As promised Mike Shatzkin for a second time this week.
I don't buy a lot of books in bookstores anymore -- I'm an ebook man -- and when I do, I generally patronize Barnes & Noble or an independent. So when a colleague a couple of days ago walked in with a couple of books he'd bought at Borders and pointed to the stickers on each book and said "hnh?", it recalled a bit of book retail history and some considerable irony.
It is obvious, or should be, that for a bookstore to be stickering every book is evidence of a pretty dumb supply chain. Every book has a bar code with a price extension. This is extra work that should just not have to be done.
It was the early 1970s when the B. Dalton chain introduced point-of-sale capture at the cash register. This was only a few moments after the invention of the ISBN and before there was any cash register technology for "reading" by scanning. So it was complicated to do this.
The way it worked is that each title Dalton bought was assigned an SKU number. When the buyer in Minneapolis made a purchase decision, stickers were generated for the books and sent to the store. When the books came in, they were stickered before they went to the sales floor. There were "holes" in the system, of course: when a store bought a book from a local wholesaler, they often would put a "dummy" sticker on that got them past the cash register but didn't record the specific book being sold. But the system delivered information that was light years ahead of what any chain retailer had ever had before and rapidly pushed B. Dalton ahead of their competition at the time, Waldenbooks, and particularly so in the sale of steady-but-slow backlist.
It was a revelation at the time to learn that the sale of six copies a week across all stores (in a multi-hundred store chain) was a "hot" title and that sales of six titles a month got you on the "warm" list. That introduced some real perspective to how books move. Or don't.
For a few years, Dalton operated with knowledge of what was selling and Walden didn't. Then, in the later 1970s, "machine-readable" typefaces were invented, which I think were called OCR-A and OCR-B. Harry Hoffman had taken over as head of Walden by then -- he who had introduced the microfiche reader at Ingram a few years before -- and he told publishers that, as of a certain date (I think this was about 1980), Walden would require that the ISBN be printed on the books in a readable font. And suddenly, Walden leapfrogged Dalton. Dalton had invested in a system that required a unique number (their SKU) and stickering and punching those numbers into the cash register. All of that was sidestepped by Walden, which only had to scan the readable ISBN (or punch in the ISBN if it weren't readable.) No stickering. No unique numbers.
The irony today is that Barnes & Noble, which owns (and is closing) B. Dalton, has a great supply chain that requires no stickering. And Borders, which owns (and is closing) Walden, has a poor supply chain which requires them to put their books into a "flow-through" warehouse to be stickered before they can go to the stores.