I wrote this piece on April 6, 2018, in response to something that was in the news a few months before. I read “Barnes & Noble Fired Their Workers” on episode 35 of Words of Jen.
In February of 2018, Barnes & Noble fired a lot of their long-term employees with no warning. People who had been loyal workers for years and years were suddenly out of a job (and in some cases, without a severance package). Some were told they could apply for their job again – but would receive the starting rate of pay.
As a person who worked for Barnes & Noble for a total of five, frantic, frustrating holiday seasons, I have a lot to say about this situation. To be clear, I was not among the people who were fired. I quit Barnes & Noble long before this happened.
The most informative thing I read about Barnes & Noble’s latest, asinine, decision was posted on a Tumblr blog called “Brain Fuzzies”. The post is titled “The entirely unnecessary demise of Barnes & Noble.” The post is a mixture of news sources about the layoffs, the writer’s personal experience as someone who worked for Barnes & Noble, and tweets from distraught, abruptly fired workers, who lost their full-time career.
News reports stated that Barnes & Noble fired head cashiers, receiving managers, digital leads, newsstand leads, and the bargain leads. I used to be a bargain lead. I stopped working before Barnes & Noble had digital leads, so I can’t really comment on what that position entails.
In short, Barnes & Noble has slit it’s own throat. I’m not surprised by this, because I’ve seen Barnes & Noble make some horrifically bad decisions in the time that I worked there.
Receiving managers are the life-blood of the Barnes & Noble stores. That one individual is responsible for scanning all product into the system, organizing it so other workers can put it on the correct shelves/displays, and sending “returns” back to publishers (who will reimburse the store for the books they requested – but only if the books are sent back before a deadline.)
If you have ordered a book online, and had it shipped to a Barnes & Noble store near you, the first person to find your book was the receiving manager. When people purchase books that they want to send to a relative who is in prison, the receiving manager is the one who sends it. He or she is also the one who will notify you if the prison sent the books you purchased back to the store.
A Barnes & Noble store that doesn’t have a receiving manager cannot properly function. A random, rotating, group of part-time, barely trained, new workers can’t replace an experienced receiving manager. This is especially true since Barnes & Noble has a bad habit of assigning part-time (or full-time) workers to do a task that helps the store run – and then make the person stand behind a register for the majority of their shift.
The abrupt removal of receiving managers means that the remaining workers at Barnes & Noble stores will have absolutely no way to figure out if a specific book is in the store. It could be in an unopened box, waiting to be scanned into the system. It could be sitting on a cart in back waiting on a worker to put it on a shelf. The upcoming holiday season is going to be absolute chaos.
Lead positions used to be what Barnes & Noble called its full-time workers that were in charge of making sure a specific section of a store was running smoothly. I was a bargain lead, which meant I spent a lot of time putting the discounted books on shelves and displays. Other leads had to do the same tasks with their section, as well as scan all the books on the shelves and pull out the “returns”. The kid’s lead had to do all that and organize a weekly story time.
Ideally, part-timers would be assigned to help out leads who had a big project going on, or who were going on break. What usually happened was that the part-timers would be pulled out and sent behind a register (or to work in the cafe) instead. The leads would then get in trouble for not having completed the work that they were supposed to complete that day. Sometimes the leads would be sent to work in the cafe, or to run a register, their entire shift.
I’m honestly surprised that there were any leads left for Barnes & Noble to fire. Years ago, my store had a meeting with the leads and the managers. We were told that instead of having one person in charge of a section, it would be run by a team. The “lead” would no longer have that title, but, don’t worry, would still be in charge. We were told that this change was wonderful because we would be getting so much more help.
When asked by a manger what I though about this change, I answered honestly. “I think you just cut the full-time positions and are replacing us with part-timers.” Silence followed. Eventually a manager tried to convince us that I was wrong.
Not long after that, the leads were suddenly getting less than full-time hours on the schedule. I remember one long-time worker went from full-time one week, to 10 hours a week the next, to 5 hours a week after that. Some people weren’t given enough hours to be eligible for the employee health insurance. (This was before “Obamacare”).
The part-time workers who were supposed to be helping the leads … usually ended up working in the store’s cafe. Or, they started out helping the lead, and then got stuck behind a register. Eventually, the managers stoped sending part-time workers to help the “leads” and we were on our own again – but with less scheduled hours to complete the work in.
Another stupid thing that Barnes & Noble repeatedly did had to do with their sales goals. The head office in New York looked at the amount of profit each store made on a specific calendar day. Then, they added more dollars to it, and insisted that the store hit that sales goal this year. It was an unreasonable, and impossible, demand.
Here’s an example of why that doesn’t work. In 2007, Thanksgiving was on November 22. Black Friday was on November 23. Stores made a bunch of money on Black Friday. In 2008, corporate Barnes & Noble required stores to exceed the amount of profit they made on Black Friday of 2007. But, corporate wanted that amount of money to magically appear on November 23, 2008, which was not Black Friday. Thanksgiving in 2008 wasn’t until November 27th.
Corporate also didn’t bother to take into account other situations that would make their sales plan formula fail. My store had a cafe that served Starbucks drinks. Across the street, there was a Starbucks cafe. The two were not the same, and people got really mad when they couldn’t use their Starbucks cards at the Barnes & Noble cafe.
One day, the Starbucks across the street closed so it could be remodeled. People who wanted to go to Starbucks and found that it was closed turned around, saw the Barnes & Noble, and bought their drink from our cafe. The next year, on that same calendar day, corporate set a sales goal for the cafe that required them to exceed the amount of profit they got on the day the Starbucks was closed. Corporate set their sales goals without taking the time to find out why the cafe was extra profitable that day.
My store had an all-night “party” in celebration of the release of the last book in the Harry Potter series. Workers were asked to dress (and act) like characters in the book. We were to entertain customers as they waited until midnight to purchase the new book.
Our store opened that day at the regular time, 7:00 AM, and stayed open until 7:00 AM the next day. There was a short gap when the store closed and workers dashed around to clean up the messes that the crowds left behind. We sold a literal wall full of boxes that were filled with the new book.
Next year, on the same calendar day that the all-night Harry Potter party took place, corporate required us to somehow make more money than we did last year on that day. But, this year, there was no new Harry Potter book to sell, and we weren’t staying open overnight.
I distinctly remember an especially grouchy Regional manager yelling at the store managers because they hadn’t (in her opinion) displayed enough of a specific product at the registers. She demanded that someone go get more of that product and bring it to her. The Regional manger cleared a table, knocking stuff to the floor, and stacked the product there, fitting as much as possible on the display.
A part-timer picked up the mess while the Regional manager loudly yelled at the store manager. The Regional manager insisted that the only reason we weren’t meeting our sales goal on that product was because we hadn’t bothered to display it prominently enough.
The product was a snowman kit, designed for children. It contained a plastic shovel, and I’m not entirely sure what else.
My store was in California. It doesn’t snow here. It doesn’t snow anywhere near that store’s location.
When I first started working at Barnes & Noble, the motto was “put the book in the customer’s hand”. We were encouraged to ask customers if they needed help finding something. Most wanted help, and we were to walk the customer to the book, pick it up off the shelf, and put it into the customer’s hand.
After that, we were encouraged to point out other books the customer might like, based on our own knowledge about books. Part of my employee interview included questions about what kinds of books I liked to read – that’s how important it was to Barnes & Noble that its workers were avid readers.
Later, the goal shifted to “sell as many memberships as possible.” Workers at the registers were expected to tell each customer about the membership and what it offered. Then, workers who were on the sales floor were required to pitch the membership and put a flyer for it into the customer’s hand (along with the book they wanted). Corporate set quotas for workers, and people got “talked to” if they weren’t selling enough memberships.
When I started, the emphasis was helping people who loved to read find new stories to experience. Over time, the store switched to pulling all workers off the sales floor and sticking them behind a register. People still came in and asked for help finding a book – but the workers were not allowed to leave their registers. Personally, I believe that this lowered sales, especially on three-day weekends and near Christmas.
Around the time my store started cutting hours, we were told it was temporary. That was a lie. Eventually, the recession ended and the economy started improving. Barnes & Noble chose to hire a bunch of part-time workers and never gave the former full-time workers (who had stuck with them) their full-time hours back.
At the time, managers were repeatedly saying that Barnes & Noble would be “the last bookstore standing”. Borders wasn’t doing very well, and it looked like our biggest competitor would go into bankruptcy. Barnes & Noble eventually got its wish when all the Borders stores closed.
I quit working for Barnes & Noble shortly before they started emphasizing e-books and the NOOK. What once was a sea of books, waiting to be read, had changed. The front of the store now resembled an Apple store, with a table filled – not with books – but with NOOKs. There were shelves filled with toys and puzzles all year round – not just at Christmas time.
Barnes & Noble lasted longer than Borders, that’s true. But I think Borders actually was the “last bookstore standing”. What’s left of Barnes & Noble, with its impossible sales goals, emphasis on selling memberships (not books), clutter of toys, and table full of NOOKS, stopped being a bookstore. It won’t be long before the Barnes & Noble stores close – forever. It will die from a bad case of corporate greed.