Barnes & Noble’s Corporate Malaise

Nicole Brinkley writes: Barnes & Noble’s solution to poor sales isn’t, “Okay, let’s reassess stock and see who’s ordering all these things that nobody wants to buy—and maybe do some better outreach into these communities.”

Barnes & Noble’s solution is, “Hey, let’s throw out those experienced employees instead of looking at how those employees could help achieve both our short-term and our long-term community and sale goals.”

barnes-noble-closing-225x300She’s 100% correct. I knew this from experience. And this is not a new situation, either. I dealt with it personally in 2006, and it led to me leaving that company after nearly six years of top-reviewed service at three different locations around the country. I don’t have time right now to relate the whole story. The short version, however is this:

B&N was close to a dream-employer when I began working for them in late 1999. They paid well by retail standards, had good benefits, and generally treated the staff with respect and incentives because they realized that knowledgeable, loyal employees who could hand-sell goods brought in more money than low-paid floor-monkeys counting the seconds until their shifts were over.

That situation ended when Amazon and other internet venues cut into B&N’s profit margins.

As I later discovered, Barnes & Noble defined “profit” like most other American companies do: Make more this year than you made last year… and if your income drops, then slash your expenses.

In B&N’s case, “expenses” were the benefits and payroll that supported the chain’s staff.

Again, it’s a long story. By 2005, however, pay had been frozen, benefits cut, staff reduced, and workload increased throughout the chain. Meanwhile, many money-wasting policies remained unchanged. B&N had become incredibly inefficient, with an outdated business model; its response, of course, was to punish the people who sell their goods.

In 2006, my friend and co-worker Zack got sick. He couldn’t afford a doctor visit or medication, and by that point we had no health coverage. He tried to “tough it out,” and he died.

B&N Corporate’s response was a shrug.

By that time, I had already grown frustrated with the deteriorating situation with that company. When our district manager – who I knew from a previous store I’d worked at – came by for a visit, I approached her with a plan to streamline the inefficiencies, update the business model, and shift money from wasteful inventory policies back to payroll.

That plan was based on over half-a-decade’s experience with the chain, and over a decade in the publishing industry as a whole. She agreed it was a good plan, and said she’s take it to Corporate the following month. Irony alert: The B&N CEO’s statement from November 17 of last year is essentially what I suggested to them 12 years ago… so of course, they’re now doing the exact opposite thing.

Afterward, the district manager came back to me with the following words: “Corporate likes things the way they are. They don’t plan to change. If you’re unhappy here, I suggest you get another job elsewhere.”

So I did. I did it by the numbers, on good terms, gave plenty of notice, and even trained my replacements (plural). As far as I was aware (and my old co-workers Melissa Ackert and Beth Buell can attest to this), I left on good terms with everyone, and was welcome back in the store anytime.

When a client screwed me for $4000 in late 2007, and I went to a different B&N location for a quick job, I found out otherwise.

Apparently, after I left, Corporate tagged me as a troublemaker, said I had quit without notice, and noted that I was not to be rehired. They also gave me a shitty reference when a different bookstore called to verify my employment there.

I called my former manager, and the management team there swore they’d had nothing to do with that.

Almost six years of loyal, dedicated and knowledgeable service was pissed on and trashed out of sheer, vindictive spite from Barnes & Noble Corporate, apparently because an employee had dared to attempt to update their outdated business model.

I have seldom spent money in a Barnes & Noble since then. And trust me – I spend a LOT of money on books and media.

I have to wonder: How many more stories out there are like mine? How many other book-loving salespeople got dumped on by B&N Corporate and so took their business elsewhere? How much money has this cost the chain in lost business from disgruntled ex-employees alone, much less the losses incurred when a dedicated, well-informed, motivated sales-force is replaced by desperate, resentful wage-slaves who literally die from the company’s neglect?

Twelve years later, the company hasn’t learned a fucking thing.

Why not? Because as long as the folks at the tippie-top get their paychecks and stock dividends – no matter what those things cost the company, its people, even its industry – they have no incentive to learn, and even less of an incentive to care.

That, right there, is a distillation of everything wrong with Corporate America.

And laying off entire staffs of people does nothing to address that problem.


About Satyr

Award-winning fantasy author, game-designer, and all 'round creative malcontent. Creator of a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the series Mage: The Ascension, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. Lives in Seattle. Hates shoes. Loves cats. Dances a lot.
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