Rocket Bomber - article - business - retail - Hell of a way to run a railroad.

Hell of a way to run a railroad.

filed under , 22 January 2011, 00:58 by

Every Autumn (well, every Autumn I’ve worked for the past 11 years) my blogging and online activities have had to shut down (or at least slow to the barest crawl) — I just don’t have time, because it’s the holidays, and since I work retail that means Christmas starts in September and the ‘Christmas Rush’ has preparations and after-effects that last seemingly forever: “Christmas comes but half the year” — regular readers, all 9 of you, no doubt noticed the lack of new material towards the end of the year just past.

For months, we’re either setting up, refreshing, taking down, flipping overnight, or otherwise adjusting and manipulating all of our displays — on top of seasonal merchandise like calendars, stationary (holiday cards), gift wrap, and more toys and games than we really have space for (overflowing even in our back room) — or last-minute stupid Black Friday sales (I’m sorry, corporate would rather I call those “timely seasonal promotional initiatives”)

— or my Booksellers and I are hip-deep in the actual business of retail, providing customer service and Ringing the Register. *

* Because no one — not booksellers, not field management, not home office staff, not executives, not the stockholders — NO ONE gets paid until we ring up sales at the register. (Basic Retail 101. Seems some fancy MBAs occasionally forget that, though.)

This past holiday season has been really tough, as we’ve been cutting back on store payroll since the start of the fiscal year — That’d be February of 2010 for those of you not reading our annual reports. Since then—since November of 2009, actually—I’ve hired no one. Nope, not even for the holidays. We’ve accepted some transfers from other stores, but these merely offset losses due to other booksellers leaving. We haven’t had to fire anyone at our store * but natural attrition means my roster is 25% shorter than it used to be, and continual pressure from above to cut hours means that some booksellers were down to just one or two shifts a week. It’s been tough. It’s exceptionally tough if you’re trying to prep a store for the holidays, the busiest 2 months of the year.

[* We haven’t had to fire anyone at our store yet. And a change in accounting methods by corporate means my fiscal year doesn’t end until May this year — three more long, slow months with historically dismal sales]

I’ve been worked like a dog. And it’s not like anyone above me is offering to pay the overtime either: I just have to get more done with less, packing 11 hours of work into each 8 hour shift.

This is true across the whole chain, but at my store I’ve an extra headache: one of our managers quit in September, right before the whole mess got rolling. Not only do I not have the booksellers to assign to projects, I and the other members of the management team have had to work more openings and closings because right now there are only 4 people with the keys and codes to the building. [4 where we used to have 6, and where some stores have 7 or 8]

There were two occasions where I was so exhausted that I had to take a half a day off sick, just to go home and lie down — but only half-days, as I still had to go in and open up the store, and put in at least 4 hours so I wouldn’t fall behind (and to wait for the mid-shift manager to show up) (on days when we had a mid-shift manager; for half of our shifts there has been just one manager to open, and one to close, with just 2 hours overlap besides.)

Something had to give, and for me, it was writing and my other hobbies (I do odd bits of data analysis for the blog) — and that’s a hell of a thing to say, that I was working so hard physically at a retail job that after 8 or 9 hour shifts I was too tired to even blog.


Despite what Wall Street and corporate America thinks, you don’t just cut payroll to make ends meet.

Oh, sure, it’s the easiest thing to cut (gods forbid you stop paying stock dividends or forgo your own bonus) and since it’s so easy, one usually cuts payroll anyway even while making other necessary cuts — reducing inventory, streamlining processes, sourcing cheaper stock; renegotiating debts, leases and other fixed costs. Many other cost reductions require work, strategic decisions (sometimes lateral, out-of-the-box thinking), and might require sacrifices — whereas cutting payroll and concomitant “productivity increases” are simple. Just tell your managers to fire people.

Though, you don’t actually terminate people; that accrues its own costs (severance, etc.) — you tell managers to cut payroll — well, you don’t even do that, corporate uses weasel words and several layers of management and the decision gets translated to the store level as [*ahem*] “So, what are you doing to meet the new payroll targets? Mmhm?”

Pass the buck on down — leave the hard decisions (and even harder conversations with individual employees) to the stores. Executives don’t have to deal with booksellers: they get to talk about “numbers” & “targets”. At the store level, we have to explain to a part-timer who really needs the money why they are only scheduled three days a week when they used to work four.

Here’s the thing:

— And it’s not just true for retail, it’s a fact in every business:

“Productivity Gains” aren’t free.

Oh sure, you set your arbitrary targets and get stores to meet the new lower number, and even if sales are flat (or down) you make more money per payroll hour spent. The math says that you’re fixing the problem, & on paper it’s working out just fine.

But “Productivity Gains” are a paper illusion, and cuts in staffing save payroll dollars but also incur other costs. In retail, when you cut staff you negatively impact the customer experience. People leave because they don’t like waiting in line at the register. In a bookstore, customers wander and flop about and wait for a bookseller to engage them, and if no one walks up and asks, they’re more likely to leave than to go to the information desk and ask for help.

[I’ve just detailed two customer behaviors that bewilder & exasperate me: I’m so sorry you had to wait an extra four minutes to check out — I really should have opened up another register for you since after spending hours casually reading books & magazines and messing up my displays, now, suddenly you’re in a hurry — also, if you need help finding something, it might not hurt to go to the desk where I have both the staff and the computers to find books — so maybe “there wasn’t anyone at the infomation desk” in the 2 seconds it took you to glance at it while you walked by, but once again: it kills you to wait a minute? — my snark aside, customer expectations of the bookstore are completely unreasonable and non-negotiable. Logic doesn’t play any part here]

There are opportunity costs (dear executive: you remember ‘opportunity costs‘? back from Econ 101?) to cuts in staffing, and “productivity gains” are bought by spending customer & community goodwill, individual customer satisfaction, and employee morale, health & well-being. (I am not the only corporate bookseller who is grumbling.)

You also let go an experienced employee — or watch while your best employees leave, to take a job with better pay and prospects. It can be hard enough replacing a bookseller at the store level — I can only imagine the regret some will feel in a couple of years after letting experienced home office staff go


This past year, we have cut payroll while maintaining the same level of holiday merchandising — including calendars, holiday cards, gift wrap, and other seasonal product — while also executing extensive [corporate directed] re-lays of product categories, including *in-section promotional placement of new releases, additions to the educational/instruction categories (not just workbooks but educational toys & games), extensive changes to the teen fiction category, and the usual tweaks and shifts throughout the store

* “in-section” means on shelves in the stacks — in addition to and on top of all of the other tables, fixtures, and displays

All this takes work — and not just ‘sales’ or ‘customer service’ work, which can be hard to quantify and occasionally doesn’t result in an actual sale — but actual work-work where a person has to physically move tables, and fixtures, and tons of product. (books are heavy. the tons add up fast)

Also this past year, we have cut payroll in stores while launching our digital business. At the corporate level, yes, this has meant a lot of work: not just developing the device and negotiating with overseas suppliers & contractors, but building the website, the digital delivery model, new logistics and delivery strategies, and establishing new procedures and processes for stores to follow. Sure, it’s been tough, and I hesitate, heck I’m almost embarrassed to mention, that all that hard work can be done from a desk in a nice corner office. Maybe you have to wait long minutes while your long distance call to contractors in South & Southeast Asia connects, while sitting in a Herman Miller Aeron Chair.

In stores, we’ve had to dedicate square footage — the most prominent location on the sales floor, natch — removing [or exiling to some far-off corner] tables and other frontlist fixtures all to make room for the new digital desk. That’s… OK, actually. Folks tend to find the most popular books whereever we put them, and the loss of a front-of-store table probably worries publishers more than it even registers with our customers. But I then had to staff this new desk, pulling my most tech-savvy employees (and best salespeople) away from books [and from those customers seeking books who might have benefitted from their experience and expertise] to explain to a never-ending parade of customers what e-books are, why they should care — and for the customers who already know the answers to those first two questions, why they should buy from us.

To launch digital, we’ve committed to placing assets (including and perhaps especially our best booksellers) in prominent locations in stores. Also, the new digital sales conversations take as much as a half-hour with the new devices, rather than just the 3-sentence-book-pitch. Additionally, booksellers have taken on a whole new tech support role — not only helping customers set up the new device, but also trouble-shooting all the usual problems folks have with tech: from user error to connectivity issues to problems with the servers and software and problems and defects in the hardware

*I* can do this, as I’m smarter than the average bear and spent seven years at Georgia Tech besides. But I’m not saying I like it. I’m not saying I asked for it. I’m not saying this is a natural fit for booksellers, either. In fact, if I were to say something, it would be more along the lines of “I feel we booksellers at the store level have been thrown to the wolves” — but of course I would never say that as I am behind our company’s digital initiatives 100%.

We’ve made adjustments. The new digital sales counter (very nice looking, BTW, all white and black and glass) is staffed by some of my best booksellers for 90% of the time our store is open.

And sales were good. I’m sure there were/are some corporate press releases to that effect posted to the internet. We’re coping with our new tech support role as well (helped in part by the new device launched in November, as it is a much more solid unit overall than last year’s model).

But before you think it’s all roses and sunshine and profits, let me remind you: we launched the digital piece without increasing payroll. I wasn’t allowed to hire anyone, or if I did hire someone for digital it would have meant firing someone at worst, and at the very least further cutbacks in hours for all my other current booksellers.

Staffing the new department (and it’s a department just as much as music & video, newsstand, children’s, or even the damn café) meant re-assigning booksellers for 96 hours a week: the equivalent of 2.5 full-time, 40-hour-a-week employees, just to have one person at the digital desk — and on weekends you know a single bookseller isn’t going to cut it: if I only schedule one then they will be paging me to back them up when there is a line, because quite honestly there wouldn’t be anyone else, we’re staffed so tight.

Each and every store in the chain had to launch this new specialty department, staff it, train existing booksellers, spend hours to stock and track inventory, and to report sales info daily, *twice* daily for a couple of weeks, all without any additional payroll. Making do with what you have, and performing miracles besides.


The modern chain, big-box bookstore isn’t just about the books. We’re running 4 or 5 businesses, one on top of the other, each of which are specialties which used to command their own specialty retailers, and with this new digital hot mess besides.

Books, by themselves, are unique in retail. And books are different from periodicals, which differ from CDs, which are a different business from DVDs & Blu-ray — and even in books, Kids’ picture books are different from cheap genre pulps are different from hardcovers are different from trade paperbacks are different from ‘coffee-table’ books.

On top of all that, we’re also now stocking [select] games, toys, stationary, calendars [seasonally], journals, and assorted other crap lovely merchandise.

Add on the new e-readers — and selling the whole idea behind e-readers, which I challenge anyone to explain succinctly to the satisfaction of your Grandma — sure, tech bloggers get it, but tech bloggers aren’t buying anything at my store. I have to summarize the totality of the new digital book universe, in a way Antiques Roadshow fans will understand, in 30 seconds or less. [While resetting the whole store for the holidays, and simultaneously running a register and answering book questions because while I have staff on the schedule, they’re earnestly waiting behind the digital counter, waiting for the one-customer-in-ten who is shopping for a device and not a book.]


I love books. I love my job, since I get to work in a bookstore, but recently instead of being able to communicate my love of books to customers [in general, and for some books particularly] I’ve been stuck doing everything, all at once because some tosser in a comfy office at corporate decided each payroll hour spent needs to generate $140 in revenue instead of $100.

Instead of being able to share my enthusiasm for books with customers, my dedication to books is now sublimated into a grim determination to just hang on even in the face of a deteriorating situation — but with hope that things will improve when the economy is better. My fear, though, is that having realized “productivity gains” [& without recognizing exactly what those gains have cost] my corporate overlords will continue to run the bookstores with a skeleton crew and the bare minimum of new stock, all while asking management and other “lifetime” booksellers to do more and more — for and with less.

Some days I feel like I’m running the store by myself. And some days I ask, If I’m Running the Store by Myself, then hell, why don’t I just leave to run my own store? [I think this counts as one more ‘cost’ of cutting payroll: your best employees leave to do less work, working for themselves]


Corporate had to find the money somewhere, to pay for the digital launch.

And that’s fine.

I might wonder why we spent $500 million to buy back the college bookstore division from our own chairman, along with the rights to the company name itself — withheld at the IPO in ’93 for no other reason than the brand alone was worth at least as much as the company — but at a time when major investment was required, I’m a bit sore that money was spent on anything other than digital.

But the investment in digital by my corporate overlord (might as well name Barnes & Noble at this point in the essay) made by cutting payroll and other costs while stock dividends continue to be paid quarterly — a payment to shareholders that amounts to 50+ Million Dollars a year, every year since 2005 — leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Especially since all these “productivity gains” from “payroll savings” are coming out of my store, & my employees’ well-being, and my own health. When I collapse from a heart attack on the bookfloor because 2 booksellers just quit and I’m doing what I can to basically cover, after I’ve already worked overtime & invested my all into the store, & after doing everything I could to meet the [often unreasonable] corporate expectations and dictates — I hope you enjoy your 25¢ quarterly dividend and the smug satisfaction that you’ve ‘solved’ this retail ‘problem’ — and that any media attention that my final words and obituary will draw don’t inconvenience you too much

— after all, I was just a bookseller.


  1. I worked at a big box bookstore for a year between undergrad and grad school – you have my sympathy and congratulations for surviving the holiday season!

    Comment by Anna — 22 January 2011, 02:21 #

  2. Matt,

    You have my sympathies. I can say that your staffing issues are an issue in almost all big-box retail locations, and the complication of “do more with less” has been the motto of even some of the pharmacy chains I’ve been associated with the past 4 years. That does not make your plight any less taxing – it is my opinion that booksellers have it worse than any of these other businesses due to their unique product concerns.

    I think a lot of it has to do with a long-term vs. short-term business planning from the highest parts of management. B&N has a corporate policy probably handed down from your CEO that requires a certain amount of profit, and the easiest way to do that is to hire less, fire more, and sell more. In the short term, you can accomplish this by depleting staff, but it’s a huge liability for the long-term health of a corporation.

    The issue is that most CEOs are not in it for the long term. They plan to stay around for 2-8 years and then leave, and they want their reign to be profitable while they are there, so that they get those lucrative severance bonuses once they move on to early retirement or what have you. There is no incentive to plan for long-term business health, because they are only being paid to garner short term sales. It is a broken model.

    Comment by Alex Hoffman — 22 January 2011, 09:29 #

  3. Wow! As a fellow B&N store manager, I can and do relate to everything you said. This is exactly what i have gone through in the past year! Thank you for putting in writing every one of the frustrations I have had. I loved my job and loved working for B&N until last year. As of the 28th, I will no longer be a store manager. Good luck!

    Comment by TJ — 23 January 2011, 18:01 #

  4. Well said. I worked at a large retail bookseller during and a little after college, and it was an eye-opening experience. People should have to work at least one day of retail in their lives to realize the work that goes into making a store run. I loved my job at first, but then pressure to upsell magazine subscriptions and discount cards and being worked just short of the hours of a full-time employee so they didn’t have to give me vacation or benefits drove me to leave. Best of luck to you!

    Comment by Stacey Rader — 25 January 2011, 09:12 #

  5. well writen and said

    Comment by watch anime — 25 January 2011, 19:09 #

  6. As a bookstore worker, I heartily agree. I’m from Borders (at least for the moment), and what really got me was the way corporate would stick their heads in the sand. They changed the way we shelved and insisted that all shelvers should be able to shelve a cart an hour. This meant that no section maintenance was ever being done anymore. When we objected that books were getting out of order, they gave us ten extra hours one week and told us to schedule an overnight to alpha. From then on, they told us we would be audited on alpha, but then they never did it, thus enabling themselves to keep up the illusion that all the stores were in good order. Entirely impractical.

    Comment by cmchan — 26 January 2011, 01:36 #

Commenting is closed for this article.



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