Why Bookstore Sales Spike in August

The typical American reads five books a year and probably doesn’t have much cause to consider that selling books is a seasonal business. But it is, at least the way the U.S. Census counts it, and we’re about to enter bookstores’ biggest month:

The chart shows the average bookstore sales for each month over the last 10 years, pulled from the Census’s monthly retail report, excluding used dealers and online retailers like Amazon.com.

The Census doesn’t distinguish book sales from other merchandise, nor physics textbooks from racy paperbacks, and that’s a good place to start looking for explanations. Sales spike in August, when college kids return to school and load up on course materials and school apparel. They shoot up again in January when students on a two-semester schedule return from winter break.

The back-to-school phenomenon helps college stores log 42 percent of their total sales from August through January, according to an estimate from the National Association of College Stores. Todd Summer, who runs the campus store at San Diego State University, says his August sales are 4.5 times higher than in July, and he’s in the process of hiring 80 or 90 part-timers to handle the rush.

The NACS data, of course, doesn’t tell us what share of bookstore sales occur on campus. The last time the Census segmented the data, in 2007, it found that college bookstores represented about 30 percent of the broader category. Is the college market big enough to double total bookstore sales from July to August?

Data from Nielsen BookScan, which gathers point-of-sales data from 16,000 locations in the U.S., suggests the answer is yes. BookScan doesn’t collect data from college stores, and is measuring actual book sales instead of total receipts. It’s not apples to apples, but it looks like aside from a dramatic peak around the holiday season, Main Street bookstore sales appear relatively unchanged.

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