Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Comment: Shelving 101, or, Organic Organization (with helpful vocabulary words)

I've got a lot of wonky book stuff on my mind lately: statistical trends that show the growth of independent bookstores, attractive and productive ways of doing websites, methods of forming alliances with other local institutions, and not least, figuring out the specifics of writing a bookstore business plan (more on that soon...).

But the wonky bookselling topic of today is the eternal conundrum of bookstore shelf organization. We've been working on redoing some displays in the store, and I've been thinking about my own bookstore: how one would develop an organizational system from scratch. Bookseller Chick has also been addressing this lately from the perspective of the beleaguered bookseller answering the author demanding "Where are my books?", with data from her readers about how they go about finding books; check out her enlightening discussion in the June 27, 28, and 29 posts for more aspects of this issue.

You've got books. Your customers want books. You've got shelves, you've got display spaces, you've got staff and/or a computer to keep track of things. How do you arrange, display, organize, and categorize books so that customers can buy the books they want?

The way I see it, the ultimate goal of any bookstore's organization (into sections and within sections) is twofold:

1) Findability: placing a book so that it can be quickly and accurately found by a customer or a bookseller looking for that specific book.
2) Browsability: placing a book so that it catches the attention of a customer who is likely to be interested in it, whether or not they were actually looking for that specific book.

Findability is the motivation behind most backlist (that is, non-new release) sections; it's why, say, fiction is usually separated from nonfiction, and organized alphabetically by author's last name. Anyone looking for CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger need only find the fiction section and look under S, and the sale is made. They don't even need to ask a bookseller for help if they don't want to (as Bookseller Chick laments in her recent posts).

Browsability is usually the focus in new release sections, where customers may not know the exact title or author of a book or may just be looking for something new. Displays and featured tables, books grouped together by theme, and point-of-sale books are all aimed at attracting the reader who knows what she likes, but doesn't know what's out there.

This all gets more complicated when applied to books that aren't necessarily easily classifiable as one section or one author. For example, how do you organize anthologies (by editor? separate section?), creative nonfiction (memoir? travel writing? essays? belles lettres? criticism? what if it's more than one?), history or biography (by subject? by author? by time period or theme?), etc. The judgement calls are endless, and sometimes agonizing. Should Art Spiegelman's MAUS be shelved next to Brian K. Vaughn's smart superhero comic EX MACHINA (in a graphic novel/comics section), or next to Eli Weisel's Holocaust memoir NIGHT (in memoir, or history, or World War II History, or Oprah Book Club Picks?) – or both? (And if it's supposed to be in both and you have only one left, how do you know where it is?) Should a book on living rooms go in architecture or interior design, and should it be shelved by author, title, or subject?

The real question is where the customer who wants this book is likely to look for this book. Answering that question takes knowledge of the books as well as the customers. It also takes knowledge of the store itself.

In my experience, very small stores tend to skew toward browsability. With fewer books (and staff that knows them well), it's easier to find any book if needed, so it makes sense to focus on making more books attractive to the undecided reader. A larger store, especially one with a specialty focus or one that tends to have a lot of goal-oriented customers, should probably skew toward findability. It may be more important for customer happiness to find a particular book quickly than to present a cornucopia of tempting impulse buys.

The bookstore's best bet is usually to try to determine the most intuitive place to look for a book and have it there consistently, sometimes setting it in stone by coding into a computer inventory system. There are, of course, variations on this – I linked earlier to this article by comic book store owner James Sime, who not only organizes his books by variables like publisher, superhero featured, title, or genre, but actually reorganizes his store periodically to see if another system will work better (and to encourage customers to discover books they wouldn't if they stuck to familiar sections).

And I think his impulse, while taken to something of an extreme (in a store where customers are likely to appreciate it), is one every bookstore can learn from. Just because "we've always been organized it this way" doesn't mean that's the best way to do it. A store may be invisibly losing sales because they're not displaying the books their customer base is likely to find irresistible, or because books in a certain section would be easier to find alphabetized a different way.

In my store, we have a large health section – all of the books have a label that identifies them as belonging in that section, and staff can look up any health title or author in the computer. Recently, a staff member went through the section and broke up the health books into subsections with new shelf labels – "diet & nutrition," "alternative medicine," "aging," "women's health," etc. And sales in the health section shot up. It's a little more difficult now for a staff member to find an individual book – they have to make the right guess about which subsection this book has been shelved in (and correct it if it doesn't make sense). But customers in the health section apparently tend to have a particular issue in mind, if not a particular book, and the new system has made the section infinitely more browsable. And we've applied this subtopic grouping in other sections with similar success.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to balance browsability and findability based on knowledge of a store and its customers. There should be a way to find any book on demand (even if only a bookseller can figure it out), but books should also be placed where likely readers are able to stumble upon them. If your store tends to sell a huge amount of Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson, maybe you need to break those authors out of the fiction section and create a fantasy/sci fi section, so fans of those authors can find other fantasy books they're likely to be interested in. If your historical biography section never sells anything, maybe those books need to be folded into the history or memoir sections. If booksellers can never find anything for customers in the design section, maybe a more findable order of books is needed.

This is a different focus from the big questions about the state of the book world I've been talking about here lately, but in a way it's part of a big question in itself. It's part of stepping back and looking at why bookstores do the things they do -- what our actual goals are, as opposed to what our habits are -- and how we can do them even better.

In planning for my own bookstore, I've occasionally fantasized about just having every book organized alphabetically by author – no separate sections, no exceptions, no more agonizing decisions ever again! Theoretically, this would be the perfect findable system (provided one always knew a book's author, which is of course unlikely), and serendipitous browsing might even occur as the reader of Anne Lamott decided to try George Lakoff. But what if someone just wanted a book on Japanese pop culture, but they didn't know which one? Theoretically again, a preternaturally gifted staff might be able to steer this customer toward half a dozen pop culture books whose location they had memorized – but now the realm of theory gets a little silly. A completely alphabetical bookstore might have a quirky attraction, but it probably wouldn't sell nearly the number of books it could, and there would probably be a lot of frustrated customers.

In fact, I'll probably organize books into a minimal number of large sections, based on the number of books I carry in each broad category and my own personal interests. Then I'll watch carefully how customers shop my store, and listen to what they're asking for, confused about, or pleased by. Then I'll make changes. The store's organization will evolve as it finds its place in its neighborhood and with its customers, and organization will become organic. I can't wait to find out how it develops.

In the next months I'm hoping to visit some local bookstores and look at their organization and other factors, and talk here about what can be learned from each of them. If you have thoughts on bookstore organization, or you know of a particularly unique or effective/ineffective bookstore shelving system, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.