Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bathroom Monologue: Price War

Sarah knew something was up when seven people walked into the store at once. You rarely got a party of adults that large, and never at 4:30 AM. Six of them wore slacks and button down shirts, like they’d just gotten off shift somewhere else. The seventh was a tall lady in an unassuming blue dress. All seven took carts and rolled them past the Pharmacy and into the Entertainment aisles.

Since the only customer was using Self-Checkout, Sarah ducked from her counter for a minute. She slid up the aisle and peered around the corner of nasal spray shelves.

At the edge of Entertainment, three of the seven were dismantling the new book display that gone up just two hours ago. It was huge, with more copies of a single book than they’d ever put on the floor before, meant to attract attention for a big new fiction release. It was some crazy Horror book or something. Apparently the display worked, as the group stacked every copy in their carts. They spent a minute going through the aisles, presumably hunting down any other copies. There was no sign of the rest of their friends.

Maybe they were huge fans. People had gotten eccentric about their books since Harry Potter.

She heard yelling from way in the rear. Rather than check on that, she followed an all-night Wal-Mart employee’s instinct and dashed back to her counter. She felt guilty, even though no one else was at the registers. Hers was the only one open tonight.

After a minute, Sarah dialed the manager’s office. It rang on and on. That was odd, because Fred didn’t do much more than watch the office TV when he was in charge at nights. He wasn’t the regular manager, just an assistant who enjoyed a little power.

Finally he picked up, immediately ordering, “Hold on.”

“Fred?” she asked.

She heard muffled argument on the line. Fred sounded distressed.

“Fred? What’s going on?”

Before there was a reply, a fleet of shopping carts rounded the corner. It was the book group, two of the plain slacks brigade with the woman in the blue dress in the lead. She led a convoy down her aisle.

“Hey there,” the lady said, smiling wanly down at her. Her hair was mussed, like she’d been up all night. She extended the first book to Sarah. “Can you scan this one and just enter the number of copies? We have four-eighty.”

“You’re buying four-hundred and eighty copies?” Sarah asked in disbelief. She took the book, though hesitated to scan it. She had a feeling Fred was going to yell some weird orders over the phone in a minute, and that they would pertain to not scanning certain merchandise.

“That we are. Can you scan just the one and type in the number?”

“I’m not sure.” Sarah looked down. It was hard to make eye contact when she was so confused. She looked at the cover. There was a big bubble on it. It looked boring. “Why do you want so many?”

The lady gave her a look, as though Sarah were the one being weird. Sarah felt herself shrink, which didn’t help as the woman was already three inches taller than her.

“I’m from The Reading Room over on Robin Street. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there.”

Sarah bit her tongue.

“I’ve passed it…”

“My mom started it forty years ago. It was the town’s first independent bookstore. Do you know how much we have to pay the publisher per copy of this book?”

The two guys with carts of books behind the lady both seemed to bristle in unified indignation, like this was Sarah’s fault.

“No.” She couldn’t say anything else.

“Over twenty dollars. More than double this.” The lady reached out to the copy Sarah held and tapped the 9.98 sticker on its upper right hand corner. “There is no way we can make a profit if we even went near ten bucks. We’d lose thousands of dollars just to make the sales. If you do this on more books, we’ll go out of business whether or not we match prices.”

Sarah tried to change the topic. “So you all came over from The Reading Room?”

“No. Ron’s from Borders.”

The lady gestured to the man behind her in line. He was an older man, wearing a sharp green tie.

“Borders?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” said Ron. “I’m running a little joint venture with The Reading Room. We’re doing an inter-store release party at noon. Half my staff is here helping us stock up here. The other half’s across town at 24-hour Target doing the same thing.”

Sarah blinked. “You’re going to sell these? You can do that?”

“It’s better than wholesale price,” said Ron. “By a lot. We cancelled our orders with the publisher and just came here. We’re taking all of you’ve got. Readers can get it from the bookstore.”

“You know there are more in the back…” Sarah began, then stopped as pallets rolled around the corner of the checkout counters. Pallet mover after pallet mover appeared, wheeled by the remaining members of this book club. Each pallet mover was stacked with cardboard boxes. Some were opened, all sporting more copies of the ever-popular Horror book.

“Hey Jess! Ron!” the one on the front pallet called, waving. “These were all they had.”

“Sarah! Sarah!”

Sarah stiffened. That was Fred’s voice coming from hip level. She looked at her counter and realized she hadn’t hung up the station’s phone. The night manager was yelling for her attention.

She dropped the book and picked up the receiver. When the crew from Borders began forming a crowded line in her aisle, she held up a finger as though to say she’d help them with those three thousand copies in just a minute. Then she turned and spoke into the phone.


“Do not sell them those books. This is bullshit.”

“Isn’t this illegal? Can’t security do something?”

“We’ve got one guy on staff and he says this isn’t in his contract. I don’t know. They don’t talk about this in manager training. But the branch officer is going to be pissed if we do this. I just know it. I’m not getting blamed for this. Do not sell those books, Sarah.”

“They really want them. What am I supposed to say?”

“Hey Ron!” somebody behind a pallet called. “Are they going to scan these soon? I want to take a shower before the release party.”

Fred ordered, “Tell them you’re closing your counter.”

Sarah’s eyes bugged out and she turned away. “I can’t do that. I’ll look like an idiot. Come on down here and tell them to go away yourself.”

“I told them to fuck off when they came in the back. I can’t touch a customer, though. They’ll sue. You know they want to.”

“Can’t you, like… call the cops or something?”

“I was just on the line to them. They made fun of me and asked I should arrest their sergeant for buying too many garden hoses. I don’t think they’re coming.”

“Hey Ron!”

There was movement behind her. Sarah turned instinctively and saw all the shopping carts withdraw, like someone had put the night on rewind. At first, in a daydream-like state, she imagined they were going to return the books. Then she saw the guys with pallets wheeling around the bank of counters. They weren’t heading back to Entertainment. They were heading towards…

“Guys!” one of them pointed. “Self-Checkout’s open!”


  1. Funny and so right-on-the-headlines!

  2. What a clever idea!

    In Germany, many shops state that items will not be sold in "industrial amounts", but I doubt they had this particular scenery in mind...

  3. Wouldn't that be sweet? Great story. Great idea. One question, though, aren't Amazon & Borders the same company? Amazon is doing the same thing. Don't get me wrong, I just came home from Borders. Anything I can do to keep that store open. Maybe I'll go to Walmart on 11/10.

  4. Thanks, folks! Happy to entertain. When Susan directed me to the story over the weekend I just had to write this.

    Susan, to the best of my knowledge Borders and Amazon are not the same company. They had a sales alliance for a while because Borders didn't have an internet presence, but Borders severed it in 2007 (if memory serves), electing for their own internet distribution. A quick Google search reveals nothing about the two companies being joined. Am I misinformed?

  5. Perfect John! If only.... I hope the people who need to see this stumble upon it, (and it makes a difference).

  6. So amusing! This captures the current book-selling price-war climate so very well. Unfortunately the dollar/pound is still king, and I don't see bookstores being able to survive if huge corporations like Wal*Mart continue to sell below cost. This is one possible solution for them, but it still doesn't help the writers, those poor souls who actually do the work. If only we got paid for used books too.

  7. I agree, Barry, that writers are going to be in for yet another squeeze. It hasn't been a particularly good decade for them, but they and their publishers could quickly wind up on the worst end of this. I read an editorial this morning that proposed shifting even more of the risk onto authors (and she pitched this as the bright spot).

    Deanna, was "stumble upon" a hint? I wish I could embed a StumbleUpon link on this blog, but I'm just not so tech savvy.

  8. Fantastic, John. This is a topic that has been worrying me, it simply is not right. What a great illustration.

  9. Absolutely brilliant! Well done.


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