Friday, March 24, 2006

Comment: To Compute Or Not To Compute

What part should a computer system play in the life of a good bookstore?

I know this probably seems like a non-question in this digital age, especially for those of you who are net-surfers enough to be reading this. But you might be surprised how many good bookstores have answered "none." And I believe there are better and worse ways to utilize the electronic box in a store full of print.

(Warning: this post is kind of wonky, so if you're not especially interested in the internal workings of bookstores, feel free to skip it.)

I know of some bookstores that are so small, and run by such a stable and careful staff, that they consider a computerized inventory unnecessary. And to some degree, they're right. If your stock is small enough, and your staff is good enough, why do you need an electronic record of what you've bought and sold, how long it's been around and what kind of discount you got? If you have a relationship with most of the regulars who come in the door, why do you need an electronic record of names, addresses, buying preferences?

This kind of store probably has a good paper record-keeping system, and they probably have some level of computer functionality (if only to look up titles on Amazon so they can order them for customers). But all of the book decisions are made by human eyes and brains. If it seems like a book has been sitting around for too long, it will be plucked for a return. If a book seems to be selling well, it will be reordered. The collective mind of the staff is essentially the store's inventory system.

Obviously, there are downsides. It's harder, if not impossible, to check the sales of a particular book when in doubt. It's nearly impossible to know if a missing book has been stolen or sold or just not ordered. And there's the frustration of finding a book ten minutes after the customer who wanted it has left, shelved in a section you hadn't considered. Theoretically, a computerized record of the book could have led you to it in time to make the sale.

I also know of some bookstores that are almost entirely dependent on their computer system. Orders are placed electronically, often without the human presence of a sales rep. Reports are run to make decisions about reorders and returns. Sometimes the person making the decisions about the book may never have seen the book – only its electronic simulacrum.

This does have its advantages. It's easier to track where the stores' sales are increasing or declining, and make decisions about inventory accordingly. It's easier to keep track of customers and contact them en masse when a big book or event is coming. It's often easier to lead a customer directly to the book they're asking for, especially in a larger store where keeping all of the titles in one's head would be impossible.

But I think the downsides of depending on the computer are even greater than the downsides of rejecting it. Ultimately, it takes the power to make decisions about books out of the hands of the humans working with the books and customers on the sales floor, and gives it over to the merciless logic of the 1's and 0's of an "if, then" computer report. A computer can't make a decision about which book has truly finished its run, and which just needs a new display space (or that review that's just been published) to find its audience. This not only means that the store may lose sales in the short run, but it means that booksellers are given to understand that their experiences and expertise are less valuable than the computer's calculator. That means booksellers less invested in the life of the store, and ultimately less productive.

It's the old John Henry vs. the machine contest – an emotional (and easy to oversimplify) idea, but one that also has real consequences for the bottom line of the store. A big store needs a way to keep track of the books it carries, but every store needs a way to make truly informed decisions. Every chain bookstore has a sophisticated computer system, often connecting the inventory of dozens of other stores that can ship you the one book you want immediately. But a good independent has people who can not only find the book you're looking for, but place in your hands (or in a good display space) the book you didn't know you wanted that might change your life. This is our primary asset as independents, and we can't afford to let it go to waste.

I believe the best bookstores will use the computerized inventory system as a tool in the hands of skilled booksellers, not as a substitute for them. I think a balance between the organizational potential of the electronic, and the passion and insight of the experiential, is the kind of balance that we should seek – as booksellers, and as humans.

But, as the Reading Rainbow guy always said, you don't have to take my word for it. Feel free to comment on the electronic vs. the biological approaches if you feel so moved. I'd love to hear your thoughts!