Saturday, September 3, 2011

Day 47

There is no way I can possibly describe how profoundly sucksational today was.

So I'm not going to bother.

You guys know this blows, and today didn't blow in any new and exciting way. And, truthfully, the weight of this process is becoming palpable, and for today, just too much of a burden. So instead I'm going to discuss an idea that seems to have become something of a thread in the tapestry of the blog. The idea of honesty and integrity, and how this process proves to me, if anything ever could, that maximizing profit and maintaining integrity cannot co-exist.

Today I was asked to hang signs. Three of them Boldly and garishly proclaiming that we are in our FINAL 10 DAYS! These signs are a lie. We are not in our final 10 days. We are in our final 30 days, maybe final 25 days, but not our final 10. That is a lie. flat out. It is intended to "drive sales" this weekend. In other words, to panic people with the idea that the time to get an awesome deal is coming to a close, so you better push those other bottom feeders out of the way so that you can get yours!

It's just a lie. Like Sears and Roebuck calling a spool of thread and a needle a sewing machine. Or Bill Clinton proclaiming he "Did not Have Sexual Relations with that woman." Except...well...there is a germ of truth in both of those things depending on your perspective. There is no perspective whereby our store closing in 10 days is true. Unless of course the Loris is lying too.

I think...or rather i wonder if...this is something intrinsic in the people lying, or the people being lied to. There is a single truth to capitalism, where all else is debatable, and that truth is that A method to drive profitability only works, if someone supports it. Or conversely it doesn't matter how cheaply you sell, say a Kobo, If no one is buying it. A good capitalist repeats actions that create results. And they expand the scope of those actions until such point that they stop being profitable.

Sissella Bok details something called "The Principle of Veracity". In Short, we benefit by living in a world where we can trust that what seems to be, is. We benefit by knowing that if we walk into fire, we will burn. We all live that principle every day, whether know it or not. But there are many people who hide in the wee cracks and crevices of this principle, and exploit our intrinsic acceptance that things are, what they say they are. They do this through a serious of interrelated complicated obfuscations, or through a simple smile and a wink. Sometimes they let you in on it, but they omit the entire scope of their duplicity, so you suddenly see the truthiness (Thanks Stephen Colbert) of what they are saying, and you buy in, only to be swindled by the bits they omitted. Whats interesting is that when money is involved we absolve these tricksters by invoking one of the other things about capitalism that is not debatable: Caveat Emtptor, "Let the Buyer be ware".

So then whose fault is that you get swindled? The snake oil salesman, or the buyer? If we accept that things are as they seem then why do also accept that people who exploit that basic tenet of reality, when money (or power) is involved, get off like Mister Miracle (Jack Kirby Reference, Dig it if ya can!)? And more importantly why do we support the activity with what could be arguably the only vote that matters, our money. If collectively we've decided, almost before we had words as a species, that trust is the singular greatest commodity humanity trades, why do we allow, and in many cases encourage, the people who violate that trust to benefit from the violation?

It's not just Liquidation companies or Banks or the hundreds of retailers who lie by omission about the truth of the manufacture of their goods, or the waitress who tells you the coffee is "fresh". It's politicians too, and religious figures. Why do we line up to be lied to.

In politics it's even more evident, and I won't delve too deeply here because it don't think it's necessary, but take the tea party. They are lying to their constituents. They can no more create the Randian wet dream they sell to their frothing supporters in America than Barack Obama can create the left-moderate "socialist" utopia that he campaigned on. Dennis Kuccinich and Ron Paul have 2 things in common, they are selling an idea, and that idea is foolishly impossible. You cannot rewrite the setting of this story. Unless a single concept regardless of political stripe passes a tipping point, we cannot hope to achieve what these politicians say is possible if you just give them your vote(money). The Result of such polarised distraction is that we rip the fabric of what we have to bits because the status quo is always going to fight change. Leftist will always fight rightists and they are boxing; a zero sum game.

Okay, maybe this is democracy and bit by bit we can hope to affect change one way or the other, but thats not What politicians campaign on. Thats not what we vote for. Tea Partiers don't vote for a politician to nudge, they vote for them to bombard. And perhaps in ten years we'll be saying the same thing about the New Populists, or Socialist for America, or some other party. My point is that we, as a buying public, eat this bullshit up! We get super frothy for a complete fiction that supports our idea of what is awesome. If someone tells us that what seems, isn't, and it's an isn't we like...then we abandon the principle of Veracity for the emotional spike of confirmation. And then we reward them. And then they do it again. The bell rings, the dog froths. God loves you as he loves Jacob. 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42. An endless cycle that grows and spins and consumes the consumer.

I wish Dickens were alive today.

Nothing examines this idea more plainly and more practically than Borders ill fated Borders Rewards program. Man people were all over the map on this one. The Principle of Veracity was used both as an offence and a defence. For starters, I'm sorry Borders I love you and I know it seems like I don't but I complain because i care, it was a stupid idea. They fixed it a bit with the plus card by offering a general discount. But the principle benefit of the card being coupons that expired in 10 minutes that were sent via email that most people were too stupid to fix their spam filter to allow in, this was such a flawed notion. Basically, the concept found cracks in veracity and jack hammered them deeper to make them more cozy. From that point on it was a race to out exploit one another.

Borders manipulated the system by the aforementioned short lifespans and limited distribution system. It's like inviting people to your wedding, you know only 1 out of 5 people you invite is coming, but the rest will send a check because you invited them. They would print "40% off" real big and "if your name has an x in it and you're birthday is on Blurnsday in the year 2642" and "one item only" in super tiny print that peoples printers or iphones were somehow incapable of seeing. They created all these labyrinthine twists and turns so as to not overextend the discount, but also to create a "product" that had "value" in the form of a "rewards" membership. They gave people "Borders bucks" that were harder to catch than Santa Claus. Apparently the only way we could afford this program was by hoping vast numbers of it's members got lost, and only the sharpest came out with a prize. Not surprising since we gave the bottom line away with almost every coupon. These methods are all lies in their own right. Okay, they put the information there, but Why make it smaller than the exciting 40% off bit, if not to down play it? Down playing is a lie.

Customers, oh...customers, the creativity with which they attempted to exploit the program was BOUNDLESS. These people were Van Goghs of exploitation. Jackson Pollacks of sheer mendacity, it was astonishing! How many times did someone print up 6 40% off coupons when it clearly states on the coupon (and by clearly i mean orders of magnitude smaller than the 40% off part) that the program offers one coupon per membership? How many times then did you hear back "well i'll just do it as separate transactions then."? How many times did you see a mom or dad dole out one to each of her children and have them stand in line and shout their email address out to their tiny accomplices. That right there, is a lesson at a young age in the profitability of dishonesty.

"Can't you just give me the coupon? I printed it up at home but forgot it."


So many ways to "screw us over" with that program. And vice versa. We engaged the customer in battle and the pawns in this sad little downwards spiral chess match, were the booksellers and supervisors who had to get in the face of the customer and cede the square to them, or stand their ground. What an awful position to put us in. Why should I have to go to some lady and get into a shouting match with her because we created a crappy program that relies on people using their unreliable home printers to create a document that makes promises? For the longest time I didn't understand why Borders wouldn't just computerize the whole deal. "Hey congrats infinity percent off a book, just swipe your card" Boom, just like the grocery stores. No questions, no muss no fuss, when the discount was used on that membership...poof...gone. We have the technology for this even with our Nixon Era registers. But I think I figured it out. In my opinion they were hoping that people would fall through the cracks and not take advantage of a reward. This allowed us to offer ludicrously large discounts (considering our negligible profit margin) to vast numbers of people so it expanded Borders value message. I still don't know who was wrong in this scenario, but i know someone was, most likely we all were.

Don't even get me started on the Return policy."Oh you're returning the Rough Guide to Cancun because you got one as a gift from someone as well- and i suppose you ordered that Senior Frogs, Spring Break 2011 t-shirt on line...Stay Classy." I love too, how every time we pushed back suddenly it was for the children, or it was a gift, or something meant to make us feel guilty. And you know, those of you who had to allow such things or not, that you let some complete malarky go through. You know that you did. I was one of the "soft touch" managers, I know I was. I used to be pretty hard core about the return policy, but eventually I just got tired of being shouted at for Borders hourly rate, so I began to be more liberal. And you know what, every bloody person I let steam roll me for a return outside of the policy only increased the problem. They were profitable, so guess what: they did it again. I'm not going to go into how Borders was instrumental in creating the idea that returning a book to a bookstore was an okay notion. All the bookstores before the big box store emerged had a pretty strict no returns policy. Not to mention a "we're not a library, buy it if you want to read it" policy, and a "weirdo please stop rubbing one out on our couch to some creepy manga" policy. In this putting the genie back in the bottle was an unlikely scenario.

I'm not an economist, I'm not a philosopher but I am an observer. And what i've seen over the years is a slow and steady degradation of the value of product and people who provide it. There is some notion that retailers are the "middle men" between the buyer and the maker, and as such they need to be eliminated. As if processing and merchandising product and making it accessible and desirable and doing it with a polite demeanour and a knowledgeable staff able to introduce you to further product that may enrich your life, has NO value. This idea that the retailers are the enemy is such a common idea that both local and national news have regular segments on getting the biggest bang for your buck, and recommend going to independent businesses and offering them a dollar amount for a product and dickering with them. As if a price for something is arrived at by some magical notion, not a simple equation that tells you how much you have to take out of a building to keep it's lights on and feed yourself. As the gulf between wholesale and retail increases, further opportunities exist for exploiting this gulf. Walmart can sell me a pair of jeans for 7.49 and still make a profit because those jeans cost .74 cents to purchase. Which means they can sell a copy of Mocking Jay for 6.74 cents less than it's cost, and still make a profit of a penny! So if you figure Mocking jay probably cost them about 10 bucks they can charge a little over 3 dollars for that book and make a penny. Obviously nobody wants to make a penny for profit, but nobody is expecting a copy of Mocking Jay for a little over 3 dollars either. So the "a little over 8 dollars" they sell it for, while not profitable on that book when combined with the sweatshop jeans creates a tidy little bucket o' cash for them. Win win, right, good for everyone. This increased gulf means that walmart can advertise low low prices and that customers begin having new expectations of what something should cost. And those expectations get lower and lower every day. And as such...we demand less and less from our employers for pay. It's cool, I undertand I can't get a raise this year that I have plainly earned, I can get a lovely plasma tv for $299 though, so all is not lost. I can have the affectations of a middle class life on the income of the impoverished, so all is well, and what I can't afford...I'll buy on CREDIT!

Yeah that kind of thinking has worked out well.

Now I don't have the information or the inclination to begin an argument about globalisation and the free markets, we've benefited in profound ways from capitalism around the world, and it's done profound harms. For Every Warren Buffet there are roughly one Billion not Warren Buffets. But what I can say, with no qualms, is that lies are our biggest mark-up. Lies pad our profit margins, and liars, make the most profits. And that, True Believer (Stan Lee has finally made a cameo in my blog, he can stop texting me now) is something we should all find troubling.


  1. Wow, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the same post!

    I realize the behavior you cover in this post isn't limited to liquidators, but the idea of putting up signs that are bald-face lies made me think:

    Look how disgusted we all are the new clientele that burst through our doors, looking for The Rainy Day Fun Book of Codpieces and when they find it, they bitch that its "only" 70% off, not 80%. We've been dealing with these people en masse for about six weeks, all we're all ready to commit murder.

    Well, imagine if it was your year-round job to deal with these kinds of people! Liquidators deal with nothing BUT bottom-feeders like this, year in, year out. I can only shudder at the thought of what your view of humanity might be if you worked for/around liquidation-driven customers all the time. I would guess that it would make you not even think twice about lying to their faces in order to squeeze another couple bucks out of them.

    That's not an excuse, but I would guess that the average liquidator's view of the human race is only slightly higher than how dogs see Michael Vick.

  2. you know I think you're deeply wrong about your folk-economics, but I think you do mean well.

  3. Hey folk wisdom created beer, bread, cheese, farming, birth control, music and quite probably speech. So i feel like i'm in good company. Also...I'd like to think weild my folk sword with an even folk hand. At the end of the day i know what i've seen and experienced in 21 years of being a part of the economy, i'd never be arrogant enough to suggest i know anything for certain, but I do know what i've lived through, and i do my best to interpret it for the fine folk who care enough to read my thoughts. I'm glad you're amongst them.

  4. Hi Cory,

    As an avid reader, I just wanted to extend an invitation to you and your store (provided you aren't working and you are within driving distance) to attend a Borders reunion one of my former coworkers is coordinating in a restaurant in Saugus Massachusetts. It'll be our little going away party for the company that brought us all together.

    Feel free to email me at breakingstandard (at) yahoo (dot) com. Road trip!

  5. Perhaps the coupon is the real reason we are going out of business. We trained our customers to wait for big ones. We trained them to buy only one item because that was all the coupon was good for. We permitted them to abuse the coupon because our POS system was unable to detect that a coupon had already been used by that account--funny, but the website could do that. The amount of paper used to print coupons probably wiped out a few forests. Other retailers did not fall into this trap. I didn't have a problem with the Borders Rewards card, but the implementation reflected everything that was wrong with the antiquated systems we worked with.