So sad to miss you, Wi13!

Unlike my ShelfTalker colleagues who were blogging away from Memphis last week, I had to miss Winter Institute this year. I had planned to go, but had an unexpected conflict arise. I always hate to miss the show because of the education and idea starters I always receive there. One of the sessions I had wanted to attend was the ABC Idea Exchange about training general booksellers to hand-sell children’s books, because this is actually something that’s been on my mind lately. One of the most useful things about the ABA education sessions is that they sometimes come along at just the right time to help nudge a simmering brainstorm into action. But even if you can’t go to the show, simply getting some notes from a colleague can help focus your own thoughts and push an idea forward.

We are lucky enough to have a truly exceptional and robust children’s bookselling team, but as a general store that’s open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week and a staff of about 100 people, every bookseller has to be prepared to help in any section. As children’s booksellers, we all know why the children’s section can feel daunting to non-specialists. Because purchases are generally made by adults, and they are usually buying books for a child (who may or may not be present), we simply see a higher volume of requests for help and expertise. People want help finding wonderful stories, but they also have questions about reading level and age appropriateness, they want to be directed to next-reads for popular series, and they want to know what books will turn the light bulb on for a reluctant reader. Oh, and what if someone just really needs a picture book with beavers in it because it happens to be their kid’s favorite animal (have you tried A House in the Woods?). It can be a lot! So how do you prepare a new general bookseller to handle all that?

In our initial training round, our store manager offers an intensive multi-day training curriculum that includes an introduction to hand-selling that really does get people ready to hit the ground running. New hires also train with each of our inventory managers in their sections. Our BookKids inventory manager walks all trainees through the basics of the kids’ section:

  • reviewing the layout and organization of our 4,000 square foot kids’ section
  • introducing them to some of the core people they can learn from
  • highlighting our plentiful staff selections as a resource for becoming familiar with store favorites
  • talking through some of the sections we’ve created to help customers help themselves, like our Irresistible Reads for reluctant readers
  • introducing our reference database (an admittedly sprawling Google doc that helps booksellers find books for common needs and queries)
  • letting them practice finding books on their own

Obviously there’s more informal training along the way once people start. I also typically give a talk at our fall staff meeting with hand-selling tips, some hot titles for the holidays, and an overview of how to use the “5 Finger Rule” to help a child find a book that’s the right level if they are not sure. However, I know that some of our general booksellers still feel a degree of BookKids-phobia.

I think our 101 first week training does a terrific job of setting people up to get started in any area of the store. But what about once they’ve settled in? Our Gifts Buyer asked an excellent question a few weeks ago in our weekly operations meeting. She asked whether we’re offering opportunities for 201 training in a specialty department like gifts (or BookKids), where general booksellers may not feel as naturally comfortable and may not come into their initial training knowing what questions to ask us. And I think that’s the exact right thing for us to ask ourselves. We know lots of tips and tricks that can help people feel more comfortable navigating the kids’ section, but we need to create more opportunities to focus on teaching them—and not when someone’s already trying to learn everything at once.

With some exceptions such as temporary holiday cashiers, we generally hire our new booksellers in groups about three times a year. I brainstormed a bit with our store managers, and we’re going to experiment with offering children’s hand-selling and troubleshooting training about a month after each of those rounds. I’ll encourage new hires to come, but also invite anyone on staff who wants a hand-selling refresher and an overview of go-to titles for the season. I’m hopeful some of our seasoned general booksellers will come to talk about which questions they still feel ill-equipped to answer. Will this model help? Is this the right schedule? We’ll see, but we’re going to test it out and see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, let me know if you have any 201 training strategies that work in your stores that we should consider.

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