My dear father, a big band singer in his youth, would often serenade my mother as she prepared dinner, interrupting her cooking to twirl her around and dip as he sang into his improvised microphone, usually a spatula or the beater from her 1960’s aqua colored Mixmaster. One of his favorite selections, “Slow Boat to China,” has been running through my mind on a constant loop this December, as I check shipping confirmations and delivery notification emails, hoping for updates on missing titles and merchandise. In our 17 years of business, and 18 holiday seasons, we have never experienced such a frustratingly unpredictable shipping process, and frankly, it’s hurting our business and lots of our colleagues’ businesses, too.
A recent online report from Late Shipment (as quoted in Footwear News, Dec. 10, 2019) estimates that of the 1.5 billion packages expected to be handled by UPS and FedEx this season, representing over $1 trillion in merchandise, at least 9% will be delayed in the shipping process. Anecdotally, I would respond to the good people at Footwear News that most of these delays are boxes of books, and that while the occasional case of ankle boots (in leopard print, for it’s 2019) might arrive late, ALL of the special orders in my shop will be tardy enough to cause customers to be angry, disappointed, or simply transfer their business elsewhere.
The symptoms of a bad shipping season began earlier this year, as our regular UPS driver was subbed out by a series of temps in the second week of November. The “big brown truck” was replaced by a motley collection of rental UHauls and nondescript vans, arriving at all times of day (and night, when we would get emails indication that the “delivery was attempted, business closed” at 9 p.m.). Our regular all-star UPS driver, Mark, simply disappeared, because he was reassigned to a residential route. The huge uptick in Amazon and other online orders makes the residential routes heavier, and seasoned drivers who can handle 250-plus stops per day are in high demand. Gone was our friend who knew to stack boxes in the stock room during story time, and was willing to pose for selfies in front of the truck with our young customers, as he carried in huge stacks of boxes with the distributor cartons stacked on top “because those are your special orders, and you need to do those first.” In this season when special orders are paramount in importance as we race against online competitors, we are left with a ragtag collection of split deliveries, boxes arriving (or not) at random times, with orders spread over multiple trucks and dates. Daily shop receiving duty requires faith, guesswork, and a lot of estimated shipping charges plugged into purchase orders to be corrected later — usually late at night by a tired shopkeeper still searching for one more box of Dog Man: Fetch 22.
Our publisher and distributor partners began warning us of potential shipping delays several weeks ago, but in our blithe Indies First/Small Business Saturday haze of happiness, we didn’t panic. The first two-day distributor order MUST have been because of that storm, right (?) we told ourselves. But two days (instead of overnight) became the norm, and secondary warehouse orders were as slow as a regular publisher restock order — only to be used for backlist long since dropped from “top 100 titles” status in the store. Piling delivery delays on top of shipping slowdowns and volume at the warehouses is an equation for bookselling doom, and we are feeling the pain. Our conversations with customers on the floor and at the register are much less confident, and our favorite phrase “oh, we just sold the last copy here in the shop, but we’ll bring one down for you from the warehouse” carries much less credibility when the estimated delivery is measured in cautiously couched “3-4 days, we think.” In a community where Amazon warehouses are visible from the highway, and our residential streets are dotted with navy blue “Smile” painted vans, we are losing the fight for customer attention and loyalty.
In the last week, we received daily distributor orders a full day later or not at all every day. Our new releases orders from publishers arrived either the day of release (at 7 p.m., much too late to compete with big box or online pre-orders) or the next day. As the neighborhood bookstore, we were actually less competent at providing the newest and most requested titles than Target, Walmart, or the regional grocery store chain. Our distributor orders (which we used as backup, in addition to special orders) were just as anemic. While I’m certainly not demanding any kind of special treatment from our shipping partners, it’s clear that their business model no longer prioritizes my business model or its success.
Examining the causes of this annual shipping crisis is as depressing as it is predictable. Our shipping partner, UPS, has hitched its business wagon to the online behemoth, and in struggling to pull the weight of that load, is letting its other cargo fall off into the roadside ditch. Sadly, that very cargo is growing its own wagon, as Amazon continues to develop a shipping infrastructure to support its monopolistic franchise, and the very provider that enabled its success will be irrevocably damaged by its eventual departure, in my opinion. As we adapt and compromise to the limits of our shipping partners, they will not be able to survive their expansion to serve a client that will eventually replace them. We have played a part, too, in this broken system, by training our customers to expect immediate delivery, cheap freight, and the convenience of just-in-time retail ordering. Our publisher partners, using the same two major carriers, are caught in the traffic jam of direct-to-consumer boxes filling the trucks that also carry cases of their titles to our store. By becoming retail and book fair vendors, they create more competition in the very season that they look for big sales from us – and we can’t sell what we don’t have in store.
If Santa could bring some solutions to this small bookseller this season, I would wish for just a few: instead of increased discounts, let publisher partners increase dating to allow booksellers to order more copies of hot titles prior to the holiday season. Protect bestsellers by offering them to retail channels first, and shipping new releases farther in advance to counteract inevitable shipping delays. Allow and facilitate warehouse pickups for local stores, and let us create regional transportation systems among stores to distribute new releases. Most of all, create and protect MSRP online for big books — let us be part of your success. Or at least, let us have some of the books we need in time to sell them.