Getting prospective shoppers into your store is important, of course, but it’s only half the battle. Just as crucial is what you do with them once they’re there. And that’s why Sue Smith’s in-store retail approach might best be called an exit strategy: she wants people to feel good when they leave.

Great customer service is “all about how you feel,” she explains. “How much from one to 10 do I enjoy being here? I rate all the stores I go in to; when I leave it’s, ‘That was a six’ or ‘That was a seven.’”

Central to providing that great experience at Baker Book House is banning the word “no.” That means honoring coupons even if all the fine print isn’t quite right. In that same light, the returns policy is really more of a suggestion. “If I don’t have the book on the shelf, but I could sell it, why would I make that customer angry by saying, ‘No, you can’t return that here’?”

In similar fashion, staff are given the discretion to match a discount of up to 20 percent if a customer talks of a better price somewhere else, or even just not being able to afford the regular price for some reason. During the Christmas season, everyone was given the opportunity to pass on a 50 percent savings to one customer.

“It just seems that at Christmas people’s budgets are stretched more,” says Smith. “It’s kind of a neat thing to be able to do. Not all the staff use it; it’s interesting, the more you empower staff to do that kind of thing, they get more cautious.”


Sue Smith, Baker Book House Manager

Having the scale of the Grand Rapids, MI store―around 18,000 expanded square feet since a major refit a few years ago, and 45 full- and part-time staff―makes some things more do-able than for smaller stores, but they can still get ideas from the way Baker Book House approaches retail.

One case in point is the Baker Book Buyer Program, which was introduced last year. The initiative was floated as an alternative to Scholastic’s schoolbook fairs, after some Christian parents expressed concerns that the content of some general market children books on offer was getting a bit dark. So far four area Christian schools have signed up for the initiative, but “it has the potential to be huge,” says Smith. “There’s high interest. There’s a hole there that no one is filling right now; the Christian content [we can provide] is very important for them.”

It’s not only the size of the store Smith manages―she’s been there 17 years, in charge 10―that sets Baker Book House a little apart from many other Christian stores. The business is unequivocally a bookstore: “We want to be about the spiritual welfare of the church. I feel we have a responsibility to put good books in the hands of the church,” says Smith, echoing a recent CBA Retailers+Resources column she penned as chair of the CBA board, encouraging others to be more book-centered.

The gift department has grown in recent years as music sales have shrunk, but it’s at the rear of the store. Books and Bibles, which account for 80 percent of business, are front and center.

A good chunk of revenues come from the used book section that, with around 100,000 titles, has more old titles than some smaller stores have new. The area was left largely untouched in the makeover in response to customer’ appeals that it retain its unique character, basic and a bit dusty.

Serving several seminaries and colleges in the area and many students purchasing online, the used books department buys up old library collections. During the academic season there can be 400 Amazon orders waiting to be processed on a Monday morning. There’s also a large bargain and remainder section, where Smith buys in at 90 percent discount and sells for 60 percent.

Staff Incentives

Part of creating and maintaining the store’s book culture involves hiring readers, not sales clerks. When interviewing prospective staff, Smith will ask them to select a book from the shelves they have read recently and tell her about it.

After 90 days, employees can read for free. They can take any book home for two weeks; after that, they can bring it back to go on the shelf, if it’s in pristine condition, or buy it at cost. They also enjoy a perk courtesy of parent company Baker Publishing Group (BPG)―90 free titles each year.

At weekly staff meetings, people are asked to share a little bit about the latest book they’re reading, which helps inform others. That way, though Smith isn’t likely to choose a heavy academic book to read, “if I’m working with a customer who is, I know something about it.”

Another way in which Baker Book House differs from many other Christian retail stores is when it comes to signage: there isn’t any, other than for category headers.

“I don’t like it. There’s something about it that turns me off,” says Smith. “I don’t think people read it, anyway; my experience is that they always ask, even if they are looking right at it.”

That means an opportunity to interact with shoppers, though there is a map in the center of the store to help people find their way around.

With its large inventory and full-service coffee bar, the store attracts students who like to hang out and serves as a meeting space for local church staffs. There is also a dedicated area for special events, from weekly movie screenings to regular author signings and an annual princess party that includes a parade around the store.

Author Events

Author events are a great opportunity to get ‘new circles’ in the store

Centered in a hub for the Christian publishing world―BPG and Zondervan are among those in the area―there’s no shortage of well-known writers ready to visit. Yet the store also hosts local and self-published authors, though in a way that is a little different―Baker charges them for the opportunity. There are three tiers, from a simple table in the entrance, to a full package that includes presentation time and marketing support.

It’s worth the store’s effort because “they bring their circles; that’s new people coming into the store, marketing you just can’t pay for.” Smith has learned that an author event works best when the people speak about their book. “People want to hear their passion, their heart behind the subject.”

Visitors are told that the relevant book is available on special offer, but there’s no heavy sell.

“We really want people to have a good experience in here, to feel welcome and comfortable,” says Smith. “We want to be a place where people come to learn and discover.”

Newspaper advertising, coupon book promotions, and some radio spots support events, though “we don’t put a lot of money into it because you can’t measure it.” Last summer Smith took part in a weekly discussion on a local Christian radio station about new books.

Then there’s social media; when events are live, the store will tweet a half-price offer on the featured book good for a couple of hours. Facebook posts are made several times a day, often with a question about a book and the promise that everyone who responds will have their name entered into a drawing.

Not everything the store has tried has worked, like the Church of the Month promotion that featured information and photos about a local congregation, with a percentage of all sales to members going to the church.

“We thought it was a genius idea,” Smith recalls. Not so much. “It just didn’t draw people. Churches weren’t interested.”

Looking to the future, Smith emphasizes the importance of meeting her customers’ needs.

“That customer is a gift to us; they could be anywhere else, or on the Internet. They don’t have to be here, so let’s treat them like a gift.”

-Andy Butcher