Vroman's bookstore, in Pasadena, Calif., is surrounded by enemies. Big enemies. Half a mile to the west is a Barnes & Noble superstore; half a mile to the south lies a Borders. And two Super Crown Books stores are within two miles. Neighbors like those have driven many small booksellers out of business. But by emphasizing its community ties, Southern California's largest independent bookstore has not only survived but flourished.
In July the bookstore launched Vroman's Give Back (VGB) program, which donates a portion of sales to local charities. Customers who sign up for a free VGB membership have an amount equal to 1% of their purchases earmarked to benefit one of 23 organizations. In the program's first six months, Vroman's raised $21,000 and added thousands of new customers to its mailing list. "People are saying, 'What a cool thing you're doing," says Vroman's vice-president Karen Watkins. "The response has been incredible."
Another benefit is that partner charities publicize the store in their newsletters, which brings in new shoppers. By tracking the purchases of VGB members, Vroman's has been able to refine its direct-marketing campaigns. "If we have a mystery writer coming in for a book signing," Watkins says, "we no longer have to send out postcards to all our customers. Instead, we'll mail them to customers interested in that genre."
Although the program shaves about 15% off the bookseller's net profits, Watkins credits it with helping to boost sales. Vroman's had its best Christmas ever this past year, even though the 40,000-square-foot Borders had opened nearby a few months earlier. The program, which is expected to raise another $75,000 this year, has generated so much customer goodwill that the bookstore plans to run it indefinitely. "We're in this for the long haul," Watkins says. "And the VGB program gives customers just one more reason to shop here."