An independent spirit: Time Out Bookstore on community, loyalty and cats

Jenna Todd, Time Out manager

Nestled in the heart of Mt Eden village you’ll find independent bookstore Time Out. Open from 9am to 9pm, seven days a week, it’s a calming, inviting space and a local community hub.

Manager Jenna Todd, who has worked at the bookstore since 2010, leads a team of 13 staff.

Todd recently spoke at the Magazine Publisher’s Associations’ conference ‘Thinking Forward’, the only bookseller and retailer on the lineup.  

When StopPress asks about the similarities she sees between magazines and independent bookstores she says John Baker, managing director of Lassoo Media, who was on her panel about boutique businesses alongside editor of Together Journal Greta Kenyon, triggered something in her brain about curation.

“How we curate our space to be individualised and specialised and personalised – that’s what magazines do as well. He wanted the guests at the conference to think about their magazine as if it were a physical space.”

While Time Out is fiercely loved by loyal customers, Todd says in 2011/2012, it went through a dip in sales.

“The Global Financial Crisis started in 2008 but it hit New Zealand a bit later. I think it was a combination of the media telling people to stop spending money, or that dialogue about people being cautious about their money, and the boom of e-books was a factor in a way.”

She says the change in smartphones with people shopping online also had an impact.

“Once you send your money offshore, it’s never going to come back to us so how do you tell customers without being mean? It’s almost like you want to switch the conversation around so it’s about what the value of your dollar is when you spend it here, so you’re validating people’s purchases.”

So, Time Out made a few changes. The first was quite simple. There was a list that came out from IndieBound – who look after indie American booksellers – and the list said, ‘This is what you just did’. It had 10 points about spending money in the local economy such as, ‘You’ve created jobs, you’re supporting innovation, you’re paying tax’. Time Out printed this list on its paper bags.

“It was just a list but the feedback we got was really positive, people saying ‘I’d never thought about it this way before,” Todd says.

“Another thing with the change with internet shopping, GFC and the internet, in general, was the change in social media and how that became more important…I think previous managers didn’t have to think about these things and suddenly we have to take an active thought and direction.”

In 2011 Time Out realised it had a functioning Twitter account – someone had set it up years ago but then it just sat there.

Since then it has taken more of an active look at social media. It currently has 2,398 followers on Twitter, 3,539 on Facebook and 742 on Instagram.

Its Instagram account is called @dogsatimetout which is ironic considering the bookstore’s logo is a cat.

“We had our famous shop cat Oscar who died in 2010. He lived here and when Wendy the owner bought the shop, he was part of the package,” Todd says.

After Oscar died the bookstore got a new cat, Lucinda. However, she was a bit neurotic and preferred staying home with her human dad.

“So, we weren’t having a cat anymore and lots of customers have dogs and they would tie them up outside. We started saying ‘bring them inside’ and both the staff and dogs really enjoy that.”

It’s not just dogs featured on Time Out’s social media accounts, with the team posting about new books, showcasing the Booker Prize long and shortlists and publicising upcoming events.

A trend Todd is noticing with social media is people telling others what they’re reading and really actively engaged with the #shelfie community.

From Time Out’s website

“They know everything that’s coming out and some of them are even in touch with publishers because they have had blogs in the past. They’re shopping everywhere – coming to us, Unity, Women’s Bookstore – and I know that because they always post when they’re going into a bookstore,” she says.

These young people are in their mid-20s, Todd explains, just finished university, have spare income for books, listen to The High Low podcast and what’s talked about on The High Low millennials will come in and buy.

“You also have Reese Witherspoon, Emma Watson, celebrity book clubs – I think it’s very smart of those guys to plug into that genre and demographic.”

Empowering the local community

Alongside bookselling, Time Out engages with the local literary community. Upstairs is a space that’s available for free, used mostly by book clubs and for book launches.

It’s been going like this for a long time, Todd explains.

“Because we’re open until 9pm there’s the opportunity without having to have staff stay late that the space can be used. People have meetings but at night it’s mostly book clubs. They book on an online calendar – it’s really full and there are people that have been coming for years and use it like their lounge.

“Hopefully our bonus is that people will buy books when they come here,” she adds.

“It introduces people to the space if they haven’t been here before. I think when people come in for the first time if they don’t spend money that’s not a failure, you might be plugged into something later.”

Some of the team also deliver books to customers on their e-bikes, but only in the local area.

When asked if Time Out uses data or algorithms, Todd says it has a great digital loyalty system.

Established in 2012, people can sign up and 10 percent of what they spend sits as credit for next time they make a purchase.

“It got rid of the loyalty cards where you just stand watching people go through their wallets all the time and that fed us into knowing people’s names,” Todd says.

“That collects data on customers and I don’t think in a scary way – it just keeps a list of what they’ve brought and it means that I can go into our back office and look up when there’s a new book comes out, say David Walliams, and I can email everybody on our loyalty system that has bought Walliams’ books and send them a direct email saying his new book is coming out. Lots of responses will come back. I try not to do it too much but for kid’s books it really works.”

Time Out has two buyers – owner Wendy Tighe-Umbers and Kiran Dass, who Todd says, make a great team.

“Kiran is super plugged into what’s new, who’s talking about what, super fresh and then Wendy because she’s worked here for 17 years and she’s in her 70s she’s got that kind of core baseline of what people love.

“We don’t use data to make decisions on buying, we talk to our customers, we know them well and what they like. This is an intimate space so you can’t help but see what people are purchasing.”

Dass and Todd are both also regularly on the radio, doing monthly book reviews on the Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme and on student radio station bFM, and are part of The Spinoff’s Papercuts podcast.

In January, Todd heads to her third American Booksellers conference. One addition she has brought back from American bookstores is that they were selling socks – so Time Out does now too.

“It really works. We don’t have much room for giftware, and they don’t take up much space”.

Something else it has bought in is a book subscription programme with people able to do a bi-monthly or a monthly subscription. Currently, there are 25 people taking part.

“Essentially, people fill out a questionnaire, then at the start of every month I gather all of the people who are ready to go and then we choose the next book for them and they get a surprise book in the post…some people want new releases, some are back list, we just try and ask as many questions as possible so it’s personalised.”

Looking ahead

Todd says Time Out is in the planning for a bumper Christmas.

“It’s all about Christmas, we do a third of our yearly sales at Christmas and everything is just preparation for Christmas. It’s insane – in those weeks before, we start selling what we do in a week, in a day.”

Whether it’s picking up last-minute Christmas presents or a visit to buy the store’s book of the month, Todd says Time Out’s aim is to be people’s third place.  

Books, beautiful books!

A post shared by Dogs At Time Out Bookstore (@dogsattimeout) on

“There’s a sociologist in the US called Ray Oldenburg and he inspired a bookstore that I did an internship at called Third Place Books. I just loved the whole idea that you have your work, your home and your third place wherever that may be.

“[Time Out] is a non-judgemental space, everyone is an equal when they walk in, you want people to have a home away from home, to feel comfortable.”

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