Close Your Stores, Double Your Customers

Joel C. Turner had never heard of the cookbook his customer wanted. So the bookseller popped a CD-ROM version of Books in Print into his computer to search for wild-game cookbooks. The title was out of print. But Turner, who shuttered the last of his three book shops in the Cleveland area four years ago, printed and faxed back a list of eight other books. He sold all eight.

Meet the business that technology re-invented. Recognizing that his small chain couldn't keep up with the new superstores in selection or atmosphere, Turner made a bold bet on direct-selling to consumers and businesses willing to pay a premium for top-notch service. Housed in Turner's home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Undercover Book Service now has four employees and a tangle of computers and communications gear. They rely on reference CD-ROMs, online networks, and fax machines to take orders.

How did it happen? Turner replaced retail customers by using Dun & Bradstreet Corp.'s Marketplace, a CD-ROM of business addresses and names. It allowed him to seek out companies looking for individual service and forget about all those folks looking for atmosphere.

NEW PUSH. Now, corporations such as Rubbermaid Inc. call Turner when they want the latest business tome--pronto. "I like to say I closed my stores in order to take care of my customers," says Turner.

He has doubled his customer list to nearly 10,000 since 1991. What's more, Turner has maintained revenues despite the loss of retail sales. Instead of costly inventory, he maintains computer links to publishers and distributors to place orders. And Turner's reputation for turning up hard-to-find books often wins him referrals from superstores such as Borders Inc. or Barnes & Noble Inc.

Now, Turner is ready to enter cyberspace. He already uses CompuServe Inc.'s online network to reach customers in Britain. This month, he plans to add a home page on the Internet. "I don't want people to say, `We used to use you, but I'm online a lot now,"' says Turner. That's the essence of good service: available anywhere, anytime.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.