Retailers mix up promo magic for HP4 release

'Frankly, I'll be glad when the whole Harry Potter thing is over.'...
July 1, 2000

‘Frankly, I’ll be glad when the whole Harry Potter thing is over.’

-an anonymous retailer

You know a good book series has transcended critical mass and moved into an area most often reserved for cultural phenomenon when retailers begin to groan at the mere mention of its name. Such is the case with Harry Potter, the kidlit craze that has been driving booksellers barmy on both sides of the Atlantic for most of the last year and a half. And when Scholastic, the book’s U.S. publisher, releases the fourth installment of the series on July 8, the din of ‘Do you have the new Harry Potter book?’ will reach deafening levels. Of course, Scholastic and Potter’s U.K. publisher, Bloomsbury, have significantly contributed to this mania by choosing to release scant detail about author J.K. Rowling’s latest efforts, including its title, until publication day.

But far from fighting the tide of Harry hysteria, most retailers-outwardly, anyway- appear to be embracing the pent-up demand for the book, and are assembling ambitious HP promotions to try and convince kids and parents to buy the book at their stores.

Since early June, Barnes & Noble has been running the chain-wide Harry Potter Sweepstakes, which offers a grand prize free trip for a family of four to London, England. Consumers can enter the contest, which runs until July 7, by filling out forms found at B&N stores. Additionally, in anticipation of the throng of Harry-addicts wanting to buy the new HP book (in early June, Barnes & Noble had taken 50,000 pre-orders for book four, the most for any kids title it has sold to date) the majority of the stores will stay open until 1:00 a.m. the day of the release, according to the chain’s spokesperson Deborah Williams.

‘We expect to get plenty of people in the stores, and there will be lots of activities happening, from staff dressing up like characters from the books, to various activities for the kids to do,’ says Williams.

Many of Ann Arbor, Michigan-based chain Borders Books & Things’ locations will also be holding midnight release parties and Harry Potter breakfasts the day of the book’s launch. In a bid to try and bolster its e-com business, Borders is running a US$1,000 Harry Potter Shopping Spree contest, which consumers can only enter by visiting the Harry Potter section on the company’s site ( Additionally, starting July 8, Borders will distribute thousands of free exclusive Harry Potter decoder cards, which will feature riddles based on the books that kids can figure out and then check their answers on-line at

Not to be outdone, smaller booksellers like Henry Bear’s Park are also mounting their own sizable promotions for the latest Potter release. Since early May, the Cambridge, Massachusetts retailer has been offering 10% off the book’s list price, plus a flat shipping rate to consumers who preorder the title anywhere in the U.S. According to manager Carry Buddin, the store had nabbed 50 orders in a little over three weeks. ‘We’re taking a lot more orders than we thought we would, and we know we’re going to get a lot more because we still have a month to go,’ says Buddin.

Other retailers are choosing to draw on the thematic elements of the Potter series and are translating them to the stage. For the big night, Mabel’s Fables, a two-store children’s book retailer based in Toronto, Canada, is renting out a local theater, where store staff will don Potter-esque attire and recite passages from the book trilogy. At the event, Mabel’s will also be selling book four the moment it arrives, and will be awarding prizes, including Mabel’s gift certificates, HP buttons and posters, to an estimated 400 kids, says Mabel’s co-owner Eleanor Lefave. Mabel’s is limiting registration for the event, which it’s running in conjunction with two local publications, to three persons per family, fearing that they won’t be able to accommodate the number of kids wanting to attend.

The hype welling up around HP4 (no doubt bolstered by the sales pedigree of its three predecessors, which have tallied 20.8 million copies to date-not to mention a merchandising program and on screen adaptations that are in the works), might be enough to lead one to believe that the books contain some otherwordly marketing message that’s luring kids into catatonic states of reading.

Kailey Finkelman, a manager at Toronto-based book retailer The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, however, knows better. ‘The thing with Harry Potter is that every rule for writing a successful book for kids eight to 12 is in those pages: the main character goes to boarding school and all the adults are evil. It’s consistent with all the huge sellers, all the Roald Dahl titles, or, more recently, Lemony Snicket’s series of Unfortunate Events books. That’s really excellent-the parents die on the first page!’

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