Building Displays That Move “the Merchandise”

Observe, eavesdrop, ask—and the books will fly off the shelves

February 15, 2012

Displays are hit or miss. So often we throw together a bunch of books on a theme. In our flurry to pull just the right items and create beautiful signage to market the display, we get lost in the process and fail to ask ourselves important questions. Will patrons find this useful? Should it be permanent?

If the display empties quickly, it is deemed excellent. If not, it is a failed experiment. Either way, we head to the next imaginative idea, without giving much thought to the last one.

Once the display is fully stocked, we walk away. Whether the books circulate is not as easy to determine as it seems. We see the display empty. But did people actually check them out? A concerned party, whether patron or colleague, could have yanked something due to its condition, appropriateness, or because it just seemed glued to the display.

A new method of approaching displays is called for:

  • Assess need.
  • Determine location.
  • Create marketing materials.
  • Construct the display.
  • Install it.
  • Keep it there; but adjust for success or failure.
  • Continue with what works.
  • Drop what does not.

These easy guidelines sound like common sense—although we know there’s hidden work in what seems too easy—but following them normalizes workflow, capitalizing on and refining ideas that otherwise simply disappear.

If you build it, they will borrow

What is your community’s need? Put a microscope on it. At Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library, we have a very successful children’s department. Hundreds of parents and caregivers filter through the children’s area every day, never making it further into the library, failing to experience what the rest of the library has to offer. Long ago (before my time), the fiction department put a cart of books there for adults to page through during storytime. Time would pass and the cart stayed at capacity, a work of art no one wanted to disturb. A great concept, but an ineffective investment of resources and an unattractive way to present only one type of material.

I took this idea and expanded it. Like Atticus Finch, I observed and tried to relate. I walked a mile in that nanny’s sneakers as she sees her charge finally settle down with an educational video game. Okay—it wasn’t that easy for me to relate. But I determined that while I could not possibly intuit exactly what a busy parent or caregiver needs, I could aim for enough variety so there would be something for everyone, bringing the library to these patrons since they often cannot explore beyond the children’s department.

First I had to get buy-in. Chain of command is vital to libraries, perhaps as a consequence of the organization necessary to the work. In other words, to cover my tail, I sought manager approval. My manager approached department heads on my behalf. Would we be able to place high-demand nonfiction next to our fiction? Would we be able to use some of the children’s department’s shelves? Would it also be okay to house DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks down there? Now on to a status code. We settled on “Mixed Display—Children’s.” After clearing everything with all possible concerned parties, a signage expert in the children’s area created an attractive attention grabber. Further buy-in from this department, which had to live with the display, was also essential—especially since the staff was to occasionally “fluff” the display when I couldn’t.

With all ducks in a row, I built the display, titling it Good 2 Go 4 Grownups, to reflect both audience and residence. I sought high-demand, newer items in all formats: kind of a tall order. I haunted the returns room, checked bestseller lists from past months, got in touch with my softer side. I loaded Good 2 Go with things I thought would move. That was the only slip-up. Relying on (faulty) intuition rather than (scientific) assessment was a mistake.

The art of tweaking

Good 2 Go 4 Grownups initially held 68 items, only 16 of which moved within a week. Another week passed and only 13 circulated. Old stuff grew even older—and fast. A quick psychological study of the average adult patron in the children’s department led me to understand the neophilia inherent in their browsing. I determined that this display needed to be refreshed regularly, maybe even weekly.

The technique that worked best was to fill thoughtfully, tweak as necessary, and then eliminate what didn’t work. Audiobooks failed to move. I tried different titles over the following weeks. Still nothing. The week I removed them altogether, display circulation numbers jumped 10%.

Graphic novels worked at first. Most of the stuff I placed, from Persepolis to Adrian Tomine, floated right off the shelf. After a while, those interested in this vital art form apparently decided to move away from Oak Park. So I occasionally leave a few for variety, omitting artists like Julie Doucet and R. Crumb, just in case wee ones mistakenly think these very adult “funny books” are for them.

Due to high turnover, I stocked the top shelf with movies. Deciding what kind of film to stock required careful study. From Casablanca to To Catch a Thief, classic films did not move. Did this mean that parents wanted films for after bedtime? Maybe. Did it mean that they didn’t care if junior walked in the room? No. The masterfully uncomfortable Happiness was challenged, so I took it down. Someone punked my display with The Hills Have Eyes and Terror Town. Horror and sex and wild inappropriateness, oh my! Whoever stocked them—adult films, classics—these types of films all failed to move.

Unsurprisingly, what did work were hot items. I am of the mind that displays can be used to highlight the dark corners, the neglected, the otherwise obscure gems, with librarians affording patrons the serendipitous discovery of a new favorite author, musician, or director. But not in this display. From Bridesmaids to Bad Teacher, a Red Box mentality was one that I had to adopt. Romcoms (romantic comedies) were a sure hit. Whether youthful Jake Gyllenhaal or rugged Kevin Costner stared doe eyed out of the box, it didn’t matter. Sweet escape was the appeal.

Once the massive success of this display was apparent—a 90% turnover rate of all 100 items, but 10 circulating during any given week—the children’s department suggested we double the display space. I added magazines for patrons both to glance through and to check out. Nonfiction was a surprising mover, so I threw in a lot more coffee-table books, the kinds that parents like to look through with their kids. For fiction, the best movers continued to be the hot books such as The Help or anything by Jodi Picoult. But surprisingly, mysteries—even those by Janet Evanovich and James Patterson—did not circulate. What I did stock was fully determined by observing behavior (circulation) and listening to patrons, with mixed results.

The feedback that counts

On a weekly fill run, I invariably bump into a patron looking over the Good 2 Go display. Still striving to learn what these patrons are all about, I try to subtly ask what they want—although they often simply wish to be left alone to browse. I listen (then eavesdrop). I ask again. But I get as many misleading bits of advice as helpful tips.

A patron enthused about Jane Austen, wanting the display to overflow with Austenalia. While she loved Jane dearly, she was the only one passing through the children’s department of the Oak Park Public Library who did. Even the hit film Becoming Jane didn’t circulate. The Brontës stuck to the display like glue. Don’t even ask me about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. . . .

One woman wanted cookbooks. She never returned to check them out. Another told me chick lit would be great. Apparently not great enough for her fellow patrons: Paperback romances also seemed to be made of lead.

One person changed my life when she requested “light, People magazine–type stuff.” A revelation. Before that, I had been stocking Oprah’s picks (Middlesex), Generation X authors (Auster, Boyle, Chabon), world literature (Nabokov, Roth), and hipster music (Bloc Party). I then shifted gears from the critics to the bestseller lists. The goal I finally achieved was continuing with the mighty Oprah, authors like Elizabeth Berg, adapted works (Atonement), the Beatles, well-known rap and alternative acts (Björk, Ludacris), and seasonal items—and all in a thoughtful, flexible, sensitive manner to meet the patrons where they are and provide subtle, gently attentive customer service.

Share the love

When I take vacation, colleagues need to fill the Good 2 Go 4 Grownups display. I carefully choose a person knowledgeable in popular materials and then train him or her to peruse the returns room and eavesdrop at the display. A woman was browsing. Interrupting her peace in the interests of pinpointing patron need, I made small talk, asking if she’d like to see anything different. She replied that she always found great stuff—stuff she didn’t know about—and that she was very impressed at what she called a “great innovation” we’d made in service for our patrons. I thanked her and told her that I’d pass it along.

ALAN JACOBSON is a volunteer coordinator, teaches computer classes, and leads film and book discussions in his capacity as librarian at Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library. He can be reached at libraralan[at]


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