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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some thought on the fact that it took the death of Borders for people to notice what was happening to bookstores and get upset.

This post requires a bit of context, so please follow this link first and read the article http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/books-without-borders/Content?oid=9322294

A point you may remember coming up a few times in the above article was the negative effect of hiring  staff- especially managers- with no book experience or interest.  Booksellers measure success by the number of books sold, and by the quality of the experience for the customer.  Quality takes time and conversation. Executives like to bring in manager from places like the Gap and various grocery stores where "product" is moved in volume and the key to everything is as few people as possible working as quickly as possible. This is an environment that fosters absolutely no good customer service habits, but it saves a good bit of money. So does hiring kids at minimum wage instead of paying a fair rate to a bookseller who has spent ten years learning the craft. That saved money is one of the many ways the chains and Amazon (the mother of payroll savers) can afford to discount a book below the cover price.*

 There are a lot of things you can sell with out being emotionally involved with them. Not books. You can put things in alphabetical order, you can find them on the shelf for a customer, you can locate them in the computer to order them, but you can't sell them. To sell a book you have to form, at some level, a connection to your customer. You need to understand the feeling of reading something really, really good and then being a little afraid to break the spell by reading something else. You need to understand the weird, intricate ways that people classify the types of books they enjoy, generally by being one of those people yourself. When customers ask you "What are you reading?" you have to have an answer that is both genuine and leading toward a sale. You can't fake it. Mandatory title pushes are the antithesis of what a good bookseller does. The greatest booksellers I have ever met are the consummate match makers, mating reader with book over and over. Each individual customer paired with their own individual perfect book.

Every time people chose price over service, service-oriented stores take a hit. I'm not suggesting that anyone stop using Amazon. I'm suggesting that those who value service oriented stores and want to keep them around need to put their money where their mouth is. As Paul pointed out, the guy who "revolutionized" Borders by making it massivly profitable also killed it's culture and ultimately the entire company. He got to make all those horrible decisions because he proved that people have no problem sacrificing service for price. If you want to shop cheap, shop cheap. Just don't complain when cheap is the only option.

Stepping off my soap box now and dedicating this angry little rant to the 11,000 Borders employees who are unemployed or soon to be. My thought are with you.

*for those of you who don't know how this works, the cover price is the price the store will sell the book at if they want to make a 40% profit. That is, by the way, one of the lowest margins in retail. And that 40% needs to go to shipping the book to the store, putting a sticker on it, staffing the store so someone can help you find the book and sell it to you....so it comes out to a lot less than 40% ultimately. That is why indie stores sell everything at cover price for the most part. They simply can't afford to discount very much.

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