A Member-First Mentality

How the American Booksellers Association leads its members by taking a few cues from the chain-store competition's playbook.

Any independent retailer will tell you that, for whatever his or her store might lack in the economies of scale of its chain-store competitors, it makes up for in uniqueness and creativity in its products and shopping experience.

But what if a retailer could have the best of both worlds?

Enter the American Booksellers Association, which guides independent booksellers as they compete with chain bookstores and Amazon. Two weeks ago, I profiled Oren Teicher, CEO of ABA, and his yearly visit to work in a member’s store. Teicher is a man of the members, as evidenced by both his store visits and his periodic letters to the ABA membership via its weekly e-newsletter.

We’re able to create some critical mass and have some economy of scale to be able to do things on behalf of a larger number of stores.

Reading two of Teicher’s recent messages, I couldn’t help but get the impression of a coach motivating his team or a manager encouraging his salesforce—or, to put a finer point on it, the CEO of a national chain speaking to franchise managers.

In his November message, he got members geared up for ABA’s first-ever multi-publisher promotion, “Thanks for Shopping Indie”:

[T]his multi-publisher promotion provides us a unique and very important opportunity to clearly demonstrate to the industry as a whole the singular importance of indie booksellers. Success here will speak very loudly. I very much hope that you will add your experience and enthusiasm to this promotion—both for your own store’s sales and for the continued success of the entire indie channel.

And in January, after the holiday sales season:

[S]ales at independent booksellers nationwide ended the year up almost eight percent as compared to 2011. … I know we are surrounded by those articulating a far more pessimistic appraisal of the state of bookselling, but our numbers are what they are. I don’t for one second underestimate the myriad challenges we continue to face—and I appreciate that the increases in sales did not happen in every store—but the fact is that 2012 was a good year for independent bookstores in the United States.

I asked Teicher about the comparison to a national chain, and he was quick to point out that ABA prizes the individuality of its member stores—”If they’re all the same, then we lose what makes us unique and what makes us appealing to consumers,” he said—but he also touted ABA’s efforts to collectively strengthen the sector.

“In today’s world, particularly when you represent retailers who are working 24/7 to keep the doors open, there are all kinds of things you can do on their behalf that are very, very difficult and expensive for individual stores to do by themselves. So in that way we probably do have some greater similarity to what a national office would do,” he said. “We’re able to create some critical mass and have some economy of scale to be able to do things on behalf of a larger number of stores.”

To name a few:

  • The “Thanks for Shopping Indie” promotion that ABA developed.
  • The IndieBound website and accompanying promotional campaign materials that stores can use.
  • Its partnership with Kobo to sell e-readers in member stores.
  • An e-commerce platform that about 400 member stores use.
  • ABA even jumped on the smartphone app trend way back in April 2009 with an app that allowed users to locate nearby independent bookstores.

It’s a careful balance to strike, Teicher said, between coordinating broad efforts for stores to participate in and fostering their independence. “We often joke that the heart of what we do as an association is teach people how to all be different from each other,” he said.

When you shop for books in your neighborhood, you don’t stop by your local ABA location, of course. ABA operates in the background, supporting its member stores with consumers none the wiser. That’s the mission of any good association, but ABA’s work shows an impressive member-first mindset. If your association is caught up in recruitment numbers, product sales, or attendee levels, maybe you’ve drifted too far into association-first territory. Put the members first, and the membership numbers will follow. ABA knows; its membership has grown for the past three years.

“At the end of the day, as a trade association representing retailers, if we can help make our stores be more profitable businesses, then there’s a reason for us to exist,” Teicher said. “If we can’t do that, then there’s less of a reason for us to exist.”


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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