CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Half Price Books' business is bound to a social agenda

Half Price Books started in a converted laundromat, but it's now a literacy and recycling beacon with stores in 11 states. Sherri Deatherage Green looks at the chain that sells politics as well as books.

Half Price Books started in a converted laundromat, but it's now a literacy and recycling beacon with stores in 11 states. Sherri Deatherage Green looks at the chain that sells politics as well as books.

Half Price Books does do-gooding well. Social responsibility and PR are synonymous at the privately held chain of new- and used-book stores. Nearly every press release mentions one of its two most-championed causes: literacy and recycling. "We've worked with other bookstores, and believe me, nobody comes off in the same manner as Half Price Books," says Catherine Thomas, director of literacy program Cleveland Reads. "Half Price Books is always calling us to see what they can do." The company traces its social convictions to founders Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson. "They're a company that has a great story to tell," says John Mayner, principal of Smith-Robert, who worked closely with Half Price Books as outside communications counsel in the late 1990s. "You've got this little company that two hippies started in a converted laundromat." Before founding the chain, Gjemre's peace-loving, flag-burning activism embarrassed his previous employer, Zales Jewelers, admits marketing director Kathy Doyle Thomas. Starting a used-book store gave him time for antiwar protests and allowed him to make a living doing something he felt strongly about - recycling the written word. With Gjemre's assets tied up in a divorce settlement, Anderson became Half Price Books' financial backer. Her head for business tempered Gjemre's grandiose schemes, Doyle Thomas says. The balance proved profitable, with the company growing to 75 stores in 11 states. A new approach to recycling books That first store only sold used books, but Gjemre and Anderson didn't run it like a cluttered mom-and-pop shop. They opened early, closed late, took credit cards, and blatantly defied Texas' blue laws by selling books on Sundays. Half Price Books' commitment to recycling means it buys just about anything printed, except pornography and old newspapers. But that doesn't mean coffee-stained paperbacks end up on store shelves. The company stocks one storefront with books it can't sell, and opens it once a week so charities can pick out freebies. Tons of books also go to schools, prisons, and worthy causes. People tend not to sell old Bibles, however, and books by Julia Child and Dr. Seuss often end up too stained and torn to resell. So Gjemre forged deals to buy mostly nonfiction overstocks from publishers and other chains. Today, discounted new books make up about half the company's inventory. The used tomes, however, make no two visits to Half Price Books the same. "Each store is molded by the community around it," comments PR director Kirk Thompson. Touting the store's Treasures section helps the PR staff meet its primary challenge of differentiating the chain from musty used-book stores. A first edition of The Great Gatsby, for example, listed for $750 on the company's relatively new e-commerce site. Half Price Books took an even more drastic step toward differentiating itself in November when it filed a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble seeking an injunction barring the market-leading chain from using the words "Half-Price Books" on what it formerly called the Bargain Books section of its website. The smaller chain hired Dallas-based Michael A. Burns & Associates for help with litigation PR, because whether it wins the case or not, it wants customers to know it isn't affiliated with Barnes & Noble, Thompson says. If any damages are won, they will be donated to charity, she adds. Half Price Books is among the many vendors that sells used books through, but not the Barnes & Noble website. The expense and impracticality of putting its inventory online delayed the company's own web debut until last year. Half its books are bought and sold in individual stores, and all employees learn to buy and price them. PR penchant begins in-house The company is forgiving and generous to its unconventional workforce, which is peppered with aging hippies and liberal-arts majors. Benefits include pensions, paternity leave, and domestic- partner insurance. Employees are often loyal and long-term - a 13-year company veteran, Doyle Thomas is one of the few members of upper management who has never worked in a store. The company keeps workers informed through its irreverent Dog's Ear quarterly magazine, edited by media director John Wilson. When Anderson died in 1995, her daughter, Sharon Anderson Wright, became CEO. (Gjemre died this year, but hadn't been active in the company for a while). The down-to-earth Wright stocked shelves in the first store when she was 13, and has worked for the family business ever since. Though Wright is comfortable talking to print reporters, she doesn't like TV cameras, Doyle Thomas says. "She doesn't require the limelight," says one retail reporter who likes chatting with store-level employees. Half Price Books' small in-house communications staff does most of its own horn-tooting, although it turns to freelancers for help with big initiatives. "Nobody knows your product as well as you do," Doyle Thomas says. Her fussiness earned her a duty not often associated with marketing: She's also VP of development/real estate. "I was the biggest complainer about these new stores," she admits, opining that not enough demographic research went into site selection. Her penchant for details also kept her from putting a big marketing push behind the company's website. "I was not going to promote it unless the bugs were out, and the bugs are never out," she says, though Half Price Books did redesign its site for the holidays, and promotes it in its stores. Nevertheless, a Salt Lake City family won a trip to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC through an online contest; Half Price Books has no bricks-and-mortar stores in Salt Lake City. Half Price Books opens eight or nine new stores and tries to enter one new market each year. The company leans heavily on community relations when moving into new regions. This year in Kansas City, MO, for example, the staff distributed baskets with apples and discount cards to teachers at every school in a three-mile radius, and hosted a teacher-appreciation reception. From a media relations perspective, it helps that journalists read a lot. One Kansas City reporter spent $55 before leaving the store, and wrote about picking up three of her top-10 "can't find" books there, Thompson recalls. Half Price Books also cultivates on-staff subject-matter experts. Many employees volunteer with literacy groups, and Doyle Thomas serves as corporate advisory board president for the National Alliance of Urban Literacy Coalitions. "If anybody needs to be quoted on books, there's no reason Half Price Books can't be quoted," Doyle Thomas says. Dealing with media on a local level Most PR efforts target cities with stores, though Thompson also seeks national coverage to build credibility. For example, a Wall Street Journal article helps open doors when the company enters new markets, she says. But local reporters don't always pay attention to small companies based elsewhere, and Half Price Books has yet to pique the interest of journalists at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thomas says. The company's staff, however, often refers organizations interested in literacy work to Cleveland Reads. Recurring PR campaigns focus on literacy. The Half Pint Library program gives books to hospitals, clinics, special- needs schools, and community centers. A,E,I,O and You promotes literacy volunteering, and Half Price Books raises money for such efforts by publishing a bedtime storybook each year. In fact, one of Doyle Thomas' first challenges was bringing focus to the company's philanthropic impulses: the 90 organizations Gjemre himself supported were all over the charitable map. The company's Dallas headquarters includes a public-event room nonprofits can use for free. Using recycled plastic adds to the cost of gift cards, and recycled paper jams printers - but using them anyway is a matter of principle for Half Price Books. "People are getting the message that we are sincere," Thompson says. ----------- PR contacts Marketing VP Kathy Doyle Thomas PR manager Kirk Thompson Community relations manager Kim Craig Promotions coordinator Betty Flores Media director John Wilson Agencies Occasionally works with outside freelancers

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