As an independent bookseller, Joseph-Beth Booksellers has dealt with a great deal of change in recent years. But the company believes it has a strong foundation and offers a unique experience that can help it grow in the future.

“We’re one of largest independent booksellers in the United States,” President and CEO Mark Wilson says. “What makes us unique is our store-within-a-store concept.” 

Founded in Lexington, Ky., in 1986, Joseph-Beth currently has four stores in Lexington and Crestview Hills, Ky.; Cincinnati; and at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland. This is a smaller footprint than the company had just a few years ago.

Previously, the company operated seven bookstores under the Joseph-Beth name and two under the Davis-Kidd Booksellers name. The Davis-Kidd Booksellers stores came into the company portfolio after it absorbed four Davis-Kidd locations in Tennessee, keeping the Nashville and Memphis locations open.

However, in 2010 the company was forced to restructure and recapitalize its business. After a sequence of events that led to store closings and changes to its ownership structure, the company ended up with Joseph-Beth locations in Lexington, Cincinnati and at the Cleveland Clinic. In November 2011, the company expanded with the opening of the Joseph-Beth in Crestview Hills.

Personal Appeal

Today, the 45,000-square-foot Lexington location is its flagship store. The Cincinnati store is a 35,000-square-foot space, while Crestview Hills tops out at 20,000 square feet. The Cleveland Clinic location is a 5,500-square-foot specialty store.

Joseph-Beth offers approximately 74,000 titles, but what helps set the three main locations apart are the features that make Joseph-Beth more than just a bookstore. The Lexington and Cincinnati locations have full-service, sit-down restaurants. All three locations have dedicated children’s departments that focus on special educational and developmental items. 

Joseph-Beth has also developed vignettes at its locations. For example, the Lexington store has a cooking section that features a built-out kitchen. “It helps people feel like they are at home when they are in our store,” Wilson says. “We have a working fireplace, and people can sit in front of the fire and read.”

These amenities are key reasons why consumers continue to visit Joseph-Beth. But that isn’t something the company simply hopes is true – it has a database of 65,000 emails and sends out surveys on an annual basis. It receives a 12 percent response rate, which provides it with insight into what its consumers are thinking.

“When we asked our customers in our surveys why they shop at Joseph-Beth, they tell us that their top three reasons are our ambiance, unique product selection, and our customer service. The fact that we focus on supporting our local communities, and are independent also ranked high,” Wilson says. “We spend a lot of time and focus on our gift product specialty items, working closely with local vendors to help them showcase unique product offerings. The combination of all these offerings differentiate us from our competitors.”

Beyond Transactions

Joseph-Beth understands that it must be strategic and scientific to be competitive. Disruptive channels such as Amazon and disruptive technologies like e-readers have changed the playing field. To compete, the company must provide a different and memorable experience that engages customers and enriches its communities.

“If we are just a transaction, the customer will go elsewhere,” Wilson says. “Our goal is to create experiential retail. The average customer shops for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. They will meet with friends, maybe at children’s story time in our mini amphitheater, browse the latest books, peruse the local gift selection and then enjoy lunch or dinner in the Bronte Bistro.” 

Events are a key piece of Joseph-Beth’s strategy. It works with publishers to bring in well-known authors, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Anne Lamott. It organizes community appreciation days and brings in local authors. It has events with the Cincinnati Zoo for an animal story time, and the zoo brings an animal to the event. It also works closely with local schools to help promote reading and gets involved with children. Stores will execute on average 20 events per month.

“We market ourselves inside our stores and have full-time marketing people - building our local community relationships,” Wilson says. “We do school book fairs, handling everything for the school and giving them 20 percent of the revenue from the fair. That gets us closer to teachers, parents and students and helps to capture these key influencers of readers.” 

For Joseph-Beth to continue its resurgence, it must understand where opportunities are inside the business. It must be scientific in its approach and continue to look at key metrics like inventory turns, staffing optimization and vendor profitability, while also monitoring marketplace changes. 

“We understand the book business isn’t getting bigger,” Wilson says. “We’ve invested in our team and in capital improvements. We must continue to grow our competencies, as well as our gift products and restaurant business. We have transitioned our overall business strategy to align with where we eventually see this market. We have shifted our mix from a business that was primarily book sales to now a business where books represent 46 percent of sales. We will continue to reinvest and adapt as the market shifts. We’re just completing the implementation of a full ERP system, which will allow us to have real time data and enable us to react faster to the customer needs, providing for a better customer service experience.”

In the years ahead, Joseph-Beth plans to grow through smaller store formats. The Cleveland Clinic store is something it wants to duplicate.

“The hospital market is underserved,” Wilson says. “Hospital retailing is often stale and not representative of the hospital brand. We can elevate that by creating an experience where product is refreshed weekly, present a professional retail image while often generating more revenues for the hospitals. Overall, we’ll continue to adjust our store mix and invest in our people so they provide superior service compared to a two-dimensional online purchase.”