GRAND RAPIDS — In a matter of months, the coronavirus pandemic transformed a Grand Rapids-based independent bookseller’s business model.
Following Michigan’s stay-at-home order in late March, Schuler Books Inc. “immediately focused our marketing intensely” on social media to drive online sales, owner Bill Fehsenfeld told MiBiz. In April, Schuler Books did 23 times as many online sales compared to April 2019, and double its typical annual online business.
Fehsenfeld, who opened the first Schuler Books in Grand Rapids with wife Cecile in 1982, said the company had to redesign the way it managed online ordering.
“It totally changed our process to make it much more efficient,” he said. “We never could have handled that kind of internet volume.”
Typically, online orders through Schuler Books are fulfilled by Ingram Content Group, a Tennessee-based national book wholesaler. With the increased volume, Schuler hired back more workers to fulfill orders directly off its shelves. Now online orders are filled in both Michigan and Tennessee.
On April 24, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order allowing non-essential retail stores to fulfill curbside and delivery orders. With these and online orders, Fehsenfeld said more than 30 employees are back to work at the company’s three stores in Grand Rapids, Okemos and Ann Arbor.
“People were thrilled when curbside opened up,” Fehsenfeld said.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Schuler Books laid off a “large portion” of its staff but has kept them on the company’s health insurance plan while on leave. The closure of dine-in restaurants also “really affected us,” Fehsenfeld said. Schuler Books’ stores include full-menu Chapbook Cafes, which didn’t translate well to take-out service, he added.
Across the U.S., independent bookstores have been sent to the brink after a post-Great Recession renaissance a decade ago. They’ve had to pivot to online sales to stay afloat, or turn to crowdfunding in the case of famous San Francisco shop City Lights.
Fehsenfeld said the effects are being felt differently across indie bookstores. Schuler Books, for example, exceed 20,000 square feet and can offer a range of products beyond books. Puzzles have been a huge seller lately, he said.
As well, Schuler Books was in a “good position” with no debt prior to the pandemic, and also qualified for a federal Paycheck Protection Loan in the first round of funding, Fehsenfeld said. However, he did note the irony of the PPP program in having to use most of the funds for payroll to have the loan qualify for forgiveness, even though the stores couldn’t open. His “biggest fear” moving forward is a second wave of COVID-19 coming in the fall and going into the holiday season.
“It would be a disaster,” he said.
Overall, Fehsenfeld says his industry continues to benefit from a loyal customer base.
“The advantage we have in our business is there’s a place in people’s heart for their local independent bookstores,” he said. “There’s a lot of support from our customers doing everything you can to keep the business going.”
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