Is it true that you can learn everything you need to know about America by studying shopping? Probably not, but it sometimes seems that way. What it's telling me right now is that some people are letting their political leanings show to the point where they're even alienating those who agree with them, and the Internet is picking up the slack. No, I'm not talking about CBS and Dan Rather (yet), but about bookstores.
Last week, I wrote about the way in which lower prices and higher income might lead people to choose stores that provide first-class service. Old-fashioned stores, where people know about their products and spend time getting customers what they want, I suggested, might survive, and even flourish, in competition with the Internet and with Big Box retail stores where service is ignored in favor of lower prices.
The key, though, is service. And that point may suggest a problem for brick-and-mortar stores in industries where the customer service isn't very good, where the product is standardized, and where the competition from the Internet is fierce. In short, I think the bookstore industry is in trouble.
I've heard for years that bookstore employees tend to "hide" politically incorrect books, while giving prominent place to leftist tracts. For many years I had my doubts about that, but lately it's been harder to maintain my skepticism. Even my hard-core lefty colleagues have noticed the wall of Bush-bashing books that are prominently displayed at the entrance to every bookstore in town, and to my surprise, one of them told me the other day that it was turning him off. He hates Bush, and will certainly vote for Kerry (unless Kerry looks like such a lost cause that his temptation to vote Nader wins out) but he's still taken to buying his books from Amazon. All those Bush-bashing books, he said, are just too depressing to encounter every time he visits the bookstore. He buys books to escape politics.
On the right, of course, people are a lot unhappier. And they're unhappier still since word got out that Borders employees were actually bragging about hiding copies of the anti-Kerry book, Unfit for Command. (You can see a cached Google page here. Example: "Just 'carelessly' hide the boxes, 'accidentally' drop them off pallets, 'forget' to stock the ones you have, and then suggest a nice Al Franken or Michael Moore book as a substitute. Borders wants those recommends, remember? . . .I don't care if these Neanderthals in fancy suits get mad at me, they aren't regular customers anyway. Other than 'Left Behind' books, they don't read.") Most of the problems with Unfit for Command's distribution, of course, came from the publisher's not expecting such massive demand, not from bookstore sabotage. But the attitude toward customer service displayed here suggests that Borders has a management problem, and my impression is that it's shared by other booksellers. If their employees think it's okay to frustrate customer requests, and to brag about it on the Internet, then those customers are likely to become "regular customers" elsewhere -- perhaps on the Internet themselves, where they can buy books without becoming an unwilling subject of others' political leanings.
And if bookstore employees' politicization of their displays is turning off even left-leaning customers, then, well, it seems like a good time to buy Amazon stock, doesn't it? Because it doesn't matter how many comfy chairs and espresso bars bookstores put in to make customers feel comfortable, if the staff is busy making customers feel uncomfortable. Online booksellers don't have that problem.
So if you're in corporate management at any of the big bookstore chains, it might be time to look at what's going on out in the stores. Competition, after all, is only a click away. And one of the things that the Internet does -- be it in media, in music, or, yes, in book sales -- is make it harder for players to indulge their own preferences at the expense of customers. I suspect that it's about to make life harder on booksellers if this keeps up.
UPDATE: The Borders employees union has posted a notice stating that the person who posted the "hide the book" messages may not have been an employee of Borders, as they don't verify employment for those posting on the message board. Regardless, there seems little doubt that, as noted above, many bookstores have become places where politicization has made customers feel uncomfortable, something that management may wish to look into.