., copies of materials, online searches, special programs), discovering the hidden cost is more crucial to the library's success. That is the price of the "toil and trouble" of a person acquiring a library service or material. While a retailer's price tag is explicit, the library's is more implicit.

Retailers and libraries share some objectives regarding prices. They both want to increase profits or volume of use; discourage new competitors (lower prices and lower user costs); satisfy customer wants and needs; or enhance the perception of the product's quality.

In summary, prices for library services may not have paper tags, but they are embodied in the internal costs of delivering the service, and in user costs associated with travel, wait, and inquiry time/speed of assistance by the librarian. Picture price tags for time spent during your next scan of the library environment—it will make you see "customers" instead of "users"!

Retail and Library Facility Location
Location, location, location. Retailers know that an optimal location offers the best opportunity to attract customers. For instance, my sporting goods store is on the ground level and to the right—prime mall location. Libraries can't always choose an optimal location, since they are often forced to accept gifts of land, or to move into buildings once used for other purposes to save tax dollars. Library location choice is overlooked due to lack of training and knowledge of its importance. Yet libraries share some unique characteristics with retail stores that indicate possible solutions based on retail location theory.

First, public libraries are often part of a system in which the final phase of distribution is discrete, i.e., branches (just like bank branches). Second, there are locational patterns that affect both retail sales and library usage: distance between outlets, topographical barriers, and population characteristics. Third, retail stores and libraries must be traveled to. This represents the most important factor—people choose to travel to you for goods. You need to think about how your location affects your customers.

Most customers, of both stores and libraries, still purchase goods and use services at physical facilities. However, there are a growing number of Web sites that offer access to all types of products, services, and materials (including information!). Think about what your Web site offers vs. what customers want from it. (For instance, can it actually save them a trip to your facility?) Then take a tour of sites like or other bookstores and retail stores. Then think: What can you add to your own site in order to move closer to a true customer-centered approach?

Promotion Tools: Communicating with Customers and Library Users
Four basic promotional tools that retailers use are advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, and public relations. Let's take a look at the benefits for each of these tools for retailers and libraries.

Advertising. "Bee-Bop Running Shoes, Scientifically Designed for Women, Extra Cushioning, $70." The ad caught my eye. The average person is hit with over 1,800 advertising impressions per day. Retailers try to reach customers in any and all ways to sell products. Specific media are utilized to reach specific markets, which is another reason for grouping customers. While libraries rarely use paid advertising, the use of public service announcements (PSAs) is widespread. PSAs are limited in effectiveness due to lack of control over when and where these will be aired or printed. But libraries can use retailers' other three promotion tools more effectively.

Personal Selling. Training in personal selling remains a pronounced gap between retailers and librarians. "Hey how's it going? May I help you find what you are looking for? Let me know if you need any assistance while you are in the store. Did you see we have women's running shoes on sale?"

While we are better trained in our profession than many retail salespeople are, librarians shy away from thinking of contact with the public as "selling." Yet personal selling is the most powerful promotion tool, and it's underutilized by most librarians. By and large, retail stores rely on quickly hired and trained minimum-wage employees to operate daily functions. While this direct contact can backfire if the person is not knowledgeable about the product, it is also a golden opportunity to respond directly to customer questions and unique needs. If we would retrain our staff members to proactively "sell" library services through making eye contact, communicating new services and materials, and handling complaints in a professional manner, libraries could take the lead in this most powerful form of promotion.

Sales Promotion. Retailers use product samples, coupons, rebates, contests, and point-of-purchase displays to encourage people to buy a product immediately. Libraries rely heavily on in-library programming and materials such as the summer reading programs, bookmarks, brochures and fliers, and limited posters in the community. An amnesty day that eliminates fines for overdue materials is as close as we come to a "rebate"—but these are effective. Many of these inexpensive approaches can stimulate our customers to take advantage of what the library offers. Look around your favorite retail stores—what grabs your attention and pulls you to a product? Becoming cognizant of these retail promotional tools is the first step—the fun part is adopting successful ones!

Public Relations. Public relations is the venue where libraries are usually stronger than retailers. Yet, activities such as special events, news conferences, and publishing "freebie" magazine and newspaper articles usually have lots of credibility (because nobody paid for an endorsement) when implemented by retailers. (For instance, I first spotted this shoe at a pre-race event sponsored by the shoe company.) And because there is no money exchanged, there is little or no cost. An event well-done reflects quality in the retailer's product.

Libraries traditionally depend on public relations, and heavily rely on publicity (unpaid media communications). Yet we cannot rely only on staged events, newsletters, and word of mouth to communicate our products. While we may not have large budgets for promotion, we can select the media that best communicate our products to specific markets.

This is the key. Libraries must at least review those promotion strategies that are most effective for retailers. We have too much in common to overlook what works for retailers who effectively increase customer loyalty. We may not have people trained specifically in how to market and promote, but as I tell my classes, it is a lot easier for a librarian to learn about marketing than vice versa!

Patrons Really Are Like Customers
Driving home from the mall, shoes tucked in a bag in the back seat, I am a satisfied customer. The sporting goods store and Bee-Bop Shoes were successful. I guess they did all the right things. But the right things can only happen through understanding your customers and your competition. Libraries are significantly under par on both of these activities, largely because of mind set, less because of budget. However, by constantly assessing actual and potential customer wants and needs, prioritizing customer markets, and identifying the competition, libraries can (and must) enter the fray of a world that is customer-driven. If we do not, we may fail just like retailers who do not adapt to their changing environments. And that is one characteristic that we do not want to share.

Christie Koontz, Ph.D., is a research associate and director of the GeoLib Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Koontz also teaches marketing at the School of Information Studies at Florida State University, and conducts marketing workshops for colleagues around the globe. She is the author of Library Facility Siting and Location Handbook (Greenwood Press, 1997), and recently created a continuing education course on marketing research for library and information professionals, funded and sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Her e-mail address is

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