Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Searching for answers

The other day I had a gentleman in my store looking for Deepak Chopra books. It wasn’t until I took him to the appropriate section that he told me the titles, at which time I informed him that we had neither.

“Why not? Aren’t Chopra’s books popular?”

“Of course they are, sir. They sell very well, which is why we might be between copies at this time.”

“How do you know? How do you know you’re between copies? Shouldn’t you check your computer?”

“I just rearranged these sections, sir, and I’m the one who unloads freight. We do not have these books. I can order them for you—”

“What about your overstock? Couldn’t they be in your overstock?”

“These sections don’t have overstock. Everything I have is out. I can order the books for you if you want, you’d be under no obligation to buy them, or you could visit our sister store down the street.”

He opted for the sister store after a brief lecture on why these books should be in stock and why I’d failed as a bookstore employee.

Really made a girl feel good.

Don’t ever do retail if you have self-esteem issues.

The books that he wanted had been released in 2001 and 1994 (last issue) respectively. They were titles that I hadn’t sold in over two years (at least, according to my computer in the case of the 2001 book), and I don’t remember ever having people ask me for in my time at this store. Whether or not a backlist title stays on shelf depends solely on whether or not it’s still actively being sold. If our computer system thinks that it is not active, the book shows up on a returns list and gets sent back. It’s not a perfect system, but that’s how it works.

I bring this up because Journal of an Avid Reader had a very nice snark/rant about her recent trip to a bookstore, and was looking for some sort of bookseller response. The short version of her story was she went looking for the new Wen Spencer novel, only to be told by the bookseller that the store was sold out and that the buyer probably wasn’t going to be any more copies in stock.

The situation differs from the one I offered above due to the fact that we’re dealing with a frontlist title. I can’t tell you why the bookstore wasn’t going to reorder, or what their reordering policy might be. I know that reordering is based on the judgment of the buyer on whether or not more copies are going to sell. This doesn’t mean that the buyer is always right (they are human, so frequently wrong—we all are), or that it’s not just a glitch in the computer system. Just yesterday I realized for the first time that my own system wasn’t going to automatically reorder Tyler Perry’s new book, despite the fact that we sold out immediately, and I had to go through the process manually. Until that point we (all of my coworkers and I) had been operating under the impression that “of course we’d get it back in! Diary of a Mad Black Woman sold like crazy here!”

Of course it took a customer asking for the book for me to question why we hadn’t been restocked.

In the case of A.R.’s Wen Spencer novel, it’s entirely possible that by asking for the book A.R. might have spurred the bookstore into ordering more copies. The bookseller mentions it to her boss and the boss mentions it to the buyer and lo the book returns, but this only happens if everyone is on top of it. With several thousand titles in a store, it’s very hard to keep track of everything that’s sold (something that harkens back to the whole To Compute or Not to Compute conversations at Written Nerd). Personally if a customer asked me for a frontlist title that I didn’t have, I would order it in no matter whether or not the customer was going to go on to another bookstore. For every person who asks there are five who don’t.

Who knows what the other bookstore ended up doing.

I can answer why the bookseller mentioned the format (hardback) and price of the book though. You wouldn’t believe how many people will ask for the newest Author X title and really mean the newest paperback. Or come in believing that the newest title will be in paperback. They hear the price of the hardback and suddenly they don’t want it. “It’s how much? Don’t you have the paperback? I thought this was supposed to be paperback.”

You hear this enough and you just start supplying the information automatically.

Is any of this right? I don’t know.

Should bookstores have better inventory systems? Definitely, but systems are run on algorithms and data entered by people. Screw something up and everything is screwed up. Not to mention that you still have to wait on shipping from the warehouse or the publisher. Nothing is immediate.


Avid Reader said...

For every person who asks there are five who don’t.

Agree with this completely.

I appreciate your answering this for me as I hope they do buy more Wen Spencer books as *I* think she's awesome but many readers probably don't know her or her books because of the thousands of books out there, good authors can easily be overlooked.

The bookseller giving me the format didn't bother me so much as the tone? I knew the book was a new release in hardback but her tone was like: you know it's a 25.99? Well, yes, I even told you the street date. I come informed. But I know that's neither here nor there. I work retail and agree with you on a lot of stuff here.

Thanks so much!


Michelle said...

I went to get the new Wen Spencer book 2 weeks ago and they had sold out of the copies that they had ordered. I was able to get it special ordered.

lady t said...

People always think that every store has a magical storeroom in the back where the very item they wanted is just waiting for them-"Don't you have it in the back?" No,we don't and we don't have a back room either.

Also,some people seem to take it personally when the book they want isn't right in the store,like the clerks have nothing better to do than plot against random customers"No book for you! Come back one year!"

Bookseller Chick said...

Keishon, attitude is everything in the retail business and you're right, she shouldn't have given you a tone. Who knows who proceeded you though. She might have been coming off a hell-bitch run in of epic proportions (I had one of those the other day of the male species). The best thing any of us can do for authors we love (but aren't necessarily well known) is to spread the word. The more people coming in and asking for a title, the more that will be ordered of the next book.

Michelle, you're right. There is always special ordering, but many people want the instant gratification of getting their book now, damn it! When I tell people it will take seven to ten business days for a book to arrive (guaranteed, it could show up earlier), I often get the comment, "That long?" I think people are greatly overestimating the use of the US Postal service in their minds.

Lady T, yes! Yes! Oh how I wish that I could be a bookseller Nazi. "No book for you. You bad reader. Go!" Maybe that comes across sometimes (unintentionally) when I tell someone we don't have a book. Or maybe people just don't like being told no.

Jane said...

what? there is no special storeroom in the back? What's the storeroom for anyways? I was in Waldens a day after Warsworn came out. They had sold out of their two (2!!!) copies. What is it with the 2 copy minimum?

This is why I like ebooks. not only was wen spencer's ARC available months ago for 15.95 from Baen, but it is also for sale now for only 6.99. No out of stock problems. Go Baen. Go e publishing.

And yes, I do think that the clerks are conspiring against me. I see all that behind the hand whispering that goes on when I am prowling the store aisles.

Book Nerd said...

Part of the noble calling of bookselling is treating customers with respect even when their request doesn't make sense to you -- even when they're demanding and unreasonable like Deepak Chopra guy (isn't that supposed to be all about peace and stuff anyway?) But Avid Reader's request is totally NOT unreasonable -- it was just a glitch or a midjudgement or a policy or whatever that meant it wasn't easily solved.

This is why I think bookstores do better in terms of customer service when the folks on the frontlines are able to make decisions about ordering. Not the automated computer system; not the guy in the back office who doesn't like to talk to people. At my store, every employee can place an order on the spot if they think something should be in stock. And we divide up the responsibility so that every book that sells gets looked at in the computer by someone. We still miss things sometimes because of that whole being human thing. And dude, the space in the store is just not infinite, so we can't have every book anyone has ever printed or imagined.

But a little civility goes a long way in figuring out any misfiring between store stock and customer. Kudos to the booksellers (and other retail folks) who pull that off.

Eileen said...

Wow- there is no limit to how much the general public can take their issues out on others is there? Ah it makes me remember fondly my time waiting tables....

Eileen said...

Wow- there is no limit to how much the general public can take their issues out on others is there? Ah it makes me remember fondly my time waiting tables....

mwb said...

I'm going to digress slightly, but it is somewhat related - since it is have book buying experience of an avid reader.

I have to admit, I've certainly switched more to places like Powell's & occasionally Amazon. I was never a chain bookstore sort. I always went to independent bookstores. But since I rarely follow the latest titles and I tend to go for somewhat more niche and obscure books I had to frequently special order books.

It just strikes me that special order within bookstores (which was never easy) has become increasingly difficult in independent bookstores versus ordering directly from publishers via their websites or places like Powells or Amazon. I don't blame the bookstores as much as recognizing that declining income means less staff (more overworked and less focus on special order folks.)

Within the past year or two, I've simply given up on special orders in B&M stores, when every single title that I've done a special order for never actually arrives (either doesn't arrive or is updated as OOP, etc.) Mind you when I contact the publisher I got everyone of the those books promptly and easily. So perhaps there's a issue of the publishers being less helpful to independent bookstores or the distributors.

Just something has changed over past five years. The rise of internet sellers, publishers selling direct, publishers and distributors increasingly shifting their attention to chains vs independent sellers.

Now we're kind of at the point that the speciality bookstores that I practically lived at are gone. The remaining more general independent bookstores' stock is focused on titles aimed at more popular sellers (understandable for obvious reasons.)

In many ways, publishers and 'net stores are better suited to handle more niche stuff because no one geographic locale may contain enough regular buyer to make stocking and handling such things. But via web orders you tap the nation where enough buyer cobble together to support such things.

But that's just my insane ramblings...

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