The Things That Count

Cynthia Compton -- January 16th, 2019

I *loathe* our annual inventory weeks. There is nothing about handling every single book and unsold sideline in my shop that “sparks joy,” nor do I feel compelled to fold the baby lovies and receiving blankets into thirds and stand them in upright rows on the display rack.* Frankly, I have been looking at some of this merchandise since the leaves changed color, and I’m sick of it. Brand new titles with shiny jackets and tempting cover blurbs are arriving daily, and as always, the holiday season put me behind in reading galleys and ARCs. Some of those gorgeous new books are complete unknowns (admittedly, I made some buying decisions STRICTLY on Edelweiss markups and friend “likes”)… and they flirt like cute strangers in the coffee line, smelling all good with their new ink and paper cologne, and looking crisp and fresh with their unopened covers and bright white pages. (Even those earnest ecru paged deckle-edged titles, normally not my preference to pick up and caress, have a certain unshaven scruffy appeal.)

It’s too early for many new toys to be shipped, and we’re holding off on big restocking orders until the February round of gift shows and Toy Fair to take advantage of freight deals and new releases. We planned ahead in November with extra shipments of our top 25 items to have a good selection of birthday-ish gifts in stock in January, but it’s pretty much the same old stuff. I have gift-wrapped it all multiple times at this point, and just can’t get all that excited about how cute the donut paper (still) is.

The “sprinkle” side of the donut gift wrap.

All of this complaining is really just avoidance behavior, of course. What I mean to write about – and what I should be finishing – is store inventory. After 16 years, we have a system in place that works pretty well, but it does require that we actually do the work. (There should be an app for this. Or a Roomba-type device that could be started as we leave the store at night, and it would just creep along the floor, bouncing between spinners and the edges of the play tables, cheerfully counting both marbles and Middle Grade, Biographies and Beanie Boos.)

I have some retail colleagues who use outside inventory services to complete the task, which is admirable in its efficiency AND their ability to budget. In my imagination, these companies roll up in sparking vans at closing time, discharging a dozen or so Oompa Loompas armed with scanners and clipboards, singing songs (in slightly minor keys, as would suit night workers) with complicated rhyming verses and catchy choruses. The head Oompa would look sternly over his glasses at the mess (still!) of our stock room lower shelves, and decree that all of last year’s paper catalogs, marketing packets, cardboard standees, and extra cardboard displays must be purged. (Oompa Loompas do not, in my imagination, believe in keeping things “just in case.”)

But my reality is much less magical and sprinkle-covered, and so we print out our reports by section, pull items from shelves, and COUNT. There is a master list of store sections posted behind the register, and staff members are welcome to pick their favorites (or the ones they think that they can actually finish during their shifts) and dive in. We do have a couple of rules: each item must be “touched” — pulled and inspected for damage, and any overstock in the back must also be verified and inspected. Sadly, this is when we discover boxes that have been opened with contents removed, or books that were torn or dropped and are now destined for the sale shelves. We clean shelves and fixtures as we go, and our consumption of paper towels, dusting spray and “bug removal tweezers” for dead insects under display units is both an endorsement of my staff’s good humor AND an indictment of our rather haphazard housekeeping during the fourth quarter. Another policy which saves both time and my sanity is complete empowerment of each staffer to decide if an item is shelved incorrectly, provided that they take responsibility for changing the item record in the POS system, and moving it to its “correct” home. We have several titles that have hopped back and forth between Middle Grade and Young Adult sections of the store over the years because of these disagreements, as well as a few books move from Nonfiction to Animals and back again…. but as long as the computer can tell me where they are when a customer needs one, I’m fine with letting the border skirmishes continue.

We don’t typically close the store during inventory, as January’s slower days provide plenty of quiet spells to finish the task. Our college student employees are still in town, and look forward to the extra hours (and the snacks) before they return to campus. Our one exception to this process is the Picture Book section, which is too large and unwieldy to complete with young customers underfoot. We use either a Sunday morning or several late evenings to do this part, and stack all the titles directly on the floor. I am typically not invited to these sessions, however, as I have a tendency to read aloud…. and the staff doesn’t always appreciate my choice of background music.

As we use the traditional (I refuse to say “old fashioned”) method of paper and pencil to record our counts, the second part of the inventory process is really the critical bit. Once we have noted the corrections on our reports, all of those adjustments must be entered into the Point of Sale system. Here, we take full advantage of our offsite options for staff hours. As I shared last year in Phoning It In, our online staff scheduling systems allows me to set aside “shifts” to be completed offsite, which employees can claim from anywhere. I can budget 2 to 4 hour blocks of payroll, which staff members can complete from home or school on their own schedule, simply by claiming the shift online. As our point of sale system is also accessible online, it’s easy for the staffer with small children to complete some of this work from home during nap time or after bedtime stories, and the staff member who prefers to work in her pajamas with her cat on her lap (which is probably most of the rest of the crew) can gain some extra income and help us finish the job.

And finish it we must, for our 2018 numbers are not complete until we reconcile the remaining items with the sales reports, the inventory with the overhead, and calculate the size of the not-so-mythical monster that lurks in the shadows that we call “shrinkage.” Then, as we draw big fat lines with magic markers through all those pages indicating completion, and we survey those lovely, organized shelves in the stock room with ALL THAT EMPTY SPACE… we can skip happily to market, and begin again.

*my not-so-subtle reference to the organizing wizardry of Marie Kondo, who brings a Mary Poppins sparkle to all things organizational, and a national obsession with discarding excess items. Her recent suggestion that personal libraries be limited to 30 titles is almost as humorous as my attempts to organize my sock drawer.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

4 thoughts on “The Things That Count

  1. Valerie Koehler

    As always you make me laugh even as I’m groaning. We only have the energy to inventory the middle grade novels in January. Otherwise we wait for our slow months in July to reconcile the rest. It feels good to mark through those pages. We do it slowly in order to re-categorize ones that we thought from Edelweiss belonged somewhere else. I promise not to “love” books that are not worthy. You promise the same.
    See you soon,

    1. Cynthia Compton

      Valerie, I am JUST THIS MINUTE avoiding Middle Grade…. an ice/snow storm here in Indiana is keeping our Saturday slow, so I really should dive into the G – N section that I printed out. But I’m still just halfway through THE FORK, THE WITCH, AND THE WORM (Paolini) and I don’t want to leave Alagaesia yet! #pourmorecoffee


    Thanks Cynthia, i struggle with deciding which items bring me the most “Joy”! as in socks, or in the days of my store, “countless” letter cubes, gift cards, or hi-bouncing balls (some of which have an odd stickiness to them).

    1. Cynthia Compton

      Idanna, I think the Impulse Bins part of inventory is the most interesting of all… who knows why we sold 143 squishy frogs… but the 144th one sits alone in its little cubby? Or what IS it about yellow things? We can sell every single one of the assortment of so many things, except the yellow ones. Why does yellow not spark joy?

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