Devoted readers have always loved used books. ThriftBooks, approaching its 20th anniversary, is using better tech and smarter marketing to make that old-book experience feel new – especially for Gen Z. Chief executive officer Ken Goldstein tells D2C Insider how the ecommerce company has sold 235 million books.
D2C Insider: Give us a history of the company, please?
Ken Goldstein: We're in our 20th year, and the founders grew organically, mainly as an Amazon seller for a decade or so. Ten years ago, majority control shifted to private equity owners. I started as an outside board member and ecommerce advisor. In 2022, I became CEO.
We've migrated from marketplace seller to branded seller. Now, most revenue comes directly from our website or app. We've got a rewards program, which brings people back over and over. And we've invested a lot in technology and now have a focused footprint of five automated regional distribution centers to improve the experience.
D2C Insider: You're privately held, but can you give some sense of annual sales?
Goldstein: We're in the hundreds of millions. Generally speaking, we're looking at a double-digit growth rate.
D2C Insider: What's driving that growth?
Goldstein: That investment in automation lets us serve our customers better, and demand is growing. For Gen Z, especially, conversations about the circular economy are real and deeply embedded. And we don't think funding the green economy is somebody else's problem. We think it's our problem. And we believe the only way to operate is profitably. Every year the company's been in business, we've operated profitably and kept all of this paper out of landfill, either by selling it as a book or making sure it is recycled.
D2C Insider: What's your marketing strategy? More performance than brand spending?
Goldstein: I've lectured on this topic. I've been in ecommerce since there was ecommerce. I don't believe that they're separate. Brand marketing is direct-response, and direct response is brand. It's convenient for agencies to separate those buckets and budgets. But I'm looking for a return on every ad dollar I spend, and I'm looking for a return on the total ad dollars I spend. That's true whether we're buying keyword advertising on Google or clever and creative stuff on TikTok.
While I won't tell you what percentage of revenues we spend on advertising, I will say it's responsible and lower than many other companies. And 100% of our customer acquisition is profitable.
D2C Insider: How does TikTok fit in?
Goldstein: We've suddenly emerged as the No. 1 number branded book company in BookTok. We've even surpassed Barnes & Noble. We've got over 125,000 followers and an enormous amount of video content, some of it customer-generated.
D2C Insider: Where do you get your books?
Goldstein: We buy books in bulk from libraries, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul. We work with all the aggregators.
D2C Insider: You buy them by the pound? Does that make authors cry?
Goldstein: Authors are proud to have us resell their books. It means they're a big author. And we're always introducing people to writers they might not have discovered otherwise. They may get hooked on that author through a used book, and so when a new book comes out, we'll sell them that, too. It's a virtuous circle.
D2C Insider: And the ones you can't sell?
Goldstein: We've got algorithms to help. And those become recovered paper. Generally speaking, it gets turned into hardware products, pressboard products, and sometimes insulation. There are many uses.
D2C Insider: Who is your typical customer?
Goldstein: We sell in all categories. But professional females, especially moms, are important. They buy kids' books and help with homework. Book clubs are big. And back-to-school, both in August and January, are big times for us. So is Christmas.
D2C Insider: How does Gen Z fit in?
Goldstein: They're for free reading. They're very cost -onscious and also green-conscious. They like science fiction, romance, and literary fiction. And anything that involves school curriculum that is not the textbook, like the "Origin of Species," the" Federalist Papers," the "Wealth of Nations," Plato, and Aristotle. We're reselling those all the time.
D2C Insider: What impact do e-books have on your business?
Goldstein: In the last decade, that share has stabilized at around 10%. People who like print books are still buying print books, and they're buying them in very good volumes. And as long as publishers are still bringing many print books to market, they'll always wind up here. People don't have room to keep them all. And they're buying books at the same clip they always have, which I think is a very good sign for the nation.