Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Wednesday, May 9, 2001





I'm not one to jump for joy at the seeming demise of Amazon.com (truly - it's painful to watch any company fall apart) and felt even a pang of sadness at news yesterday that another analyst (Prudential's Mark Rowen) has downgraded Amazon, causing a 4% drop in stock value. (OK, not really a pang; let's say a void of positive feeling.)

But perhaps the greater loss (and here I do admit a zap of thrill) is the idea that "branding," the big buzz word on the Internet that once defined Amazon.com's success, such as it was, is now considered yet another self-inflated myth that's finally seen its day.

Maybe Amazon.com isn't destined to prove that its Book and Music departments (let alone a thousand other forgettable product lines) are making a profit. But customer loyalty in the midst of chaotic dotcom fads on the Internet was the one thing Jeff Bezos pointed to, time and again, as the distinguishing quality of his company.

If it's true that "Amazon is losing its customers almost as fast as it adds them," as Rowen told his clients according to CBS MarketWatch, the hundreds of millions of dollars that Amazon spent on those silly ads and that ridiculous "customer-centric" language and all that "branding" baloney has gone down the drain.

As to the attempt by Book Sense to seek a parallel "branding" phenomenon with less than 1/100th of Amazon's budget, well, that's always seemed a distraction to me. The one true constant in this entire story is the sense of trust and reliable exchange that customers experience when they shop for books at independent bookstore, and that can never be mass-marketed.

So good-bye "branding," and good riddance, I feel. In today's atmosphere of noisy self-promotion by desperate dotcoms and ailing chains, something genuine and personal, extended without self-consciousness or fanfare, means more than a a thousand formula inventories and increasingly false promises.



Dateline: Defiance, Ohio

Hiding behind the cantaloupes and casabas (to stay out of TV-camera range) at the Chief Supermarket, I'm reminded that television often has a hard time translating literary quality into images - perhaps because it's so imagey to begin with.

Here, for example, comes my partner Terry Ryan racing down the produce aisle with a rusty shopping cart from the 1970s that's been bulked up from the bottom with six-packs of paper towels.

The raised surface on the floor of the cart demonstrates to contemporary viewers how shallow the space for groceries was in the '50s and '60s, especially compared to the super-wheelies of today.

Followed by the laughing, stumbling and good-hearted "CBS Sunday Morning" co-anchor, Martha Teichner, Terry is in the midst of re-enacting a small part of the 10-minute Supermarket Spree her mother won several decades ago.

"Whoa, smoked Virginia hams!" says "Tuff" (her childhood nickname), abruptly braking the cart as Martha nearly slams into her from behind. "My mother would have loved these!" High on adrenalin, she plucks the biggest rump ($35) out of the bin like a basketball and dumps it into the cart with efficient flourish.

"Different sizes! All are legal!" she tells Martha, moving systematically down the aisle with increasing frenzy. "Hot wings! Prawns-in-sauce! Imported mussels!" Wham! Bam! Whomp! Into the cart they go.

Like her mother more than 40 years ago, Terry has mapped out the Chief Supermarket for quick access to the most exotic and expensive items in the store.

As Evelyn Ryan told her family of 10 children, recounted in Chapter 3 of Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less": "If I'm going to get a cartload of free food, I'm not going to waste cart space or time going after on-sale chicken parts and fish sticks." The family ate fish sticks every Friday night, Terry informs us. (You can read the full chapter at www.theprizewinner.com/read.html).

"I want you kids to taste chateaubriand, New York steak, lobster, and anything else you've never tried before," Evelyn adds. "Heck, I want to try them too."

So Tuff is everywhere at once - in Aisle 3 for the Beluga caviar, Aisle 2 for the imported olives, Aisle 5 for the European can--

"Why is that customer lingering so long in the Toblerones?" whispers CBS producer Mary Lou Teel. From our hiding place behind the butterball turkeys, we take a look. Sure enough, word has gotten out at the Chief that a TV camera is in the store, and the inevitable Ubiquitous Customer has found reason to turn up here, there and everywhere.

"Let's move on," says Mary Lou. "I don't want to bother customers." It's one of those great signs of respect that says so much about a TV crew like this. Every single amoeba in the store is aware that CBS is taping something fun and dazzling and national; yet the TV people don't want to interrupt business and try to be - impossible, as the growing crowd reveals - unobtrusive.

"Let's shoot the conversation about the size of the cart," says Mary Lou.

This is the chapter's turning point, where Evelyn, planning her strategy in the store a few days before the Spree, confides in the butcher, Bob Wallen, that the cart will be too shallow for her to fit all the best goods she's mapped out in the store.

"Bob's blue eyes lit up," Terry writes. "He came out from around the counter and measured the sides of the cart with his knife-scarred hands. 'Hey, we can fix that,' he said. 'I can cut some flat slabs of beef and extra-long sides of bacon. See, you can stand them on end all around the inside edge and make the sides taller.'

"Now Mom's eyes lit up. 'That would double the cart's capacity,' she said. 'Bob, you're going straight to heaven.' "

Bob, now in his late 80s, was personally invited by Terry to attend the Chief's benefit autographing only a few weeks ago. CBS Sunday Morning was there, too, interviewing Bob and others at the Chief who had watched Evelyn go through the store like a buzz saw during the real Supermarket Spree.

For a small town like Defiance, both the original Spree and the autographing made the front page of the local newspaper, the Defiance Crescent-News. And now, even with Ubiquitous Customers multiplying like rabbits throughout the store, everybody is cheering for Terry Ryan to make the Supermarket Spree work its magic once again.

What is needed is for Tuff to break into a run, even faster this time, and by now pushing a cart weighing nearly a 100 lbs., from the Belgian artichokes on one end of the store to the bottled tahini (for Northern Ohio, an exotic product) on the other end.

Ideally for such a shot, the camera would be affixed to a dolly that runs on a track alongside the runner's route. But this will take too much time (and another crew) to construct. So the inventive camera operator, Arny Cantu, and sound technician, Steve Azzato, come up with a different solution.

They extract one of the Chief's presently capacious supercarts from the lineup outside the store, and, with Arny climbing inside and sitting cross-legged inside it, the heavy mini-camera balanced on his shoulder, Steve gets set to push it from from behind, his fur-covered microphone dangling from an impossibly lengthy boom.

The two teams line up side by side like Olympic sprinters. "Go!" shouts Mary Lou, much like the Chief's manager yelled "Go!" and clicked on his stopwatch a half century ago.

And they're off, the camera rolling as Terry takes the "corner shoot" a mile a minute and Martha, rounding the bend behind her, spots a delicacy she has personally been searching for for years. "Oh look, Milani Dill Sauce! I haven't seen that for-- "

"We can't stop for that, Martha!" Terry cries, laughing. "The tahini is in Aisle -- "

"Well, Tuff, if you've ever had a Bloody Mary, you'd LOVE this sauce," gasps Martha, rushing after Terry. "You mix up all your ingredients, first, then take just a dash of Milan- "

"Two minutes!" yells Terry's sister Betsy, who at age 4 was hoisted on her brother Bub's shoulders to call out the time for Evelyn and now for authenticity's sake shouts the time within Steve's microphone range.

The shot is taken again and again, sometimes with Martha doing her best to interview Terry on the run (she buys 3 bottles of Milani Dill Sauce in the meantime), sometimes with Arny holding the camera an inch from the floor to get the essential wheels-and-feet sequence.

And as Terry and Martha screech past the Bread & Rolls section, who should look up from the split-top loaves with a brilliant smile directed right at the camera but the Ubiquitous Customer from the Toblerone aisle, having made her own mad dash across the store as well.

It's spirited and fun and sometimes hilarious, but throughout I've worried that all of this is too gimmicky.

Granted, in most things, television, compared to books, seems to capitalize and exploit rather than deepen and investigate. A moving and original story, in this case about a contest-winning mom who saved her family from eviction and starvation, becomes - well, not a parody of itself but an imitated thing, a commented-on thing, a caricature of the original.

At the Chief, however, Mary Lou feels the segment does prove something when she puts all the goods from Terry's sagging cart through the cash register scanner to see how the daughter's haul measures up to the mother's.

"Well, this is quite telling," Martha says, holding the register slip up for the camera to record. "Nearly half a century ago, Evelyn Ryan's Supermarket Spree totaled $411.44, the equivalent of about $3,000 in today's money."

She turns to Terry. "Now today, you and I have spent about three hours going through this supermarket, re-enacting parts of your mother's Spree, so you had a lot more time and a bigger selection to choose from." Terry nods. "And what is your total?"

"It's $675.45," says Tuff, shaking her head. "Not only did I barely top Mom's Spree back then, I didn't come anywhere near the equivalent value of $3,000 today."

"Any idea why?"

"Well, My mother had a gift for winning in a big way," Terry laughs. "But no, I don't really know."

So: Is this as far as television can probe in terms of investigative reporting? See the next installment, "Dr. Evelyn Ryan Speaks," when Terry's Great Adventure resumes.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Hooray, for years I have thought that I was the only person who believed that returns were half of the problem in our industry. I applaud the publisher who wrote the eloquent piece in today's issue discussing the madness of returns. I would add one other ingredient to the soup as well, pre-pricing. Name one other retail segment where 99 % of the merchandise is (retail) priced in a prominent location. I dare you.

I think that pre-pricing has helped the chains tremendously as they establish perceived value in the public's mind. A full page ad announcing Stephen King's Dreamcatcher for $ 19.60 just doesn't have the same gotcha value as an ad saying Stephen King's Dreamcatcher now 30% off. If all stores bought the book from the publisher at $14.00 (or whatever) non-returnable, then we could price the books at retail as we see fit. Every other retailer that I can think of has operated that way for years. Home Depot doesn't advertise 30 % off plywood do they? Of course not, because there is no "suggested" retail price for plywood.

As your correspondent said this morning, this would not happen overnight, nor would it be easy. But I strongly believe (and have said this for many years) that the issues of pre-pricing and returns hurt our industry, and that particularly they have hurt independents as the chains have used the big box mentality to become the tail wagging the dog.

Doug Wolfe
Dee Gee's Gifts & Books
Morehead City, North Carolina

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Ace Hardware is not a chain. These stores are locally owned and independent. Ace -- the wholesaler, distributor, and brand -- is collectively owned by all of the local Ace hardware stores. This cooperative has enabled them to reduce costs and engage in a level of marketing that is normally reserved for deep-pocketed chains. (And better withstand the onslaught of Home Depot and Lowe's.)

Bookstores are not "essentially the only independents left standing." Certainly independents in all retail sectors have suffered under the dramatic consolidation that's occurred in the last fifteen years. But, like independent booksellers, tens of thousands of independent pharmacies, hardware stores, restaurants, grocery stores, video stores, and others are still standing.

Stacy Mitchell
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Why not write about the recent PMA study and the book returns rates and statistics they just reported for last year??? The small presses seem to have a disproportionate share of book returns in the industry--wonder why??? And how will that affect what is published and what small presses will survive the horrible returns from the chains?

Margarita Donnelly

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm so mad I could spit. A customer walked into our store today, one of 2 independents in a town of about 18,000.

Customer: Do you have The Isles, by Davies?

Me: I believe I have 2 copies, let's check. (a clerk walks up to help us locate it. As we search the shelves...)

Customer: I'll buy both copies if you'll sell them for $36 apiece.

Me: Well, I'll see what I paid, see what we can do.

Customer: Amazon has them for $36.

Me: Yes, but I operate my store to try and make a profit. I have to sell books for more than I paid. Amazon doesn't concern itself with making a profit just now.

We locate the books- they are $59.95 each.

Me: I'll give you a 15% discount if you buy both.

Customer: How about if you sell them for $40 each?

Me: (having checked my receiving record) I paid $36 for them, I can't sell them for $40 each.

Customer heads for the door. My temper is frayed, I'm appalled, I'm angry...

Me: Enjoy paying the shipping! (bad form, I know)

Customer: At least I won't have to pay taxes!

Me: Yes, we charge tax at your local hometown store!

I wish I could say this is the first time I've had exchanges like this with people who should know better. Had one man the other day who was really offended that we take the huge markup, as he called it, of 40% on the books we sell. Wonder if he knows the retail markup on the shoes or the pants he was wearing? Or his lunch?

Melissa Mackey

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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