Some Thoughts on Borders

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Braak
Tags: , ,

Borders, you may have heard, is going to be filing for bankruptcy.  They will divest themselves of 200 stores at first (at first), out of their 640-some.  I have said that I think this is a strategy meant to allow them to easily shed the worst of their liabilities, and to make the remaining infrastructure more appealing for a buyout.  I generally stand by this decision; intuitively, I feel little certainty that anyone in the company is trying to save access to books; though I can hardly fault anyone on a sinking ship for looking for a life preserver before they consider the loss of their boat’s impact on the sugar industry.

What I find interesting about this is that Borders employees have been predicting a collapse like this for years.

As I may have mentioned, I used to work for a Borders.  I was there right as Amazon was ascending, right when e-readers were introduced and mp3 players began gutting Borders’ music business, and the company responded by buying Paperchase.

Paperchase is a British stationery company, specializing in selling small cardboard boxes for nine dollars a piece.  I don’t know what the plan behind this was; I do know that our store had to hire an extra person just to manage all of the cheap cardboard crap that was suddenly cluttering up our floors.

I don’t remember the name of the guy who made that decision.  He was new, I remember that, because we had, on the wall in the breakroom, the e-mail announcing his assumption of the position.  There was a bit about how he played the guitar, and how he loved books, and (I think?) how he had helped get the Superfresh chain of supermarkets back on track.  (It might have been Safeway, though.)

There was, interestingly enough, very little information about how much time he had spent working at a Borders’ bookstore.

I suppose that’s to be expected, really.  If I ran Borders Corporate — which is some kind of machine/AI (?) gestalt composed of men in suits who, when their powers combined, were able to access the most basic and venal parts of the human character in a way that was wholly ineffective for both communication or actually selling things — I definitely would not have hired successful managers of Borders bookstores to run my company.

I am dead serious about this, incidentally.  See, what you have to remember about the Borders stores is that, as a manager, you don’t really have much in the way of agency.  You have a planogram (that’s a word that Borders Corporate thought up, or at least one that they used shamelessly), sure, and you have edicts, issued via anonymous e-mails.  But you can’t actually DO anything.  If you wanted to reorganize the magazines, for instance, or if you thought that the Science Fiction section should be nearer the front door, or what have you, TOO BAD.

Borders Corporate has, according to legend, employed a team of marketing engineers to build every store to the exact specifications that will net the highest possible sales.  And, perhaps somewhat miraculously, those specifications are ABSOLUTELY IDENTICAL, no matter what market the store is in, no matter its demographics, no matter anything.  (Take note, you advocates of the Free Market:  it took more than a decade for Borders to fail due to defects stemming directly from the problems with Central Planning; and the niche — of a bookstore that I, BRAAK!, can easily get to — will probably never be valuable enough to be filled. Ten years is a pretty long time for a bad idea to flourish in an environment that is ostensibly hostile to it.)

So, Borders Corporate likes successful managers, because if your store makes a lot of money (like ours did, because the Barnes and Noble across the street folded before we did) while you’re suffering under these edicts, then you are proof that those edicts are working.  They want to reward you, and send your name around in one of those e-mails or something.

Of course, no one in middle-management in Corporate actually wants to make money, exactly; what they want is to legitimize themselves.  To prove that they are valuable to the people who have the hiring power.  It’s not like if you’re near the top of the Corporate Food Chain you start getting profit shares (only at the very top, I assume; plus some employee stock programs, I guess).  When the store starts to flounder, the CEO is going to blame someone; if you’re in middle management, your job isn’t to show that you’re valuable, just to show that someone else is less valuable.

You don’t have to be, as it were, faster than the bear — just faster than the slowest runner.

The point of all this is that the only person who’s really expected to get results is the CEO, and so the last person that you want to promote to a position like that is someone who got where they are by doing a really good job of running things exactly the way the old CEO told them to.

I find this whole state of affairs to be a kind of weird.

My grandfather was president of Edgecomb Metals.  He was one of those classic “started in the mailroom and worked his way up” cases.  Literally started on the bottom rung and worked his way to the top.

I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I kind of get the feeling that this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.  That there is, instead, a sort of “CEO class” of people who got MBAs from Harvard or…well, wherever you get MBAs from.  Wharton, I guess.  They’re educated, they get jobs working directly for other CEOs or VPs or consultants, and then they get hired to manage things or run companies.

Then they all just sort of switch places, taking each other’s jobs, retiring from one company, running another one.  The people who work in the factories or the retail outlets don’t really work their way up, anymore.  They get somewhere, sure — they get higher up on the chain — but there’s a ceiling.  The Executive Suite is for the people with Executive Credentials, as it were.

And, as I pointed out in my thought experiment on the Fisherman’s Dilemma, as a CEO “success” is kind of a tricky idea.  You need to make a lot of money for the shareholders, sure, but you don’t need to actually build a good, stable, strong company — just one that’s strong enough so that, when you leave, all of its problems can be blamed on your successor.

Debatably not even that, if your board is cynical enough.

What all of this boils down to, of course, is that I’m sad that there’s no fucking bookstore around me anymore.  I LIKED the bookstore.  But, since I’m poor, and I didn’t want to spend hideous amounts of money on horrible overpriced stationery, I am not a significant enough market to keep Borders in business.

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Comments
  1. […] Borders, you may have heard, is going to be filing for bankruptcy.  They will divest themselves of 200 stores at first (at first), out of their 640-some.  I have said that I think this is a strategy meant to allow them to easily shed the worst of their liabilities, and to make the remaining infrastructure more appealing for a buyout.  I generally stand by this decision; intuitively, I feel little certainty that anyone in the company is trying to … Read More […]

  2. smeagol92055 says:

    Braak, I love you. I’d catch a bullet for you. With someone else’s body.

    Y’know, to absorb the bullet.

  3. braak says:

    That is good. There’s no sense putting yourself in jeopardy. Just so long as the bullet gets caught.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    The mass sanitization of storefronts, brand and dress – delivered, courtesy of Corporate America – is killing speciality stores. This has happened in home design shops, music shops and body shops, as well as bookstores. No one wants to walk into a bookstore looking for a difficult to find book, only to find yourself in a place that feels like a supermarket and supports only NYTimes booklist and “Oprah”-approved offerings. You might as well order online, footing for shipping and waiting for arrival because at least you’d be able to track-down a difficult to find item. I’m surprised “Borders” didn’t provide a self-order kiosk, where shoppers could use a touch screen to order books they couldn’t find in-store, with the option of paying, on the spot, by cash or card. And the store managers could see a list of which books were wanted by customers, but not stocked. For those who wouldn’t want books mailed to home or a P.O. Box, maybe customer card-scannable, book pick-up lockers (located outside stores) would’ve been an interesting idea.

    These Ivy MBA boys and girls, have collectively shown an overzealous drive and ability to tailor every market and industry to reflect a shared vision for bland, sterile and pristine mass marketing; in doing so, they’ve “airbrushed” the life and history out of brands. And they show such arrogance in deciding what’s minimally suitable for the lower classes. i.e.: “Homogenized and sanitized will do for them. This is ‘luxury’ as they imagine it. Anyhow, have you contacted that artist I’ve heard so much about? I want to comission something for our boardroom.” Yawn. And “growl”…

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    I do recall a similar CEO-swap at Home Depot during my time there – someone who was successful at some other, completely unrelated company coming in out of nowhere.

    And pretty soon specialization – that crazy notion that if you found an employee in the plumbing aisle, he was going to be well-versed in plumbing – was phased out in favor of cross-training everyone to be barely-competent in multiple departments.

    Which is why you can’t get anyone to help you at Home Depot anymore.

  6. Mormolyke says:

    See, when Amazon first came onto the scene, I was very not-sad, because now instead of driving to the mall, I have a bookstore in my house. I’ve always gotten book recommendations from friends rather than by wandering the aisles of a bookstore anyhow — and half the time, if I was in search of a book, Borders wouldn’t have it in stock.

    Also, I have Google and YouTube and some books on plumbing which I bought on Amazon, with which I taught myself to install copper pipe in our bathroom and kitchen, and cut it all out and replace it with CPVC a few years later. So bugger asking the help at Home Depot. Half the time, they had outdated information/techniques and didn’t actually know what they were talking about.

    So … oh well! Grieve not.

  7. braak says:

    I don’t need a bookstore because I want recommendations on books; I need a bookstore because I like hanging out in a bookstore.

    Stephen Fry has, in Oxford, a building that he uses for the QI show; it’s a used bookstore on the first floor, a coffee bar (during the day) and vodka bar (at night) on the second floor, and the studio for the QI show on the third.

    I want to make something like that.

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Stephen Fry has, in Oxford, a building that he uses for the QI show; it’s a used bookstore on the first floor, a coffee bar (during the day) and vodka bar (at night) on the second floor, and the studio for the QI show on the third.”

    Now, Stephen Fry does have good taste. He can decide what people should buy. And he (you, eventually, when you open your own book/liquor complex) should keep the store open, while the bars are open. Wandering in and out – people will buy lots of books because everything seems like a fascinating read while drunk.

  9. southwer says:

    My grandfather was president of Edgecomb Metals. He was one of those classic “started in the mailroom and worked his way up” cases. Literally started on the bottom rung and worked his way to the top.

    I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I kind of get the feeling that this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. That there is, instead, a sort of “CEO class” of people who got MBAs from Harvard or…well, wherever you get MBAs from. Wharton, I guess. They’re educated, they get jobs working directly for other CEOs or VPs or consultants, and then they get hired to manage things or run companies.

    Then they all just sort of switch places, taking each other’s jobs, retiring from one company, running another one. The people who work in the factories or the retail outlets don’t really work their way up, anymore. They get somewhere, sure — they get higher up on the chain — but there’s a ceiling. The Executive Suite is for the people with Executive Credentials, as it were.

    ^^ That is exactly how it is.

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