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Books at the Supermarket? Check It Out

October 10, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Fruits and vegetables were featured prominently in the multicolor promotional flyers circulated by Ralphs, Vons and Hughes supermarkets in Southern California last week. So was a $21.95 hard-cover book by Kitty Kelley called "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra."

At Duane Reade, a major drugstore chain in New York City, a longtime employee of Bantam Books said she was startled last week to see her company's latest best seller on display at the checkout counter, right alongside the cold remedies and the weight-loss formulas. "Sinatra, at the drugstore?" she said incredulously.

Taken 'to the Extreme'

Paperback books have for many years inhabited the territory between the turnips and the tuna at supermarkets, but for hard-cover books, the venture into such non-conventional marketplaces is new enough to be confined for the moment to just two major publishers and only a handful of books. With the supermarket/drugstore push on the Kelley book, however, "we've taken it to the extreme," Bantam marketing director Matthew Shear said.

Shear was reluctant to discuss supermarket sales figures on the Kelley book, saying it was still too early. But he voiced enthusiasm about what he called a publishing experiment.

On Wednesday, "His Way" went into its eighth printing with 852,000 copies in circulation. The Oct. 17 New York Times best-seller list already distributed among the publishing community lists the Sinatra biography at No. 1.

"It's been a terrific experience for us," Shear said.

But the idea of selling hardbacks in mass outlets like supermarkets did not originate with "His Way." About three years ago, with Louis L'Amour's "Lonesome Gods," Bantam became the first major publisher to make a serious hard-cover supermarket foray.

"I wish I could say I thought of it myself," Jack Hoeft, president of Bantam Books' sales division, said, "but what happened was that we were sitting around, thinking, well, Louis is so darned popular in paperback, and how could we sell him in big numbers in hard cover."

The supermarket brainstorm was logical, Hoeft said, citing a marketing survey showing that 50% of the people who bought paperback books in East Coast supermarkets had never been in a bookstore.

The theory, Hoeft said, was that "you don't have to buy a hard cover in a bookstore, and you may buy more if you make it easier to buy them."

Not long afterward, "Iacocca," Bantam's hugely successful book by the Chrysler chairman and William Novak, began showing up at airport candy and news stands. The hard-cover edition of the Iacocca autobiography also was sold in some convenience stores, and, gradually, in a few large supermarkets.

No Firm Game Plan

Slowly, Hoeft said, and with no firm initial game plan, the "mass-market hard cover" phenomenon was born.

"It's a definite trend," he said. "It's getting the books to the people." This way, he said, buying a hard-cover book "doesn't have to be an elite thing. The book gets out to a multitude of people."

The notion was apparently contagious. Spurred to some extent by the success of "Iacocca" in non-traditional marketplaces, Doubleday followed suit last spring and arranged to sell Bill Cosby's "Fatherhood" in similar outlets.

" 'Fatherhood' was the real breakthrough for us," Doubleday advertising director Ellen Mastromonaco said. "We thought all along that it would have broad appeal," she said, and by placing a book that would soar by early October to more than 2-million hard-cover sales in supermarkets, "we have broken certain barriers."

Added Mastromonaco, "It does seem to me to herald a change in the way some books are sold."

At Ralphs supermarkets in Southern California, it was Cosby's "Fatherhood" that signaled chainwide sales of hard-cover books.

While certain Ralphs stores had featured book sections that included some hard-cover books, Craig Colton, vice president of Ralphs Grocery Co.'s general merchandising division, said the combination of Cosby's public persona and the topic of his book made "Fatherhood" especially appealing.

'A Very Hot Property'

"Number one," Colton said from his office in Los Angeles, "he is a very hot property in the United States with his television show, and he is very insightful in his opinions on parenting.

"We found that to be very successful," Colton said.

So much so, that "when our wholesaler asked if we had any interest in the Frank Sinatra book," Colton said, "we decided to take a shot at it again."

'Other Markets'

With its background as a mass market publisher of paperbacks, Bantam, said marketing director Shear, used its contacts with wholesalers and distributors to place its hardbacks in markets previously dominated by paperbacks.

"Normal book distribution for hard covers is through bookstores," Shear said. "We have been using our knowledge of that distribution mechanism to put our hard covers in other markets."

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