The Strand: How an 86-Year Old Bookstore Uses Technology

Strand Bookstore in NYC is one of the largest independent bookstores in the US. Bookstores are a generally challenged retail sector as ecommerce and ebooks have resulted in many local shops closing their doors. Yet the Strand is still strong, adapting with their customers and utilizing social media to connect with their community. Lilly Wyden from the Strand shares how: 

Q: The Strand is a pretty famous bookstore. Can you share a bit of history and your role?

The Strand is an 86 year old independent bookstore and family business. Founded in 1927, the Strand’s first home was on 4th Avenue in Greenwich Village, in an area then called Book Row. It was a place where writers, readers, and publishers gathered – where books were loved and book lovers could congregate. There were 48 bookstores and today the Strand is the sole survivor. In a strange, small world, I now live in the exact location of that very first Strand.  It’s beshert.

While my title is Product Marketing Manager, I’m also the de facto Business Development, Public Relations and Product Manager. Such is the life at a scrappy small business. It’s great. My job is to determine and seek out opportunities that will enhance our customer’s experience – primarily online but offline as well.  Through developing partnerships, launching new and iterative products, and sourcing creative sales channels, my goal is to ensure the Strand shopper is a satisfied one.

Q: Independent bookstores have really been hurt by the move to online shopping, e-readers and big box retailers. How has The Strand weathered this change?

This is a loaded question, albeit a totally fair one. For one, partnerships have been really great for us. Just last year alone, we partnered with kate spade, Club Monaco and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It’s through these partnerships that we can engage with our customers, show them we are experimental but enterprising, and also expand our reach.

In this same vein, I’d like to think Strand has really set itself apart via creative content and messaging. Our owner Fred is 85 and he came up with the idea to have a table in the very front of the store called “Real Books Cheaper than E-Books.” It is a huge hit. Likewise in December, we had our best sales day in the history of the store and I tweeted out “Bookstores are not dead.” It went viral – almost 2,000 RT’s and likes. Customers love that we don’t hold back and sometimes are a little crude. Modest we are not.  As Steve Jobs said, “it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

Q: What are some ways that technology has helped The Strand become a modern retailer?

Most people don’t know that we are in the business of books by the foot and personal collections.  What that means is we create custom-curated libraries and collections of books, for individuals and corporate accounts. We have done hotels, restaurants, beach houses, movie sets, and even retail stores (Warby Parker’s shop is one). Next time you’re watching TV and you see some books in the background, look closely, because those books are very strategically placed. And there is a really good chance they came from the Strand.

So to answer your question, technology has enabled the Strand to show, maybe even remind customers what we offer beyond just selling a new bestseller off of a table. Most of these books by the foot customers begin their orders via our website. On a similar note, if you run a search on Google for say, rare books, Strand will come up at the top (organic and unpaid!) and customers will learn we have an entire floor dedicated to rare books. It can be easy to get lost in the Strand and not see it all, so technology has helped us bridge that gap.

Q: One assumes The Strand has a smart and literate customer community. How has this shaped your social media strategy?

Our customers are whip smart, as are our booksellers. Our social media strategy is such that the voice you hear online – whether it’s our e-commerce site, Twitter, or our email blasts – should be one and the same with what you hear in our brick and mortar store. Social media is a bridge, to start a conversation and follow up on one. The content we push via social is quirky, sometimes provocative, hopefully a little funny. It’s important to us that we show our customers, via social or otherwise, that we’re not a drone or bot or algorithm telling you which books you might like. We are real people, real humans who have actually read those “you might also like” book recommendations.

Q: If you could invent one new or better piece of technology to help The Strand, what would it be?

I wish there was a better way to source customer feedback. An unimposing, unintrusive way for customers to tell us what they liked or hated, wanted to see more of, wish they’d seen less of, about their shopping experience. Ideally right after checkout, online and in-store. Not a paper or email survey and definitely not a manager with a clipboard and interview questions. I’m not talking in terms of product-market fit, just simply feedback and suggestions. Our customer comes first and we want to make them happy but we need a better way to hear from them.

Philz Coffee: We’re In The ‘People Serving’ Business

Among the Bay Area’s coffee purveyors few are as well-loved as Philz. CEO Jacob Jaber has made sure the personal touch is maintained through fast growth – 14 current locations – caffeinating artists, designers, engineers and everyday people. I recently had the chance to ask Jacob a few questions about how their business has grown and the role of technology.

Q: Philz started in 2003 with a single shop in the Mission District. How big are you today and has the growth surprised you?

We have 14 successful locations and have an ambitious vision to grow and share the Philz experience with more people around the world. For me, it’s harder to see growth on the inside compared to outsiders who’ve been our customers since day one and continue frequenting us everyday – they tell me all the time: “you guys are growing so much, we are so happy for you.”

Philz is extremely fortunate to have the most awesome team members and customers any CEO can ask for. However my mindset is such that even though we’ve grown from 1 to 14, we haven’t done squat. We have a lot of work ahead of us and there’s no room for complacency; we have to keep getting better. I feel a deep commitment to our people to work harder than ever in pursuit of our vision to change the way people drink coffee. 

This year, we are aiming to open 8 new beautiful stores. It will be our biggest growth year to date. Overall, I’d say I’m more determined to deliver the best coffee and service experience we can than I am surprised of our growth.

Q: Retail establishments are increasingly being pitched by startups on all sorts of technology – digital point of sale systems, loyalty programs, mobile apps. How have you made decisions on which to implement at Philz and what’s been the most valuable?

We don’t believe we are in the coffee business. At Philz, we believe we are in the peoples business serving coffee. With that said, we never start with technology, we start with people. Technology has been an awesome and popular tool to help make the world better and it’s more prominently accessible in the Bay Area than anywhere else I know of. With that said, we get pitched all the time and our decision making process always filters through our mission and values – is it going to help us deliver a better customer experience? If so, we’ll consider it.  In the near future we plan to implement some really cool ideas that involve leveraging technology to improve the customer experience. To date, the most valuable technological tools for us have been simple stuff like Yelp and Social Media.

Q: I noticed Amazon’s yellow package lockers at the Noe Valley Philz. Is this an experiment or do you see coffee shops generally playing a larger role in last mile package delivery? 

At Philz, our mission is to better people’s day. Our stores serve communities of people and we feel we have a some responsibility to help make it a better place above and beyond caffeinating people with coffee and a smile. That’s why we installed Amazon Lockers at some of our stores – customers that use it really love it and are thankful that we help them get their package sooner than normal delivery methods.

Q: You guys are active on a number of social media sites – Twitter, Instagram, etc – how do you make a decision to use one of these platforms given that each takes additional time to fully participate. Where do you want to centralize your community?

To me, Social Media is like an on going group SMS with our customers. Fundamentally, it’s about connecting and staying in touch. When you look at Social Media that way, you use it differently. We don’t have a 9-5 social media person –  this stuff is 24/7. In terms of which platforms we use, we go where most of our customers are (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc…).

I’m not sure we want to centralize our community. Every community is different and what matters is that we are in tune with each community so we can better serve them; some people call that being locally relevant which is a nice term. Ultimately, it’s analogous to our philosophy about coffee – the best coffee in the world is the coffee that comes to your individual taste. It’s about personalization.

Q: What’s a problem you’d love a startup to solve for you that no one has adequately done thus far?

Parking in San Francisco. Just a few days ago I spent 1 hour looking for parking and finally decided to park a mile away at a parking garage and take an Uber back to my destination.

Bean There, Done That: How Technology Is Helping Blue Bottle Coffee Serve Up A Great Cup

“Let’s get a coffee and catch-up.” It’s a throwaway line but if you say it to David Bowman, CFO of Blue Bottle Coffee, you’ll get invited over for a tour along with your cup. Satya and I visited Blue Bottle’s Oakland HQ a few weeks back and I love talking with retailers about the way technology is changing their business (such as this previous post with a SF-based bakery owner). One of our investment themes at Homebrew VC is SMBs gaining access to new powerful tech.

Q: How’d you get connected to Blue Bottle Coffee and what role do you play on the team?

DB: I met James Freeman, our founder and CEO, through one of our investors in the summer of 2012. I was a devoted customer and inspired by what he had built and his vision for the future. Lucky for me, he was looking to hire someone to look after the financial side of the business, so we worked together for a few months to try out working together. It went well, so he asked me to join the team. I now look after finance and digital efforts for the company.
Q: You’ve been opening new retail cafes recently and have several more coming. How do you pick locations? Is it an art or a science?
DB: As with anything done well (I think), a bit of both, but mostly art. Ultimately, we want to go where our customers are and open beautiful cafes. We think a lot about that moment you walk into a special cafe. How it looks from the street, how it fits within the neighborhood, the architecture, the light inside, how it smells. It all matters. This is the art, and no one is better at the art than James Freeman. There is some science of course to make sure we’re focused and that the cafe can be successful economically. The science only acts as a filter though. Nothing beats physically standing on a street corner and feeling the neighborhood and cafe space. The final decision to open a new cafe is driven by these intangibles.
Q: How do you find baristas for your cafes? Do they train in the mysterious art of espresso pulling?

DB: We’re fortunate to have a phenomenal team of baristas in our stores today. Good people know good people, so a lot of our hiring comes through internal networks. We also post openings on a number of sites, and we receive inbound interest through our site (on the latter, if you love what we’re doing, we’d love to hear from you!). Once hired, first time baristas receive about 30 hours in our training lab before they pull their first shot in the cafe. It starts with education about coffee from our buying team: where it grows and how it is harvested, processed, bought, shipped, roasted, brewed, and enjoyed.
Baristas then learn how to make pour over drip coffee, followed by espresso, and then milk. Espresso and milk are hard. It’s all about the details and the subtle slight of hand. I spent hours in the lab and can still barely make a passable espresso drink. Our head of quality control says it takes thousands of attempts to pour really great drinks (which means I’m still probably thousands of drinks away). The lab training concludes with a simulated cafe experience judged by some of our best baristas. Along the way and once in the cafe, new baristas are often shadowed by trainers to give them the support they need during those early shifts.
Q: How does technology impact your business?
DB: Well, to a certain point, we try to limit the presence of technology in our cafes. We want our cafes to be physical places where our customers enjoy coffee and interact on a human, personal level. With this said, technology makes us better at what we do. In terms of hardware, we’re always looking to learn more about new coffee gear, be it a new espresso machine or home brewing tool. Software helps us run our business, of course. Aside from basic financial and operational IT products, there is some awesome innovation happening across horizontals and verticals. For example, we use software that reads from sensors attached to our roaster to measure temperature over time so that our roasting and quality control teams can dial in on the best roast for each coffee. Additionally, I think we’re just scratching the surface in ecommerce. It could become a whole new environment for connecting with our customers and helping them brew delicious coffee at home. I take a lot of inspiration from companies like Tonx who are doing a great job in this space. Once you start to understand an industry in detail, you see how much more room there is for software to change the world in specific, immediately impactful ways. I’m far more bullish on technology now than when I started at Blue Bottle Coffee.
Q: What future innovation are you most excited about?
DB: I’ve thought a lot about this. I used to be a management consultant and always wondered why the systems used by my clients – mostly big, highly successful companies – were so hard to use and so rarely integrated. I knew very little about IT back then. I see today how easy it is to take a company down a path like this. We’re fortunate to work with Square. They have a great product that makes our cafe experience better for everyone. Square exists to make commerce easy and the potential for them beyond the POS is massive. I also love what ZenPayroll is doing. Not only do they have a beautiful product in a space that is not known for beautiful products, they are focused. They believe that the future is characterized by teams doing one or a few things really well, and then letting APIs provide the integration with other products of similar quality and focus. It’s a breath of fresh air to me and I think they may very well be right.

Let a Thousand Flours Bloom: One local bakery’s opinions on technology

Merchant fatigue: the phenomena of San Francisco local businesses getting hit up by so many daily deal sites, customer loyalty programs and other startups that the store owners and staff are just plain tired. It’s one reason that entrepreneur launched his latest local startup MyTime in Los Angeles first. Personally, I think of those window stickers (“Customers love us on Yelp”), countertop signs and POS systems similarly to stenciled bomber plane art – each one represents a startup marketing manager or inside sales dude winning a small battle for attention.

Despite all the noise about the local vertical, it feels like I rarely see the press actually ask a business owner about their tech usage and needs. We get relatively breathless coverage of how Startup X is going to disrupt something, but the person behind the counter who owns the purchase decision receives zero column inches. Someone needed to right this wrong (or err, write this wrong) and I was up to the challenge. Also, the SF bakery I visited has really good gluten free coffee cake.

Flour & Co Jame

While Flour & Co might be a relatively new store having opened just this past spring, owner Emily Day isn’t a beginner.  Having previously run store operations for La Boulange, Emily helped take the brand to 13 stores (and five more planned) before leaving prior to the Starbucks acquisition. With a background in both accounting and restaurant management, she knows how to count the chips and bake them into cookies [that’s a horrible line, I know, sorry].

Despite her pedigree and experience, Emily still uses a good amount of intuition, not just data, when making decisions for her brand. For example, the Nob Hill location sprang not from a Google Earth mashup of demographic survey data, but her own understanding of the changing neighborhood and how a new Trader Joes on the same block was likely to influence foot traffic. Today Flour & Co is a single shopfront but Emily has her eyes on distribution via other local retail, catering and more locations in the Bay Area. Here are some snippets from our conversation, greatly paraphrased as my hands were more consumer by said coffee cake than capturing direct quotations.

Interoperability between store tech is still a mess: Emily uses ShopKeep as her tablet point-of-sale system because it’s the easiest and most flexible in her opinion. Some of the other systems she tried had fatal flaws, such as an inability to print order tickets into the kitchen. She’s also really sensitive to minimizing the number of finger touches it takes to complete transactions. They’re a high volume business and during peak hours need to still provide quick service.

Enter once, re-enter everywhere: Given POS as center of a retail store, you’d imagine that it would link seamlessly with all her other systems. Nope. Across the different providers there’s still a real lack of interop – sometimes because tools are new, sometimes because no API exists. Flour & Co wanted to use LevelUp but it doesn’t integrate with ShopKeep, so nope [edit – it does integrate but Emily tells me requires a keyboard which she doesn’t have room for on the counter]. Similarly there was a preferred vendor with an app which allows users to order ahead before they reach the store but no ShopKeep integration so, again, out of luck. There’s so much other work to do that once Emily’s made a system choice, she doesn’t want to go back and reevaluate so since POS came first, compatibility with ShopKeep drives a whole bunch of other decisions. Emily wants to find a loyalty program but so far none of them work well with her other platforms.

No one ever got fired for buying IBM: The large well-known guys still have lots of customers. She knows about Xero accounting and the wave of online pay systems but uses Quickbooks and Paychex for now. It works for her and that’s good enough.

Startups, your competition is sometimes a spreadsheet: At La Boulange they used shift scheduling software but for now at Flour & Co, Excel working just fine. Thankfully though, customer mailing lists have migrated out of the xls and MailChimp powers her communications.

Wants to do her own research before talking to a salesperson: Technology recommendations come from her own research and other store owners. Easy, simple comparison charts and good clear sales marketing pieces are what Emily wants to see; not a salesperson trying to get on her calendar for a 30m demo. What comes next for Emily? Probably an online store via Shopify for some of her more popular items that can transport well.

So there you have it – some facts from a baker. Now excuse me, I need another slice of coffee cake…