Well, that title got your attention, didn’t it? Me, too. That imaginary half-asleep visual made me sit suddenly upright in bed one night this week, during those predawn hours when shopkeepers toss and turn, as the myriad of details and responsibilities and events and tasks mount in the 4th quarter, and each day we worry and wonder if we’re doing all the right things. And so our incredibly stretched brains work a little overtime, and process our anxiety through a series of strange dreams. This week, I dreamed that there were a family of snakes living behind and in the huge stacks of boxes in our storage room, peeking their little heads out unexpectedly when I moved around the baby toys, looking for that stack of Who Was? paperback overstock.
Of course, my brain was telling me that I’m anxious about all those boxes of merchandise, and perhaps advising a slowdown on the roller coaster of ordering new stock. Sadly, though, this dream will be followed by another in a few days, in which I step into our stock room only to fall into a giant abyss, falling down, down, down like Alice, with no White Rabbit to save me. That’s the dream of “you don’t have enough stuff!” and the fear of empty shelves, big title shortages, and the customer who remarks to her friend that they should “just head to Target, because this store is too picked over.”
There will be other dreams, too, like the one where I’m wrapping behind the counter and turn around to greet the new guest as the door jingles, only to see a never-ending line at the register, and no other staffers anywhere in the store. In that dream, I’m almost always dressed strangely – wearing shorts and flip flops as the winter wind blows snow under the door frames, or tottering in high heels and a formal gown, as if I was leaving for some gala. Clearly, the short-staffed schedule is my fault, and I’m all alone, as customers shift their baskets impatiently and check the time on their phones.
The pressure of 4th quarter performance in a year-round retail store is significant, and it’s no wonder that our imaginations are working all night when we should be sleeping. Independent retailers may rely on the holiday season for as much as 40% of their annual revenue, and that holiday season is shrinking on the calendar. What sales reps and chipper marketing emails call the “4th quarter” is really now that whirlwind few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, leaving out all the days lost to bad weather and online cyber-deals. This year, the late Thanksgiving date shrinks those shopping days to the shortest possible time period, making each and every day of retail precious. Years when a snow emergency or dock strike or shortage of delivery trucks loom large and menacing in our memories, and those of us who have hung twinkle lights in our windows a time or two remember all too well the fears of a failed season. Same day-delivery from Amazon, 24-hour big box stores, and the creep of bookshelves into every retail space from electronics stores to garden centers makes those big money, highly marketed blockbuster titles as common as tinsel, and each year, we’re under more and more pressure to discover and promote the newest literary find. Our own publisher partners ramp up their direct-to-consumer marketing, and the warehouse sales from book club vendors and school suppliers flood mailboxes with postcards announcing doorbuster events – all of these, while in no way comparable to the experience of an indie bookstore, still bleed dollars from our customers’ wallets and cross names off their gift lists, without placing our wrapping paper under their trees. Everyone, it seems, sells books this time of year, and our customers are only as loyal as their harried schedules and long to-do lists allow.
It’s no wonder, then, that we’re up all night. While we stack our shelves and add another choice or two of gift wrap for in-store sales, we sign up our booksellers for each and every offsite event imaginable, carting our books and our tablets to church basements and theatre lobbies, stacking books on folding tables next to the guy who makes kettle corn and the woman with the crocheted …. gosh, I don’t know WHAT that is, but it sure is something, isn’t it? We slip and slide in library parking lots as we carry in cartons for holiday author events, and hope that our sales for the night outpace the cost of the extra staff payroll back at the shop. We add potential earnings and volumes to be sold on yellow pads and post it notes, totaling scenarios and juggling sales numbers, building toward a magic number that makes our month hit our target, and keeps the bank and the vendor credit departments happy. All of this happens in a shorter and shorter time frame, as the mythical quarter turns into just a couple of weeks of serious buying, and customers literally order online from their smartphones when the checkout line is too long or slow.
The other day, a customer came to the counter with a Thanksgiving title, an Advent calendar, and a cute little board book with reindeer on the cover. “Would you like a couple of Holiday Wish Lists for your kids?” I asked. “We can email their choices to you, or to grandparents out of town, if that’s helpful. Then you can shop over the phone, and we’ll have it all wrapped and ready… so much easier than paying for shipping.”
“Oh, we just give them an iPad during Thanksgiving, and they just put everything they want into the cart…. no one actually shops anymore. Thanks, though. This store is really cute. Have you been here long?”
I looked down at the floor, where I swear something had just slithered over my foot.