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Bookstores Offer What Boomers Want

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, January 31

This series of columns evolved from a not-so-simple question I asked myself sometime around New Year's Day: What do boomers want (to read)? Much of what I've learned since has come from your e-mails and telephone calls. Conversations have sprung up wherever I have gone.

For example, one night at the Publishers Association of the South's Winter Conclave in Nashville, Tenn., we talked over dinner about the narrowing of the generational technology gap--many young people entering the work force now may have less computer experience than boomers who began incorporating PCs or Macs into their social and professional lives more than two decades ago.

What does that mean?

All we can say with some degree of certainty is that boomer numbers will continue to matter 'til death do us part. According to Generation Ageless by J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman, in 2004 the Census Bureau projected that the number of people 55 and over would grow more than 45% between 2005 and 2020, while those 25-44 would grow only 5.6%.

Smith is also president of Yankelovich, Inc., which has been tracking U.S. lifestyles and values for more than 35 years. The marketing potential for boomers at every stage of their aging process has been of special interest. Recently, he shared his observations about where bookselling fits into the boomer equation.

For booksellers, Smith suggested the place to begin is "to sort out what's unique about boomers and what's not. There is a widespread trend toward authenticity, connections, community, social impact and empowerment. Boomers are part of this broader trend, but it is not exclusive to them, nor to any generation. We are all caught up in these things together. So delivering these things is just good for business. The difference with boomers is how they approach these broader trends."

He noted three aspects worth considering:

"First, boomers are unwilling to give up individuality in their quest to find connection and fellow-feeling with others. So even as you create an inviting atmosphere that offers communal engagement, you must allow boomers to do so in a style that is unique to the individual. Starbucks does this with its infinitely variable products and its differentiated store designs. Wi-fi (sometimes free) makes it possible to share with others while doing your own thing. Perhaps bookstores for boomers will be less places to find books than places to create an individual bookstyle. Maybe they all read the same authors but they do so in their own self-invented ways. Such an environment would simply echo the long-standing boomer style of joining the crowd to find one's own individual bliss. Note that the connective behavior of younger people is much more about the network and the networking than the individual and the avoidance of communalism.

"Second, boomers believe in information. They are data hounds. They retain a core belief that if they can just dig deep enough they will find the truth. I joke about this and say that boomers are the Watergate generation--they learned that the more you find out, the more you know about what went on. Boomers, more than any generation today, believe in the written word. Tapping into that sensibility is key for booksellers. They must leverage it in every way. And most importantly, they must not fight boomers when they seek to add new information sources. Find ways to integrate your offerings with the Internet. Make one supplement the other or enhance the other. Don't fight it. Just don't make yourself irrelevant to the continuing boomer quest to learn more. Boomers revere information. This is not true of other generations, and thus creates a built-in gap that must be addressed in other ways.

"Finally, boomers want to matter. They are not willing to hand over the reins of power to younger generations. Boomers are convinced they are smarter, savvier and more perceptive. Books matter, of course, and books are the source of all the ideas and insights that matter. So, just remind boomers that what they need to know in order to matter is ready and waiting for them at bookstores. Booksellers should be the first people boomers look to when they want to weigh in on some topic or issue."

Smith believes that bookstores "have an enormous opportunity with boomers. These stores offer what boomers want, and if they do so in ways that fit broad cultural currents while tapping directly into what boomers want in particular, they will thrive."



Baby Boomers Won't Stop Shopping

Shelf Awareness: Friday, January 25

Cue the theme music from Jaws. Baby boomers are in the retail waters and they're not leaving soon. Will they still be reading in 2018 or 2028 or 2038? Yes. Will they still be buying books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores?


That's the challenge for booksellers. As I mentioned in the first column of this series, BBs can be irritating and fickle. We always have been. A BB backlash already exists. Think Chris Buckley's novel, Boomsday, where a boomer suicide proposal (with financial incentives, of course) falls under the euthanasia euphemism, "Voluntary Transitioning." Think the Baby Boomer Death Counter. Tip of the iceberg.

Cue the shark music again.

Yet somewhere, in the middle of all this controversy and opportunity, the book world will have to find a way to surf boomer-infested waters. One of the questions I initially asked readers was whether tech-savvy BBs will be transferring their book reading and buying habits to an online environment by the year 2018.

Susan Fox, co-owner of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., describes herself as a non-boomer who is also part of the last generation to have grown up without computers. She believes that paper books and bricks-and-mortar stores are safe for now: "I don't see boomers (or my generation, for that matter) reading novels on the computer in the way that younger generations who know nothing but computers will."

Fox added that something "no one mentioned in their comments (denial, perhaps?) is large print. I just sold a copy of The Alchemist large print edition to an aging boomer. Just as we're seeing spa cuisine make its way into retirement homes, we're going to start seeing interesting, diverse titles make their way to large print. Maybe even debut authors!" 

Missie Olm of the Reader's Loft, Green Bay, Wis., feels that while some boomers may gravitate to an online reading life, "bricks-and-mortar stores have less likelihood of losing them to the ether than we do the younger generations. They want to talk about what they know about--in person. They want the interaction that the cozy independent bookstore can offer. I think this is the generation that may be doing their research online, but we'll still get the pleasure of their company. Until mobility becomes an issue. Then you start delivering, for those favorite customers that you've worked with for the last 10, 20, 30 years."

"Your 2018 question is harder to answer," admits Pamela Grath of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich. "Yes, there are those of us who have gotten over our technophobia, but whether online or bricks-and-mortar sales will be a larger growth area a decade from now is anyone's guess. I've been a bookseller for 15 years, and all I can say for sure about the future is that it will be different. When online skyrocketed, I jumped, and for a couple of years what I was doing worked, but then everything changed, and I had to change again, too. Boomers in general may re-invent themselves over and over out of excitement or new enthusiasms; indie booksellers must re-invent themselves continuously to stay alive. The world is dynamic, and bookselling is a challenging way of life."

Carol White of RLI Press is closely tied to the recreational vehicle industry: "In our travels, representing 'Go RVing' to the boomer market, we talk to hundreds of boomers about their 'retirement' years. As you say, they are fiercely independent and believe their demographic is just themselves.

"I think bookstores will continue to attract boomers, as long as the bookstores continue to change to meet what boomers want. The ones that are most attractive to me are ones that are a combination of a living room and a library. Most boomers, although tech-savvy, would rather actually talk to each other than to text or IM each other. Make it convenient and fun to do that and the bookstores will continue to have their place on our radar."

For added perspective, Susan Fox recommends "an interesting section in Paco Underhill's Why We Buy about the aging population and the need for stores to try to meet their needs. Things like bigger signs, better lighting, books that deal with aging and retirement (and yoga). I agree with him that this is something we'll need to consider since the boomers aren't (thankfully) going to stop shopping."

No need to get out of the water yet. Baby boomer sharks don't bite; they buy.



Boomers 'Will Age, But They Won't Get Old'

Shelf Awareness: Friday, January 18, 2008

"Baby boomers, more than any other demographic group, will shape the future of the marketplace. They are in control and will remain so for decades to come. For boomers, getting older does not mean resigning oneself to a deceleration into death. They will continue to be actively involved in their lifestyles, spending lots of money and searching for more new things to try. . . . Boomers will age, but they won't grow old."--Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today . . . And They're Just Getting Started by J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman.

Last week, I offered a conversation starter. The responses were thoughtful and intriguing.

Chris Curry of A Novel Experience bookstore, Zebulon, Ga., is a boomer who notes that "although most of my contemporaries have embraced the Internet and most electronic gadgets for work and play, I think they are still inclined to prefer face-to-face socializing and 'community.' It seems that the Internet connection is handy for many of us who will probably continue working hard, changing careers and embarking on new ventures throughout our life spans, but when we encounter the concrete realities of aging, cyberspace just doesn't cut it. It's the human, real-time friend who can bring over chicken soup.

"So, I think bookstores with an authentic customer-service philosophy will continue to serve as one of the 'third places' of the community. They will be valued as such by boomers who need that irreplaceable human contact. Community-seeking will get the boomers into the town square and into the bookstore--then it's our job to sell them a book!"

A child of the boomer generation and a bookseller for 11 years, Missie Olm of the Reader's Loft, Green Bay, Wis., which has a client base "predominantly" of boomers, observed that "while boomers are reading [nonfiction] for pleasure, they are reading around the subject areas that specifically interest them. What I've found to work best in selling books to this generation is to listen. They care about their subject area and are often more informed on it than I may ever be. Ask questions.

"Fiction-reading boomers are a different and more varied group. I'm not sure it's possible to pigeonhole their reading tastes/buying habits on that side, other than to say that they generally have a very clear sense of what they like and don't like in a book. This actually makes the job easier, once you have--yes, again--listened."

David Henkes of University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash., believes that "boomers will continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar stores because they have a strong sense of independent business patronage. Realizing that deals are to be had online, boomers will continue to embrace the nostalgia, the social connection, of leaving the home and going to the local bookstore."

Another University Bookstore bookseller, Kiki Hood, added that "boomers seem to understand the art of the browse. They come into our store not necessarily looking for anything in particular, but merely to see what's here. I think they also engage more senses, smelling the subtle odor of ink, feeling the heft and the texture of the page, overhearing conversations. I think they will continue to come in to the actual store because they can speak to booksellers (and sometimes other customers) who might send them in a new direction." 

As a BB selling to other BBs, Karen Frank of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., has noticed "a marked tendency to appreciate both things and ideas that buck the trends (the '60s, anyone?). We are still rebels and seekers, though more open to the freedom new technology brings. Searching for meaning is still an issue. Individuality, tempered with social conscience, will continue to influence older readers to cherish and support any oasis of art and fine craftsmanship, whether physical or intellectual.

"I find the older customers much more willing to try a debut author and passionate about helping to educate the younger generation in the precious legacy of literature and art. I believe independent bookshops, music shops and art galleries should not surrender to the digital age, but work to reinvent and enhance the experience by using the amazing tools being invented daily in addition to the time honored conversations, beautiful objects and atmosphere that are so important for a full life . . . no matter what the age."

Keep talking to me. Inquiring boomers want to know.



What Do Baby Boomers Want (to Read)?

Shelf Awareness: January 10, 2008

If you have made it past that headline, I thank you for your patience and understanding. Boomers can be annoying, even to other boomers. I know; I'm a BB myself. On the other hand, boomers are, and will continue to be, a driving force in the bookselling world for one big reason: They still read for pleasure.

I want to pose a couple of questions this week to independent booksellers:

  1. What are your thoughts about long-term marketing to BBs?
  2. By the year 2018, will boomers still be shopping in bricks-and-mortar bookstores or primarily online?

I'd really like to know what you think. Call it a conversation starter for 2008.

Our industry keeps mourning the loss of young readers, but I wonder whether we're taking "older" readers for granted. I worry about indie bookstores in this regard because, though painfully out of context, "something's happening here."

In a recent New York Times article, headlined "Six Decades at the Center of Attention, and Counting," Charles Duhigg wrote that, "with 37 million Americans over the age of 65, and 30 million more expected to cross that thin gray line in the next decade, the boomers and older consumers still represent billions of dollars in potential sales. So once again, companies are scrambling to update their slicing and dicing of the senior marketplace."

We already knew this, of course, but as Duhigg added, "what they are finding, advertising executives say, is that some old tactics don't work anymore. Older consumers don't want to be treated like teenagers; what's more, they don't want to believe they fall into any niche at all."

The knockout punch was delivered by Blaine Branchik, an associate professor of marketing at Quinnipiac University, who told the Times, "Seniors, particularly baby boomers, each believe they belong to a market segment made up of exactly one person. Many believe the only thing they have in common is that they are all so unique that they have nothing in common."

Boomers who turned 60 last week will not go gently into that good night. They will continue to reinvent themselves, individually as well as collectively. We will hear that 60 is the new 40 and 70 is the new 50, and eventually that 90 is the new 70.

Technology will play a key role in this one-person marketing strategy. As boomers age, many of the stereotypes about what might be called Electronics Deficiency Syndrome will vanish. On the road to hip dotage, a substantial percentage of aging boomers will be tech-savvy in ways their parents' generation never was.

As Matt Richtel pointed out in the Times last fall, "Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users. The sites have names like Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Maya's Mom, Boomj and Boomertown. They look like Facebook--with wrinkles. And they are seeking to capitalize on what investors say may be a profitable characteristic of older Internet users: they are less likely than youngsters to flit from one trendy site to the next."

Maybe BBs have always preferred their individuality on a global scale.

At sales floor level in the bookstore, I've notice a marked decline in the number of older customers boasting about their Luddite status or the innate brilliance of their android progeny with iPod ear implants and dexterous, texting fingertips. Boomers have never shown a tendency to surrender center stage, and it is hard to imagine that they won't carry at least some of their 'tude into old age.

According to Richtel "there are 78 million boomers--roughly three times the number of teenagers--and most of them are Internet users who learned computer skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm."

But . . . boomers still read and they still buy books.

The dilemma here is whether, as they turn 65, 70, 75, they will continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar bookshops or will point-and-click their purchases because the Internet is where they have found community and individuality.

Check your crystal balls and tell me what you see in the future. Boomer jokes also welcome.



Finding the Still Center of a Spinning Wheel

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, January 3, 2007

How does a frontline bookseller prepare for this?

By Christmas Eve, you feel they will keep coming at you forever. You know that the book business is in trouble and that indie booksellers are hanging on by their fingernails. You read for a living. You love handselling, and you realize that fewer people are reading for pleasure now. You really are grateful for this relentless invasion of gift buyers, but you can't help marveling at how many people have managed to arrive at your cash register simultaneously.

And they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, CDs, DVDs, toys and sidelines that have somehow managed to grow arms and legs. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.

The questions come at you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Water for Elephants any good? Does A Thousand Splendid Suns come in paperback? Why isn't Eat, Pray, Love with the fiction bestsellers? Could you page my husband? Where's your rest room?

You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.

Standing at your besieged cash register, your last line of defense, you are the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and converse with the multitudes as your hands move repeatedly through a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a Blackjack dealer--the scanning of items, the ceremonial currency exchange, the bagging or the gift wrapping.

Thank you very much.

Sometimes you shift to another counter, just for the change. Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you straighten shelves and displays. Sometimes you restock. Sometimes you fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell and sometimes, amazingly, you do.

Always, everywhere, you do whatever you can to make it work. You must. Bets have been booked; books have been bet. The stakes are high.

The book world is a gamblers' paradise and December is high season. After a year of preparation, authors, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers and everyone else connected with the tens of thousands of books in the kitty are "all in" for the final month. They've played the odds, taken educated risks, put their money where their mouths (or reading eyes) are.  

So, how does a frontline bookseller prepare for all this?

I watched Croupier.

Not only is this film--starring Clive Owen and directed by Mike Hodges--one of the great movies about writers, it is also an ideal training film for surviving the retail holiday onslaught.

Owen plays Jack Manfred, an aspiring novelist with an inherent gift for casino work as a dealer and croupier. The film opens with a slow-motion shot of Jack at his roulette table. The crowd elbows in, getting their bets down, but he is in a silent world of his own creation: "Now, he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune. The world turned round him, leaving him miraculously untouched. The croupier had reached his goal. He no longer heard the sound of the ball."

At the cash register, in the heat of the game during the past few weeks, I experienced that sense of detachment sometimes. In the film, Jack feels "up above the world, a writer looking down on his subject . . . a detached . . . observer."

But of course the game pulls you back in, again and again, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

The week after Christmas is a curious thing. The retail intensity continues, but the upbeat adrenaline that infused a season of joy to the world and peace on earth often devolves into the impatience of product returns and grumpy children of all ages.

You begin to understand why 2007 is represented by an old man with a scythe, while 2008 is a newborn baby. The year, in its last week, shows its age.

And then, quite suddenly, it's all over. Just like that. You won or you lost. The chips are swept from the table and the dealer announces a new game.

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets for 2008.