Translating Heather

By Gordon Lockheed | October 22, 2004

Our secret agent inside Chapters/Indigo has reported on Heather’s recent show-and-tell for the shareholders. Actually, calling him a secret agent is stretching things a little, since he acquired the agency by buying a single Chapters/Indigo share, and that entitled him to attend the meeting. He had some interesting observations—or translations—to report.

Heather’s new plan for the bookstore megachain’s solvency is to transform it into a chain of “cultural furniture stores”. Books will occupy no more than 65% of the floorspace and will account for about the same percent of sales—or less, if possible. That’s down from the current 80-85%. Insider intelligence suggests that a key element in the plan is to reduce the number of titles per store to 15,000. No doubt some marketing genius has mathematically demonstrated that this is the right number of titles to have in stock for maximum turnover and profit.

At the core of this calculation lies a fundamental and continuing misunderstanding of what a bookstore is. In the Chapters/Indigo view—old as well as new—a bookstore is an outlet for fungible commodity merchandising, not an information-based service business. Simply formulated, Heather appears to believe that a successful bookstore is one that profitably distributes the maximum volume of book units, even if they happen to be all one title. Better, in fact, if they are all one title.

The counter argument—currently backed by government policy—is that a bookstore is a cultural institution. To be culturally useful—which is to say, to increase multiple-source citizen knowledge and to widen and sharpen the level of discourse beyond binary disquisition—information must be specific, complex and accurate. The volume transferred is of secondary but not tertiary importance. Ten thousand units of The DaVinci Code, a book which is a pernicious fabrication of theoretical conjecture, platitudes and half-cooked history grounded more or less exclusively on the Shirley MacLaine philosophical platform that supposes that “everything that happens, happens for a reason,” does not have the cultural value of say, 10,000 units of books written by a variety of authors: Susan Sontag, Modris Ecksteins, Joseph Conrad, and so on. Surely I don’t have to explain why this makes it culturally useful.

Still, it is worth pointing out that the technical philosophy of marketing ignores cultural calculations on principle, thus demonstrating the accuracy of Jane Jacobs’ formulation of human society in Systems of Survival, and what happens when the balance between culture and the market gets out of whack.

Cultural Furniture

Our agent was going to ask Heather for the corporation’s definition of this term during the AGM, but quickly discovered that shareholders don’t get to ask questions. Our best guess at what it means is this: candles, incense, book remainders and coffee-table books, greeting cards, mood music and other New Age lifestyle junk. We note, for instance, that books have recently been displaced in counter displays with branded tap water in plastic bottles.

But if the intention is to up Chapters/Indigo furniture sales from 15% to 30-35%, our suspicion is that they’re going into computer sales and other electronics, and that the stores will soon be hard to distinguish from Future Shop. At first glance, this shift toward Future Shop opens the possibility for a re-emergence of independent booksellers.

But wait! Heather also announced plans for a new round of store expansions. It remains to be seen if this is merely a case of brandishing the Wal-Mart club at possible new competitors, expand-or-die capitalist mechanics suppressing common sense, or a clever manoeuvre to get out from under the Competition Bureau restrictions so she can sell the chain to the always-lurking Barnes & Noble. Our agent believes it is all three and that whatever Heather may intend, the real promise is one of more dead book publishers.

Killing Coles

Heather also announced that she’s planning to kill the Coles chain of bookstores, renaming it “something else” (the current code name is “Indigo Lite”, which is, we suppose, corporate irony). Coles, of course, is more associated with student study cribs than with the candles and incense that are Heather’s great love. One analyst we talked to believes that the rebranding is occurring because the chain’s colour scheme, yellow and black, is the traditional code for caution and restrain. This signalling is inappropriate for any instrument of today’s corporate culture, and the wrong message to be sending to prospective consumers. Someone else suggested that the colour scheme doesn’t go with Heather’s living room décor, and that her collection of Cole’s Notes don’t look good in the new Schwartz family book case in Rosedale.

737 w. October 22, 2004


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