Something remarkable is happening. In the chaotic churn of COVID-19, an election year, and the Black Lives Matter movement, more people than ever are buying books online from local and independent bookstores. In March, our customers amazed us with a mountain of orders, and their continued support is helping us stay open. Every day, our hearts are filled to bursting with gratitude, while our minds and bodies are occupied with getting packages out of the door as quickly as possible.
It’s this last part — moving books from here to there — that poses the biggest challenges for indie bookstores, and small businesses in general, in a pandemic economy defined by e-commerce. While Amazon and other large retailers have proprietary distribution systems and favorable contracts to rely on for speedy delivery, stores like Powell’s are dependent on a nexus of independent companies to fulfill orders. While Powell’s is currently operating at its fastest processing times ever, shipping remains a complex process with a lot of moving pieces, and so — understanding that bookstore customers everywhere are kind, patient, and curious about the status of their orders — we’re channeling our inner David Macauley
to share with you the way things work
Part One: What Happens While You Wait for Your Order?
In most cases, a Powell’s order takes one of two paths:
- The customer orders on Powells.com → We have the book on-site at our warehouse or in one of our stores → We locate the book and drive it to our warehouse → We ship the book to the customer
- The customer orders on Powells.com → The book is available at a wholesale distributor called Ingram → Ingram ships the book to the customer
Pretty simple and pretty fast.
So, what complicates this delivery chain? Four main issues.
If you’ve worked in retail you know: Inventory is an art. Customer demand, manufacturing issues, cost, and space limitations are only four factors that help determine what books a store has on hand. Right now, publisher backorders are slowing down the ordering process, especially for books by Black authors. Mass interest in learning about the Black experience means that demand is outstripping supply. Stores and book distributors alike are waiting for publishers to reprint and ship them copies of books like So You Want to Talk About Race
and How to Be an Antiracist
. Backorders can take weeks or even months to arrive, depending on the manufacturing requirements of the book, the size of the publisher, and retail competition for copies.
Another key element is the geographical location of the book at the time of the order. Books that are already in a store’s inventory will usually be the fastest to ship out. However, since most bookstores have a limited amount of physical space in which to store surplus books, many offer their customers the ability to shop directly from a wholesale distributor on their own websites; the distributor then ships the package to the customer. This process is called “drop shipping” and it’s pretty efficient. That said the geographical location of the distributor will impact delivery times. On Powells.com, we allow customers to order from local and remote warehouses. Depending on where you live, a book ordered from the remote warehouse in Tennessee will take longer to arrive than one available locally.
Shipping becomes more complicated when a customer orders multiple books from different locations, or from remote locations, at one time. Say a customer orders four books from Powells.com: two are already on hand in our stores, but two need to be purchased from Ingram. In this situation, Powell’s must wait until Ingram ships those two books to us before we can complete and send the order. If the books are coming from the local warehouse in Roseburg, OR, the waiting period is short. But books ordered from the TN warehouse are currently taking 10-14 days to reach Portland. Add in the three days it typically takes for us to complete and ship an order, and you’re looking at a waiting period of about three weeks before receiving your books. If you need a book quickly, look closely at the product page on Powells.com to make sure the title is on hand in our stores or available at the local warehouse. You can also choose to separate your purchases into different orders, ensuring that the readily available books are processed and shipped to you within our typical three-day window. The book(s) stored at the remote warehouse will be drop-shipped to you instead of routed first to our store in Portland.
Why is shipping so delayed right now? Outside of product scarcity, higher demand and safety protocols that slow down every step in the warehousing and delivery process are probably the two main culprits. Shipping carriers are still recovering from this spring’s increase in demand, meaning that shipping options that typically take 2-7 and 4-9 business days are now taking 9 and 15 days, respectively, and the delays for international shipping are even longer. While all companies are being affected by these delays, small businesses reliant on third-party distribution centers and shipping partners are being hit the hardest.
One thing our customers sometimes notice is that Powells.com consolidated orders are routed to a Fife, WA, facility for sorting. This inefficiency allows us to charge customers a very reduced rate for ground shipping, but it does add to the overall time an order spends in-transit.
We recognize that these delays are frustrating. Booksellers are online customers too, and like most Americans, we’re accustomed to the Amazon model of getting what we want almost when we want it. We forget how complicated (and exploitative) the one-day delivery system is. Ordering from a local indie requires more planning and patience, but it’s also a really rewarding way to shop
Part Two: 8 Great Ways to Wait
Shopping with your favorite bookshop is a fantastic way to support a store and community you care about, but it’s not the only one. If money is too tight for a book purchase, or you want to share your love while you wait, the following gestures mean the world to indie bookstores:
Leave reviews of books you love on the store’s website.
Customer reviews inspire other readers, and make the website a richer, more authentic space to shop and talk books.
If you enjoy social media
, follow your favorite stores and engage by sharing and commenting on their posts.
Sign up for e-newsletters.
Many stores, Powell’s included, send out weekly emails with articles, book lists, sales, and virtual events schedules.
Preorder forthcoming books that you’re really excited about.
Preorders show bookstores that a title is popular and worth buying in quantity. This helps authors and bookstores alike by increasing sales.
When possible, explore a bookstore’s blog.
Parnassus Books, Boswell Books, and Brazos Bookstore all have great blogs rich with reading lists, bookseller insights, and interviews. (We’re pretty fond of our blog, too.)
Attend a virtual event.
You’re home anyway — why not tune into a fascinating conversation about reading with a new or beloved author? While we miss getting our books signed, the upside of virtual events is that the sky is the limit in terms of guests. Bookstores across the country are hosting some incredible events because no one needs to travel — check out what’s happening at a few of your favorites.
Order an audio book from Libro.fm
, which partners with independent booksellers to allow audio book purchases that support your favorite store.
Wear your heart on your sleeve.
Most stores have great logo merchandise like T-shirts, hats, mugs, pins, and sweatshirts that keep you cozy while telegraphing your support for local and indie commerce.