An index of my previous columns can be found at http://www.rocketbomber.com/bookselling
Let me start with one of my personal pet peeves: calendars. A calendar is so utilitarian and boring, it must be hard for you to imagine that anyone could possible harbor a deep-seated hatred of the damn things.
Allow me to educate you:
First, to make room for calendars, I have to take books off of the sales floor. Most often, the books removed will be those missed least, so as directed by my benevolent corporate overlords, I remove anywhere from a sixth to a third of my bargain department [&while the price points are lower, the margins are actually better] [and I’ll also note here that quite a lot of what my customers like to call ‘coffee table books’ are classed as bargain titles, at least that’s how things stand currently]
So right before my biggest sales season starts I have to remove somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 worth of merchandise just to make room for a seasonal product. The only reason the trade-off makes sense is that the price points are vaguely similar: about $15. The calendars are thinner, but they don’t stack nearly as well. Call it an even swap —
Though of course this neglects the payroll to remove the books, replace the fixtures, receive & display the calendars, and then go back and unwind the whole mess each February.
Add on to that the customers who do not & will not pay full price for a calendar, and habitually & perpetually wait not just for our annual clearance but for the very last days of our annual clearance so they can buy the calendar for just two bucks.
And that’s fair; everyone is entitled to save money. However, if you wait months after the calendars initially go out, you are not entitled to complain about our selection. We do not stock for the clearance; instead we’re optimizing our selection and merchandising for sales at full price. If you wait, well, you’re taking a chance. (But don’t tell me that ‘in the past’ I’ve had more to choose from – - you’re only pointing out that we used to lose a lot of money, and while as a customer you might want to ‘blame’ us for a perceived lack, we’re doing what we have to… to stay open, among other things.)
While I’m ranting, let me also point out that corporate has me putting out calendars starting in late July and I then have to keep up with the damn things for 7 months and then they go on clearance — and after all that, by the 3rd week of February I don’t particularly feel sympathetic when customers respond, “what, already?” when I tell them we’re sold out.
Calendars are just the tip of the iceberg; let me add onto that journals & blank books, booklights, bookplates, bookmarks, stationary, greeting cards, and “little gifts” — it’s all crap. When customers ask me for them, I personally feel a bit of resentment.
It’s not enough that I stock & sell books. Thousands of books. Hundreds of thousands of books. No.
“Excuse me, where are the cards?”
Oh, I don’t know, maybe a Hallmark store? Why do I have to carry them? Why do you assume I carry them?
OK, so, um books are printed on paper and so are calendars and greeting cards. Fine.
But what about board games? Or jigsaw puzzles? It’s not that I don’t have them, but when people ask, there is never a hint of doubt in their voice, it’s more of an accusation, and the unstated sentiment “I know you are stocking them, book-slave, where are you hiding them?”
Past cards, journals, and games: There are the magazines, the CDs, the DVDs.
The news agent [or newsstand, depending on which version of English one favours] used to be a free-standing, self supporting business. Now, the bookstore is expected to not only adopt this orphan, but to spend more money on the same business, to stock more magazines and more special issues and hang onto them longer and to let any and all customers just hang out and read them for free — because we are a bookstore and that’s what we do.
Record stores used to sell vinyl and tapes and CDs: yet another free-standing and self-supporting business. But now, with all chains and most indies closed, the bookstore is supposed to take up all that slack, and have listening stations in store to let our customers sample albums for free. Because, c’mon, why bother to stock the discs if customers can’t sample them. That’s basic.
The video stores [both sales and rental] used to be stand-alone, self-supporting businesses. Customers might lament that there are so few options left, but it doesn’t stop them from attempting to haggle on price: “$80 for an HBO box set! That’s Robbery!” – yeah, I get the sentiment: I’d love to own that series, too. But the prices are set by HBO, not here in the store, and nothing about “customer service” requires me to take a loss.
From thank you notes to electronic dictionaries to DVD box sets to portable CD players — there is nothing to tie these products [and product lines, and more] to the “bookstore” but that doesn’t stop my customers. “Where are your calendars?” – when asked of me in March – is enough to spike my blood pressure and shave another 2 minutes off of my life expectancy.
It doesn’t stop there. Customers ask me how much it costs just to rent the book. They ask, not if it just might be possible to make photocopies, but rather with every expectation “So where’s your copy machine?” or, one bridge too far, “I need you to notarize this.”
Really? I mean, Really?
One could say that this is ‘my’ fault [in that it is a continuation of trends begun by my corporate overlords long before I began working for them]. I present it to you as an object lesson, a cautionary parable: don’t adopt orphans.
An enthusiastic associate comes to you with a business idea: A new product line. The margins are good, the floorspace required is minimal, we might have to buy in bulk, and on non-returnable terms, but the items are ‘in demand’, ‘sure sellers’, ‘obvious extensions of our core business’
…and stop right there.
Our core business is books and should always be books. If we have space for new product it should always be used for more books and if we figure out how to shoe-horn another fixture onto our sales floor, dammit that had better be another damn bookcase that holds more books.
No one goes to the Strand in New York for the tote bags.