Don't worry, I didn't forget. It is, still, technically Tuesday.
I promised a chat about the differences in customer service between indies and chains, didn't I?
I'm going to let you in on a little secret first. Ready?
There are good booksellers working in both chains and indies.
I'll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor.
The truth is, you can't always paint something like this with a broad brush. Once upon a time, ten years ago, I could (and often did) say that customer service in a Borders or a B&N sucked. Because, a lot of the time, it did.
But oh, the times, they are a-changin', and we have seen a shift in attitudes. Companies everywhere are realizing that sure, you can have a huge selection, and pride yourself on convenience, but if your employees are jerks to your customers, the customers will go elsewhere.
I don't care how big or small a company is, or what they sell. Thanks to the vastness of the internet, they're not the only game in town anymore. So, how do you hold on to your customer base?
You treat 'em nicely. You remember their names, the things they like to buy, if they have kids or cats or exotic fish. You help without pushing and smile when they walk in the door.
As much as I'd like to say in this regard, "The chains are cold and heartless and don't help their customers," I'd be lying. My husband occasionally goes to Borders before he picks me up from work (I know. I'll smite him later.) He's been trying to get his hands on George RR Martin's early Wild Cards books, which are currently out of print. The employee there suggested he try checking with Pandemonium. When next he visited (more smitings), the employee remembered him, and had another recommendation - Asimov's had collected the titles into hardcover editions at some point; maybe they'd still have some available. He helped him search for a copy of it. They didn't have it in stock, but it was a good lead.
It's the same thing I'd have done, in an indie.
Working in a bookstore of any flavor pretty much requires that you love to read and have some kind of passion for bookselling. There are probably other retail jobs where employees can just phone it in, but it takes a different kind of person to work in a bookstore. If you don't love it, you're not going to last very long.
There are places where indies can outshine the chains for customer service, though. (You didn't think I was going to call it a draw, did you?)
When you have three stories worth of books, it's awfully hard to keep track of your customers. I can wander around the stacks at a B&N and never see someone who's working there unless I go to the register or the customer service kiosk in the middle of the store. Indies are (on average) smaller. At Booksmith, I could look around the store and see who was where, and they could see me.
That smaller feel made it easier to approach customers, too. Sometimes, people simply didn't need help. They wanted to plunk themselves down in front of the history section and browse for a while. I usually said hello as they came into the store, then gave them a couple of minutes to poke around before I asked if there was something I could help them find. Sometimes they declined; sometimes they didn't.
But there was always someone within sight to ask.
I'd like to suggest that the smaller atmosphere makes it easier for indie booksellers to know who their regulars are, but as I'm typing it, I find I'm hesitating. Having only indie bookstore experience, I might well be wrong on this. I would be very curious to hear from someone who has worked in both an indie and a chain bookstore, to see if the larger customer base at a chain made it harder to develop relationships with customers.
One the one hand, I'd say yes - you're seeing more people on a daily basis and therefore can't devote as much time to each customer. But, on the other, most customers only truly need two minutes of your time or less ("Magazines? They're right up here at the front. Let me show you.") The ones who come in and talk about their favorite author with you for twenty minutes aren't lining up all throughout your shift, waiting for their turns to chat.
Hmm. I'd love to hear comments on this one.
My point here is, bookstores of all kinds can offer great customer service. Indies have always had it. The chains have recognized its importance and focused their efforts accordingly. If you receive subpar service anywhere, you have the right to talk to a manager - they want to know, so they can fix the problem. Doesn't matter if it's a tiny bookstore in the middle of nowhere or a B&N in the middle of Manhattan.
Good customer service should be the rule, not the exception.