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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > September/October 2023

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 37 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2023
Bringing Merchandising From Bookstores to Libraries
by Allison Fiscus
TOP - Juvenile nonfiction display at TLCPL’s Main Library; BOTTOM - Featured backlist fiction display at the Main Library (photos courtesy of TLCPL)
I remember the precise moment the light bulb flickered on above my head. I was sitting at the reference desk of my new librarian job at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL) in Ohio in early 2012 when I watched a customer in a suit come through the front doors. He walked up to the piteously small and overstuffed A-frame of new fiction just inside the door, glanced at the book spines for 10 seconds, was bumped into by someone attempting to queue up in the checkout line, was “oops, excuse me”-ed out of the way, self-checked out the book he had on hold, and left. All in all, he was in the building for less than 60 seconds.

In that minute, our library squandered an opportunity. We’d captured the attention of a clearly busy man and got him to take time out of his day to visit the library. He offered up his depleting end-of-the-day mental bandwidth to browse our books, and we provided a cramped, unhelpful experience that caused him to leave with the bare minimum. No part of his visit (save the way he easily found his hold materials and left) was crafted with his experience in mind.

While clerking at TLCPL for the previous 2 years, hoping for a librarian job to open up, I had taken a second job at my local chain bookstore. During that time, I had been steadily gaining professional experience in retail merchandising. It became clear over the course of my hands-on education that while libraries were truly bastions of self-growth, informational freedom, access, and entertainment, they had a serious customer experience problem. In the game of capturing customer attention, libraries were not measuring up.

Hence, my big light bulb moment. I couldn’t help but compare it to a bookstore experience, where you walk in and are confronted with beautiful books everywhere, covers on display. With a glance in literally any direction, you see more displays of the same. And these displays—whoa, they are gorgeous. A vision of straight lines and order that is equal parts calming and enticing. Many of the things a library offers are also present in bookstores, such as the smiling people and the items held especially for you, but the bookstores go further. They provide feasts for the eyes and an ordered atmosphere that plays to your internal need for entertainment and adventure. They lay out the things you can discover if only you walk a bit further and glance a few more places.

Some Background on Merchandising

In 2014, a retail merchandising study looked at the effect that displays have on customer opinion of the establishment (M. Krishnakumar, “The Role of Visual Merchandising in Apparel Purchase Decision.” IUP Journal of Management Research, 13:1, 37–54). The results were overwhelming: 94% of respondents stated that they preferred to shop in stores where attractive visual merchandising was present. Interestingly, 88% said that it played a role in their choice to purchase. After their visits, they could identify that the beautifully crafted displays elevated the store’s character in their minds and encouraged them to choose to return. In short, the displays made the customers more likely to buy something, stay longer, and return for more.

Respondents were also cognizant of the fact that poorly designed, messy, and unattractive displays stood out as prominently in their minds as the good ones, but had the opposite effect. They used words like “overbearing” and “irritating” and acknowledged that the poor quality of the displays left a lasting negative opinion of the store and discouraged them from returning.

In other words, the merchandising in these stores was what built customer loyalty.

Getting Started: Buy-In and Strategy

It was with this dilemma in mind that I began to work through how my library could make strategic changes to mimic the atmosphere that bookstores foster. Having spent more than 2 years learning bookstore retail merchandising practices, I started working through how similar ideas could be applied to library spaces.

I needed to gain buy-in, so I started with my branch manager, who agreed to some changes to the children’s area. I proposed a book display in a space that was heavily walked through. Significant shifting was done to create a wall full of new materials and to reorder areas within the overall section so that they made sense in relation with each other. We quickly began to see significantly more interaction with the collection.

As the success of these changes played out, I was given permission to expand. My buy-in campaign extended to the other branch staffers who saw merit in the children’s changes, and I capitalized on that to facilitate similar shifts in the adult fiction and nonfiction areas. We removed our media collections from what the retail world would call a “power aisle” and placed them in less prime areas, knowing that their popularity would cause people to travel further into the building, forcing them to encounter well-merchandised displays.

The shelving that was previously used for media was converted into a substantial new book area, featuring sections for all of the major fiction genres and nonfiction. Now, not only was proper space given to feature a year of new materials, but there were significant face-outs on each shelf that mimicked the bookstore experience of leisurely discovery.

We also took the time during this project to correct how and where we had been shelving the majority of our backlist (not new) books and how to promote backlist materials through shelving standards and display fixtures that maximized face-outs in the entire library. Each bay of materials not only housed spined-out books, but featured faced-out materials in the unused space. We also changed how and what we placed on fixtures for display. Previously, the displays tended to have a gimmick about them, such as banned books wrapped up in caution tape with their covers obstructed, or “I don’t know the name, but the cover was blue” displays (I am also guilty of both). The problem with this tactic is that it requires too much work for all involved. The librarian must do too much to set up the display, and the customer must do too much to understand and interact with it.

Retail merchandising practices teach you to do the opposite. Books are beautiful on their own, and any extras you place in the way of a customer exploring a display is going to instinctively appear as more of an obstacle than an enticement. If your display looks like a sculpture, people will be afraid to interact with it. Merchandising is built on split-second decisions. Making things too difficult will only result in failure, and gimmicks only get you so far.

The answer was to play into the natural designations of library organization and to let the books shine. “Featured Mysteries,” “Juvenile Nonfiction,” and stacks of multiple copies all make for displays that encourage interaction because they are both eye candy and adventure-inducing. They work for the busy parent as well as for the casual browser. They make librarians’ lives easier because a catalog is not needed to refill what is taken (which is key here, because a successful display will quickly become an empty display if you don’t have the product to keep it full). It also works within the framework of how libraries obtain materials, namely in set quantities that you cannot guarantee will be on hand at any time. Using broad topics allows for customer-friendly, full, easy-to-browse displays.

As our circulation numbers began a slow but steady increase, I was able to convince my direct administrator that this work was replicable and should be systematized. With her help, we formed and led a small team to begin implementation at a handful of locations for what became a multiyear test and to try to fine-tune our practices.

Realistic Goals, Buy-In, and Sustainability

The first goal of the small team was to name and define some rules by mimicking the standards of bookstores and other retailers. I led this process to create our Five Rules of Display:

1. Pyramiding: arranging all items so that the tallest piles or tallest materials are in the back and center of the display

2. Face Out/Front Up: placing as many materials as possible in the faced-out position and aligning them close to the edge of the shelf and with each other

3. Straight Lines: aligning materials with each other in rows and columns and along the edges of shelves

4. Balance and Symmetry: ensuring that the visual weight is spread throughout the display so it looks purposeful

5. No Props: no tablecloths, signs that do not follow brand standards, or temporary furniture

Naming and defining the rules created the continuity necessary to begin to scale this work up. They were also crucial for success in two of the most critical aspects—implementation and staff buy-in.

Establishing the rules was necessary because merchandising is everyone’s job, all the time. Everyone needs to be operating from the same place so that when someone sets a display and then leaves at the end of their shift, their colleagues can seamlessly jump in and understand how to reset and refill that display after it’s inevitably interacted with. The work is simply too big and too constant for everyone not to be contributing, so we all need a shared vocabulary and instructions that are simple and attainable. Without these rules, merchandising becomes the wild west of personal opinion, which, I cannot stress enough, is largely where libraries have failed in the past.

There is actual science behind what makes for attractive displays (C. Janiszewski, 1998. “The Influence of Display Characteristics on Visual Exploratory Search Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research, 25(3), 290–301). We realized that the quickest way to lose buy-in was by not establishing from the start that our work was based on research and scientific study and had an eye toward sustainability. There’s something about setting a display that feels inherently personal. Owning the strictness of the rules, establishing the appropriate outlet for creativity in display creation (topic, book selection), and stressing where creativity must give way to uniformity (book placement) were key to gaining staffers’ understanding.

Next, we sought to replicate the priority that bookstores place on different types of materials in a way that was sustainable for TLCPL, beginning with new books. None of the libraries within our 20-branch system (save mine) had a section devoted to new materials, so all test library sites created new sections and aimed to place a year’s worth of new materials on display. Why a year? The “2021 IMLS Usage Report” shows that the average U.S. library customer visits us only 3.85 times a year. Therefore, books are new to customers far longer than they are to librarians.

Where possible, the test sites also created smaller displays on fixtures or shelves in high-traffic areas to feature backlist materials. We continued to test and refine our practices, and then in January 2022, we created the Merchandising Standards Work Group to formally standardize merchandising practices at all TLCPL locations.

Setting the Standard

The Merchandising Standards Work Group, led by our collection development coordinator and me, encompassed people at all levels of the organization who volunteered to take part. Many of those on the team were early adopters of the initiative who saw its value firsthand and were able to provide direct insight into the final decisions. This group set the standards for merchandising that all locations are now required to follow, based on their experiences during the test phase that we found were sustainable and replicable.

The work group decided that all branches would feature 1 year of merchandised new materials across the board, a series of topical/required backlist displays, monthly inclusion features, shelving standards, and more. My co-lead and I visited all branches and provided their staffers with individual relay plans (for rearranging shelved and merchandised materials in a specific space), which they then implemented to fit the new standards. Members of the work group stepped in to make the physical changes when requested.

At the end of 2022, those locations that had received their full merchandising relay (shelf rearrangement plan) saw an average 44% increase in checkouts per customer over their pre-merchandised rates. One library that had struggled for years to capture readers in its area doubled its rate from 0.8 to 1.6 checkouts per customer in a matter of 3 months. Systemwide, the number of new materials that saw zero checkouts in their first year dropped by 38%, even though we had not fully implemented the changes at all agencies yet.

This is the magic of merchandising. With these changes, we turned our books into the “impulse purchases” of the library visit and, by extension, created a new method of promotion. Our books are the key way we increase circulation and customer visits because they play on the sense of entertainment that we can provide through the experience of visiting a physical library location—one that puts the customers’ education, entertainment, and needs to the forefront of the experience. People need a reason to choose to visit libraries instead of pulling out their phones to buy what they want, and we already have the tools filling our buildings to make this possible—literally filling our buildings. Through merchandising, all of us can expand our customers’ definition of the library’s role in their lives.

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worthwhile

I’ve started nearly every merchandising training by stating, “I know this seems trivial, I know you hate being compared to retail, and I know we are already giving things away for free—but the world has changed, and so must we.” Maintaining physical locations and the staff power to run them is critical to a library’s business model. As of this writing, I cannot envision a world in which “deliver to my home with one click” is a feasible future for us. So merchandising is vital to library appreciation and stability, especially for those that are levy-funded. Every chance we get to leave a lasting, positive impression on a patron is crucial, and what better way to do so than by showing off the very things we are known best for? Once we catch a customer’s attention with our books, then interest in our programs, social services, meeting spaces, and more is likely to follow.

Allison Fiscus is the adult services coordinator at Toledo Lucas County Public Library in Toledo, Ohio. She holds an M.L.I.S. from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. Fiscus has worked at TLCPL for more than 19 years. In her latest role, she oversees and coordinates the partnerships, services, and initiatives directed at adults across all Lucas County libraries. Her work within the larger public library sphere focuses on merchandising strategies meant to increase circulation, patron loyalty, and connections to libraries as a means to build awareness of the benefits a library brings to a community. Her past work has been done through ALA, Infopeople, and Public Libraries magazine. Her email address is allison.fiscus@toledolibrary.org.
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