Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Brick and Mortar Costs More

Back to school is always a bit of a nutty time to work in a bookstore. One, you have all the students who "forgot" to do their summer reading, who suddenly need a book right this minute (and who for some reason have missed that as being a benefit of owning an e-reader). Two, you have the students who have just gotten syllabi, whether for high school or college, who need a very specific edition of a particular book, which, because their teachers often haven't updated said syllabi in years, is often out of print. And three, you have the people who've never realized that your run-of-the-mill Barnes & Noble doesn't carry specialized textbooks like the one you need for Organic Chemistry 210.

The thing is, most booksellers in this situation, whether B&N, Books-a-Million, or indie, will do their level best to sell that customer a book. They'll offer different editions; they'll track down the book with used retailers, they'll spend hours of their time unraveling exactly which edition of the book the teacher intended for the student to have.

All of this time costs money.

Last Thursday, I helped a mom who had an ISBN written down from her daughter. Now, an ISBN is usually faboo--it's the easiest way to make sure we are getting the exact book that the student was assigned. But neither my manager nor I could find this ISBN. Not in the store, not in Google, not anywhere. (Mind you, this was a 10-digit ISBN, so it was years out of date.) So we started searching for the prefix in the Bowker database, to see if we could figure out who the publisher was. No such luck.

I finally just decided to throw a wild guess, since I knew Penguin had a series with a similar name (which is the kind of jump a live person can make that no computer can), and searched for the book with Penguin as the publisher. Boom. Found it. The daughter had written the ISBN incorrectly. But we didn't have a copy in the store.

I offered to order a copy for the student; we could bring it into the store, or she could have it shipped directly for even less (the price differential between the warehouse and in-store pricing often works this way). The mom, after having been helped by two booksellers for over half an hour, whipped out her iPhone, checked the price on Amazon, and said, "Well, I can get it overnight shipped for $3.99. I'm sorry. She does need it right away."

Click. Sale.

Honestly, at the time, I didn't know what to say. But next time, I won't be so tongue tied. Because as I did the math, I realized that that half-hour of mine and my manager's time cost the company around $20 in salary. So a single customer directly cost our store $20, and made no purchase. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, it's not much, compared to the thousands of dollars we sell in an hour. But that $20 has to be absorbed somewhere...

...which is something to think about the next time you see someone mutter, "I'll order it on Amazon," after a bookseller has helped them locate their book.

Photo courtesy of ImaginaryGirl via flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license.


  1. I seriously want to time travel back to when you were helping that lady and she announced she was going to buy it on Amazon, and yell at her. That's horrible! And incredibly rude!

    I make a point to buy all my books from brick & mortar stores, and when I can't get a book in-store I order it from B&N online. I'll buy other things from Amazon--it is a very useful site--but I want there to be as many retail options as possible for books, so I figure physical stores need my money more.

    1. Well, and I totally don't begrudge people buying on Amazon. I do, too, sometimes. Though sometimes I think a lot of people don't realize that B& offers a lot of the same prices and products and features.

      But I do wish people would think more about how using a bookstore as a showroom really affects the price they pay at the bookstore. Even without the cost of a physical store, there's still the cost of replacing shopworn books, staff to put books back, people to help someone find a book, etc. Yes, an online bookstore gives you a price break. But if you want the price break, accept the reduction in services--don't use someone else for them.


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