If you have some time this weekend and are looking for a reason to drink excessively, you might want to go visit a certain discussion thread over on LiveJournal.
That thread, which was first uncovered by The Passive Voice, is filled with anonymous B&N staffers griping about the problems they face at work – everything from not having enough hours/staff to unreasonable demands from district managers who are depicted as not being entirely connected with reality.
It’s a depressing read, but I don’t want to catalog all of the gripes (Chris Meadows beat me to it, anyway). Instead I want to make a more specific point by highlighting just a few gripes.
For example, here’s one commenter who works in a store that didn’t hire holiday help until the second week of December:
The store where I currently work suffered mass exodus of long term employees and they just this week hired holiday help so the few of us remaining are trying to train the herd of newbies. There have been multiple visits from district manager and other big wigs, resulting in orders to reset promos which take forever to accomplish because our store is thankfully busy at all times. Also seeing plenty of customer/external theft. Now we finally have enough cashiers but pulling product from receiving is hopelessly backed up. We are seeing plenty of sales but in 10 years I have never seen such massive pressure to push gift cards and memberships.
And another whose hours were cut in mid-December (they later quit and got a job at McDonald’s):
I just received a call from one of my ASMs. He said the SM just got off a regional call and was told to cut hours for the rest of the year in order to make payroll budget. I was told not to come in tonight, and given my adjusted schedule that cuts my hours in half from the prior posted schedules. I don’t know what I am going to do now. I was counting on the $ from my schedule to pay for my kids Christmas presents. With my cut in hours, I won’t earn enough to get the kids their gifts.
My point here is that there is a certain frightening parallel between what B&N corporate is doing to the store staff and how they are running the entire chain. Remember that disastrous interview that Mitchell Klipper gave back in January? He told the WSJ that Barnes & Noble planned to shrink for the next decade:
“In 10 years we’ll have 450 to 500 stores,” said Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, in an interview last week. The company operated 689 retail stores as of Jan. 23, along with a separate chain of 674 college stores.
Mr. Klipper said his forecast assumes that the company will close about 20 stores a year over the period.
Barnes & Noble’s plan to rescue the company could best be summed up as cutting costs in the hopes that at some point revenues will exceed costs and the company will be profitable again. This is an accepted business theory which would work in most industries, and even in most retail industries, but not bookselling.
Why not bookselling?
For one thing, indies are thriving while using a completely inverted approach. For another, we know that Borders adopted a similar plan shortly before the end, and look where they ended up. Carly Zekter used to work at Borders, and she left this comment over on Teleread:
I used to work for Borders in management, and left a few years before the final implosion because I saw the writing on the wall.
You could replace all of these B&N references with Borders and it would still fit. This is eerily similar to what Borders was like when I left.
For example, I was ordered to write up our best cafe employee for not making her Borders Rewards signups. When I pushed back, pointing out that as the only quick service option in the mall the cafe didn’t get many people interested in books and instead got lots of mall employee traffic looking for coffee, I was told either I wrote her up or my boss would write both of us up.
At my exit interview with my DM, he asked how the store could improve. I told him we needed more workers, and he responded “Well, you’re over payroll for the year, so what else?” Didn’t matter to him that our issue was that customers were walking out because no one was free to help them.
Barnes & Noble has forgotten that bookselling isn’t like any other retail industry. The book part adds a community aspect that for example Walmart lacks, and that is part of the reason that Borders failed. Or so says Matt Blind, an ex-B&N Manager:
Books Are Not Retail.
Big Box Bookstores are social spaces, have been since 1992 or so, and it is at least as important — more important — to consider community, demographics, sociology, psychology, and the whole grand tradition of books and Civilization Itself, as to rely on old models of retail and business.
Borders’ bankruptcy is not a failure of the business. Borders was run as a business, quite professionally, and using standard retail models.
The eventual collapse of Borders came because those in control of Borders forgot (or failed to ever realize) that Borders sells books.
And bookselling *is not* retail.
I know that might sound like hokum, but before you write it off I would like you to consider something:
Why are indie bookstores thriving at a time when BArnes & Noble is busy committing auto-asphyxiation?
Could it be perhaps that indies are operating as much from the heart as the ledger book?
A few months ago I pointed out that indies were thriving because they are offering all sorts of community activities and personal interaction with their customers that Amazon cannot provide. This may have run counter to the ongoing book industry paradigm of Amazon the bookstore slayer, but that doesn’t make it any less true:
To survive in the age of Amazon, many bookstores are emphasizing what e-commerce has a tougher time delivering: community and a personal touch. It’s not exactly a new strategy. But it has gotten far more attention in recent years.
Indeed, many bookstore owners are trying to create a sort of community center amid their shelves. They’ve filled their store calendars with events like author lectures, writing workshops, and children’s camps. Adding cafes also helps to create a scene while also diversifying revenue beyond just selling the latest bestsellers.
Based on what I read in that LiveJournal discussion, I don’t think B&N is focusing on the community aspects either. Instead they first threw vast sums of money into the Nook, and now they are pinning their hopes on cutting their way to profitability.
And that could be their undoing.