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The Cats Are All Away

It’s a quiet day online today, as a good many Canadian retailers are experiencing the Foundation Distributing (FDI) annual warehouse event.

With the exception of this year, I’ve been invited to these events annually — they are actually a continuation of the annual warehouse sales at R. G. Mitchell, where the FDI founders worked previously — but as a dealer set us straight this week, I’ve just realized I didn’t fully understand how this event works.

Basically, buyers from FDI’s major accounts are flown in from various places across the country and given accommodation and are presented with an opportunity to roam the warehouse and place a stock order.

But one of the main draws is that all year long FDI collects publisher overstock, remainders and hurt books which store buyers physically remove from displays and fill up shopping carts with everything from giftware to books to Bibles.    (For weeks now, FDI staffers have been separating some nice leather Bibles from their boxes for this event, but that’s another story.)

At the same time, not-so-major-account Ontario stores within driving distance also are invited to the event which fills out the numbers a bit more, and creates more of a buying frenzy.

It’s well organized; you get to meet dealers from other stores; and they serve a nice lunch.

At least, that’s how I thought it worked.

This week a dealer set us straight.

The one-day event that we know as “A Day in the Country” is actually a two-day event which presumably operates under another name for the chosen few.   It actually started yesterday.   I have absolutely no idea what happens the first day.   We’re told that no one has prior access to the large collection of remainders and overstock, though in the past, by the time we’ve arrived — as early as 8:30 AM on the Wednesday — there are already huge boxes of product which have been pre-selected by those major accounts.

So it’s really a two-tiered event.

Not exactly.

Last year, we attended the second day — the only one we’re invited to — when presumably we were picking through what was left of the bargain product, only to have a FDI staffer tell us that we were “not eligible” to purchase the three dozen NLT Bibles we’d selected.   He then removed them from our shopping cart.

Suddenly it was appearing to be a three-tiered event, and we were on the lowest tier.   Sigh!

An hour later, I happened to meet one of the principals of FDI and mentioned that this was rather humiliating, and he walked me back to that area and told me there was no such restriction.

There were still about twelve of the Bibles left, we did in fact get them, and months later customers started returning them.   They have serious binding issues.   (I’m looking for a source for the glue used by book binders, if anyone knows.)

Bottom line:  We attended this event for many years and really enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed the company of other dealers, got some good bargains for our store and had a nice lunch.    But last year, we decided to leave before the lunch began.   We were made very conscious of the fact we were in the bottom tier of accounts shopping the sale.

But that doesn’t mean that anyone should assume that this is an industry that will ever stop giving the big guys a break.   The bargain inventory at Book Depot for example, has already been pre-shopped by some key accounts who are tipped off about “sorting days” for key publisher product  before the leftover product is posted online.   Others receive advance lists of product before it is announced online.

One Christian book dealer described it to me this way, “The owners are Dutch and we’re Dutch and we work together.”   Guess I was born in the wrong country.

No one likes to attend a party they weren’t invited to, and no Christian bookstore owner should ever be made to feel second rate. And nobody should ever have to suffer the humiliation of having merchandise removed from a cart (physical or online) because they don’t meet eligibility requirements.

Frankly, I honestly believe it takes more “smarts” to operate a Christian bookstore in a smaller market than it does in a major metropolis, where the sheer volume of people passing through helps to cover all your mistakes.

To those of you who were flown in for the event, I’m sure you got some deals and had a good time.   Much has been given to you.  Enjoy it.  Be grateful.  It is not so for some of us.

  1. April 21, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    And this kind of business is “Christian” in what sense, exactly? I can just picture Jesus wading in with his whip from his trip to the temple all those years ago, turning over those shopping carts and scattering the merchandise every which way…

  2. Someone Who Was There
    April 22, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Well, first of all, the comment by Phil Groom has NOTHING to do with the event. Really – the temple compared to do legitimate business operation? This is not a church we’re talking about! Everyone wants to give his opinion, even if they weren’t there and don’t even know anything about it.

    Which brings me to the response to the blog: how can these comments be made? I was there and met a small store from way up near Timmins that drove 8 hours to get there – and they had a great time, met some other bookstore owners and appreciated the day to no end. Then there were a couple of ladies from a Christian camping facility that has a small seasonal store, and they had access to all the same bargains that the ‘big guys’ did. It wasn’t some exclusive event as what has been suggested in this blog.

    Then there are the comments about a situation (that was corrected) from THREE YEARS AGO! Come on – stop living in the past and rehashing old memories just to try and slur the good name of FDI. They went out of their way this year to make the event better than it has ever been – and it was. I heard they had hired temporary help since December to make sure everything was clearly laid out, sorted, and priced. They provided a nice lunch for us, the entire staff was amazingly helpful, and asked us many times if there was anything else they could help us with.

    So, all I can say to those who read the blog about such a terrible event, just remember there are always two sides to every story. Then also consider that memories from the past that have to be used to make a point about an event he wasn’t even at. This event seems to happen at the end of April each year. So make a note to yourself to call them in March and humbly ask if it would be OK to go.

    Maybe Proverbs 18:24 would be good here: ‘A man that has friends must show himself friendly.’

    • paulthinkingoutloud
      April 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm

      Last year, Jim, not three years ago.

      We didn’t stay for the lunch last year because we had at that time “humbly ask(ed) if it was OK to go.” I am not trying to “slur the good name” of anyone, I was genuinely uncomfortable the whole time I was there. I attended for the sake of my customers; but this year just didn’t want to have to go through all that again.

      I have been in this business for 35 years now, and I reserve the right to attend an event, look around, and ask myself “What is going on here beyond what is visible?” “Why is the guy from the big western store not actually buying anything, just chatting with people?” “How is the transportation and accommodation of all these store owners being covered in an event that is (for us) just a remainder book exposition?”

      The fact is, any one of our suppliers could continue to exist with just the top 15 accounts. Seriously. Then there are another 60 – 80 or so stores that are “sure and steady” and buy regularly, faithfully, and share a relationship with the suppliers based on their willingness to play the game. They can be easily talked into trying “the latest thing” but if it fails, they might be allowed to return merchandise IF AND ONLY IF they place large “replacement” orders.

      Then there are the infrequent and occasional buyers who, as you stated, at this event were allowed to pick and choose from the same merchandise pool as yourself. (Not necessarily the same products as might have been visible a day earlier, but we’ll never know for sure.)

      I have good and productive relationships with most of my suppliers, including some with whom I thought I would never be able resolve difficulties from the past. In fact, while not at the event in question, I spent three hours in a reconciliation process with an individual which I had been pushing for, over something that he — not me — initiated over a year ago.

      …I was downright giddy when FDI set up shop just 20 minutes from my house all those years ago, but over time something deteriorated. Sometimes suppliers don’t realize that the people they hire on *their* frontline can make all the difference. When their default answer is always “no,” it can erode a wholesale customer relationship, and sometimes that is deliberate, a kind of “Good cop/Bad cop” thing that is entirely intentional.

      You can’t run a growing business and continue to re-print the literature that you had when you were a grassroots company that says things like, “We have no policies;” especially when you actually have more of them than anyone else. FDI is a complex network of stores with a two-tiered pricing system set up as “Price One and Price Two.” The day before the event, I was permitted to purchase three books at “Price Two” only because I mentioned that I had been given that price point previously. Who can fathom how all this works? It must make it very difficult to know who has said what to who.

      We got into something like this ourselves over Easter. A church called a supplier direct and negotiated an extra discount on a product that is normally a short-discount item. We were chosen as the store to fulfill the order. The problem is, another church in town uses this same resource and buys in similar quantities. I made it very clear to our staff that I didn’t want to tiptoe and whisper around what had happened. The other church should be entitled to the same deal next time around, and at the very least, should be made aware that there is another process by which they can place the order and still get it through us. (If they wish to, that is, the other church views their support of our store as part of their ministry.)

      But I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I had to tell my staff, “Don’t let church two know about price two;” that would just be wrong. We should be transparent.

      Let me add at that point that historically, when FDI cut a deal with Blessings, they stated that they often did so on the condition that they would also offer the same pricing to other dealers; and that apparently, once it was out of FDI’s control, Blessings then turned around and printed their catalog with an extra $1 off each item just to have the ‘killer’ price. I commend FDI for trying to create a level playing field at that point in their history and in that instance. It was a wonderfully refreshing attitude.

      As to Phil’s comment, I do know that they have CBC (their equivalent of CBA) conventions, perhaps the description of something involving physical merchandise instead of just sample copies was outside their UK experience.

      Still, I think we have to be circumspect because there are always people willing to compare our industry to the profiteers in the temple. It just means we have to be *that much more* careful in all that we say and do.

    • April 24, 2010 at 10:47 am

      Well “Someone Who Was There”, all I can go on is the description of the event given by someone else who was there, namely this blog’s owner, for whom I have the utmost respect, and Paul’s description leaves me both astonished and saddened: is this really the way Christians in Canada treat one another in their so-called “legitimate business” operations?

      I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after witnessing the way Biblica in the USA treated its UK business partners last year, but there’s still a part of me that dares to hope that Christians in business can behave according to the better way that Paul speaks of, namely the way of love.

      Perhaps you’re unaware, SWWT, that in its day the temple marketplace was an entirely “legitimate business operation” — but the fact that things are legitimate doesn’t mean that they have a divine mandate: often quite the contrary, in fact, just as some things that are illegitimate do have the divine stamp of approval. Or have you forgotten that Christianity started with an illegitimate birth? Our God is a God who delights in turning things upside down, in confounding our expectations.

      CBC is history, by the way, Paul. We’re now looking at what should prove to be an entirely different kind of event: Christian Resources Together.

      • paulthinkingoutloud
        April 24, 2010 at 12:56 pm

        I think SWWT was focusing on the fact I wasn’t there this year.

        Phil, I think the difference in perspective here is better understood if SWWT took a few minutes to consider all the things we’ve been borrowing from your blog. I sense a different atmosphere, a different spirit over there in the UK. The way the Christian community has pulled together to get stores up and running again is somewhat unbelievable from a North American perspective.

        I get the sense your local churches really care about bookstores, and that as a group of stores you truly do have a love for each other.

        In attending this event in the past, I’ve noticed there isn’t that same spirit of fraternity among the booksellers.

        I remember dropping in on one store that’s not too far from us, and the owner met me with the question, “What are you doing here?”

        I said we often drop in on each other’s stores and he said, “Oh we do, do we?” It was so cold, so condescending. Maybe it’s just a period we’re going through in the life of Christian bookshop owners here; I hope the next generation sees another set of possibilities.

        What matters to me is that when I stand before God I’m not guilty of that kind of attitude. I am totally transparent about everything we do at Searchlight, and if another dealer walks in and wants to buy some of our clearance or ‘unique’ merchandise, I’m prepared to come up with a wholesale price for any of it.

        I’m willing to spend time talking to dealers, especially new ones; in fact, I’m willing to spend 30 minutes a day running an industry blog so we can share news, ideas and (in this case) frustrations.

        See the next additional comment as well.

  3. paulthinkingoutloud
    April 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Here’s some additional consideration from an off-the-blog discussion; these are not my words:

    EQUAL would mean that if FDI is paying for two airline tickets and accommodation for some dealers, they should give an equal amount of money to everyone else.

    That would be rather absurd. If I live 20 minutes away, I don’t need that kind of money for transportation.

    EQUITABLE would mean that the guy from Timmins who drove eight hours is covered for his gas expense, and that everybody has the option of buying the same merchandise at the same discounts, and that everybody has the option of coming the day early if they so choose.

    Actually, in some other discussions in a variety of online forums this month, I’ve been considering the whole EQUAL vs. EQUITABLE thing as it relates to Christ’s teachings. It’s something to consider as each of us builds our own, personal ethical framework for living.

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