November 14, 2013

How to lay off 600 booksellers: with a delicious dollop of horseshit


That new memo from HQ is … nearly … ready.

Say you run a huge corporation, with $2.7 billion in annual revenue. Say, too, that a major part of your empire is a series of college bookstores—over eight hundred of them. Say, as long as we’re imagining things, that you, a ruthless and beautiful corporate overlord, think of human beings as capital, think the public are dupes, and need to get some expenses off of your ledger by Q1 at the latest if you’re going to justify that bonus.

What do you do? Well my friend, let me introduce you to a little thing we in the business world like to call “horseshit.”

Let’s use the Follett Higher Educational Group as an example. They’re actually a pretty good case study because their parent company, the Follett Group, does have yearly revenues of $2.7 billion. They do have about 980 college stores, and they did just lay off 570 full time booksellers at 400 of those stores last Friday.

As Shelf Awareness and PW‘s Claire Kirch report, a memo by Bob Scholl, Follett’s VP for retail operations, was circulated to all six thousand employees in the Higher Educational Group. In it, Scholl lays out the reasons for the drastic cuts. He writes:

“We are adjusting our store staffing model to put more hours on the sales floor whenever students are shopping most. This involves shifting our ratio of full-time hourly and part-time store positions, and following scheduling practices to ensure our stores are always staffed at the busiest times. This shift gives us more scheduling flexibility each day, week and year. The result will be more customer-facing labor hours in our campus stores, generating more selling opportunities with increased customer satisfaction.”

The layoff, he writes,

“is part of Follett’s much broader and comprehensive transformation, which is reflected in the fact that we’ve invested more than $200 million in technology, distribution, digital content and ecommerce over the last three years alone. These investments are creating more efficiency at the store level, allowing us to deliver even more hours of store service and support when students and faculty expect it.”

The change will, Scholl writes (and this is my favorite part) “deliver the hassle-free shopping experience that our customers expect.”

If you are looking for a model of how best to feed people some steaming fresh horseshit, you could not possibly do better than this. The secret to good horseshit, you see, is that you want it to taste like horse colon, yes, but with a spicy hint of disdain. Horseshit is never meant to fool anyone. It exists purely for its own sake, more as an exercise in aesthetics than anything, a sort of wet, hay-thickened amuse bouche. Horseshit is not a lie, it is a gift; in place of a lie, the acknowledgement that you don’t even owe your victims an explanation that approaches the truth. It’s all much better this way. You can feel magnanimous, and the folks taking big bites of your horse apples can really savor that scorn while they pack their things and hit the street.

The true reasons behind the layout might go as follows (though of course Scholl’s particularly piquant horeshit stands apart from such things):

1. Lose the benefits. Follett is cutting full timers and even if, as PW reports, those folks are being offered part time jobs, those jobs won’t come with health insurance. That is a significant saving to the company.

2. Lose seniority. This is the Circuit City model of retail. If you have a class of experienced, caring employees who’ve earned a few promotions, cut those folks loose first. It’s not as if a bookseller or electronics clerk needs to know anything, right? Rehire them at part time if you must, but with no accumulated seniority.

3. Lose ballast. Scholl was not lying when he emphasized Follett’s pivot toward their educational software and digital branches. Laying off booksellers frees up some payroll money, and apparently selling books is a sucker’s game.  And perhaps they are dodging the folks at Chegg, the textbook rental company that had the dubious honor of being the first tech industry IPO on wall street after Twitter last week. If Follett can lock down enough institutional clients, it’ll cushion them against competition in the textbook market. Follett, you’ll remember, even started a VC fund to help them develop just this kind of software.

Who will cushion the nearly six hundred full time booksellers who’ve just been let go? Are they, as anonymous commenters are attesting on, being forced to sign away their right to unemployment insurance? Is this a move to dump these people onto the newly formed ACTA market?

Well, here, shh, enough questions. Chew on this succulent bit of horseshit for a while and just think of how ‘hassle-free’ these bookstores will be once they are empty wastelands, strewn with soap caddies and sleeves of ping pong balls, with few books and even fewer booksellers to be found.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.