Protecting the Merchandise

Josie Leavitt - August 22, 2011

There has been a discussion this past weekend on various bookselling listservs about ways to protect merchandise in our stores, not from theft, but from curious children and families. Every store has its own policy regarding how kids can play with toys, books or puppets in the store before they purchase them. Most small stores don’t have demos of things to play with, or a budget line item for damages, so we have to get creative.
I notice that summertime seems to be the time when I face this issue more. I attribute this to visitors who might be used to a Borders or Barnes and Noble where it’s seemingly okay to scatter merchandise throughout the store. It’s always a struggle for me to redirect a charming tot from happily destroying a toy that they’ve fallen in love with. Most parents are very good about policing their children without any input from me. Although several years ago I heard the unmistakable sound of a book jacket being ripped in half, and when I went to investigate, I saw the parent shoving the ripped jacket under the bookcase as if nothing at all had happened. They left without buying anything. This is not the norm by any means.
Usually, I have sheepish parents buying board books their toddlers have gnawed on. Often a parent will buy a toy because their child broke it. But how can a bookseller preempt the destruction without sounding harsh or preachy?  There are some tricks I’ve learned over the years to make the store more user friendly.
The most obvious thing to do is keep things out of children’s reach that might break or get dirty. We actually have three stuffed dragons that someone donated to the store. These are out all the time on the floor of the picture book section. Kids can play with these for hours and no one will ask them not to. Keep some games and toys out that they can play with.  If kids feel like the store is a minefield and they’ll get yelled for touching things, they won’t want to come back.
Things we’re worried about breaking live near the front counter. This way we can keep an eye on things. It’s also helpful to help explain how some toys work. Gentle guidance about how a wind-up toy works can go a long way toward everyone having a good experience.
I find what gives me fits are the toys, pens, and doo-dads that make noise. There is something about a pen with a cow’s head that moos and lights up when you push its head that’s adorable, but team that with oinking pig pen, the baaing sheep all going off together that make me a little crazy. When I’ve had enough of the farmyard symphony I try to find creative ways to get things quiet again. I usually say something like, “Two more oinks then you need to put the pig down to save the battery for another child.”  Every once in a while I can just raise an eyebrow to a kid I know and they’ll put the noisy toy down with a sweet smile.
Most children are really quite good about listening and often they are very amenable to the old distract and delay tactic. Distract them with something they can actually play with and/or delay their desire to play with a certain toy until they leave the store with it.
And lastly, the best piece of advice I can offer: don’t buy toys so noisy that you can’t hear yourself think.

9 thoughts on “Protecting the Merchandise

  1. bookzilla

    The thing that gets me is how parents will let their kids take the wrapper off a brand-new pop-up title, then ask if we have a wrapped one for them to buy!
    I usually find that saying something like, “In our store we don’t (chew on, walk on, rip) books that don’t belong to us.” Kids and parents get the message pretty quickly.
    I find, however, that getting all the staff to recognize that protecting the store’s assets are in all our best interests very difficult. Some booksellers feel it’s too confrontational to let people know that they can’t wreck our property. If anyone has an empowering solution for this, do let me know!

  2. Melinda

    The thing that boggles my mind are parents who set their drinks or better yet soaking wet umbrellas on top of books and don’t think anything about the fact that they are damaging an item that someone else may be looking for. Overall most parents are very good about explaining to a child why that can’t open something or purchasing the chewed on book but those exceptions really do make me wonder.

  3. riterchick

    When my children were young, they were voracious readers. I made the trek, a long one, to an indie bookstore that specialized in children’s books. My well – behaved children wanted to read some of the books before purchasing. No sticky fingers. No food. Just 8 and 6 year olds who read daily. I was right with them, suggesting titles. A clerk came up to me and said the children weren’t allowed to handle the books, they had to stay on the shelves. I not only didn’t buy the books I had on my list, I never returned.
    Draw your own conclusions.

  4. Kathy

    As a former Borders employee who ran the children’s department for the last five years, I’m surprised I have a tongue left to bite after witnessing the lack of parenting skills displayed at my store. For instance, is telling a 3 year old who has been ransacking the area for the last hour “to put everything back where you found it” really going to work? I was constantly begging them to let me do it and some parents seemed to think I was robbing them of a valuable learning lesson by not letting them make their children put everything back on the wrong shelves. The most dreaded words heard at the front door were, “Go play in the children’s department, I’ll be right here.” (at the other side of the store, of course)
    But, despite everything, I really miss my job and the joy of helping to find the book that makes a child or young adult come back and say that they loved that book I recommended and can I help them find another.

    1. Laura Harrison

      There should be a special place in heaven for us bravehearts who worked in the children’s dept. at Borders Books. You know who you are and what I mean. LOL A wonderful job but quite exasperating. NY parents didn’t care at all what broke, got ripped, drooled or gnawed on. And rarely purchased any of the destroyed items. The Robert Sabuda pop up books were always a particular challenge to keep undamaged.

  5. Carol B. Chittenden

    We have baskets of toys and a stack of puzzles to entertain preschoolers — but their parents are happy to hand them a puppet from atop the shelves. We try hard to divert the kids to something harmless, but during our busiest time of year (right now) we’re often unable to get out from behind the counter to distract the misbehavior. I’m still searching for the button that activates a passive parent as surely as their kids activate battery-powered toys once the wrapping is breached. Maybe the parental batteries are shot?

  6. Jenn

    Most people are pretty good. I often use the line “It’s okay for you to look at / play with that just be very gentle with it” to the kids themselves and have found that overall it works pretty well. There will always be those parents who really don’t care that their children are destroying someone else’s property. There will always be children who will learn that from their parents but I figure if we can talk to the kids directly in a friendly way they may learn from us and in the long run be comfortable in the store AND nondestructive.
    Let’s not forget that we have issues with damage coming for adults as well who drop or bend or whatever and then shove things back on the shelves rather than pay for what they’ve damaged….

  7. Eleanor LeFave

    As the proprietor of a children’s bookstore since 1988, I understand the fine line between protecting stock and protecting customer relationships. I pass on a section of our staff manual in which I wrote a piece called Jack the Ripper:
    “Recently a customer mentioned seeing that one of the posters in the east window had fallen. When I checked, I saw the telltale signs of a “toddler in the window” . The backdrop was askew and fabric bunched and a board book left open in the window of a YA display.
    It’s all straightened out now but it made me recall once a ‘distracted’ mother lost her two toddlers in that window.
    I went running when I heard squealing, a sound one should never hear in our bookstore ( it means way too much destructive activity ) ( it means we don’t want to have to increase our insurance ) It means you may say, clearly, smiling broadly, ” Oh there is no running allowed”
    The children were doing a dance for the passing cars on Mount Pleasant Road, pulling down flowers and posters while they jumped around.
    So please – don’t leave groups with active small children alone in the front room. Particularly if they are Jack the Ripper types, get in there and tidy books behind them before damage occurs.
    Hang out and straighten a section close by, or, if they are out of control – HOVER. I have been known to move in really close to a toddler
    ( no touching ) to catch books as he/she pulled them off the shelves and before they fall on the carpet. If you smile even harder, watch the child make eye contact and calm down.
    And ALWAYS smile broadly at both mother and child. Never chastise. Never make the mother feel badly. One day you may be lucky to have an active, inquisitive toddler. We want the parent to appreciate us and feel like our store is a haven, a place to come for the lifetime of the child.
    If a customer is stressed by the toddler, double team with another bookseller. One to watch or distract the child in a professional way. The other to work as quickly as possible with the parent to help the purchases go smoothly. We are not babysitters. We hope that child will learn quickly, and the next time he comes in he will sit quietly and put the books back gently himself.
    This is why board books are shelved at the bottom of the Baby and Toddler departments. Please never put jacketed hardcovers near the floor in those departments.
    One more thing: listen to the music that is playing. If it is lively, consider that many children are sensitive to pacing. Put on the lullabies ASAP and let everyone chill.”
    Eleanor LeFave
    Mabel’s Fables Bookstore


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