The idea of vendor-managed inventory has never become particularly popular in the book business, despite a few experiments over the years where it was implemented with great success. (And despite the fact that I was pushing for it back in 1997 and 1998.) But as the book business overall declines, with the print book business leading the slide and that portion of the print book business which takes place in retail stores falling off at an alarming rate, it is time for the industry to think about it again.
In fact, VMI for the book business began with the ID wholesalers and mass-market paperbacks right after World War II. The IDs — the initials stood for “independent distributors” — managed the distribution of magazines and newspapers at newsstands and other accounts within their geographical territory. The retailers had no interest in deciding how many copies of LIFE they got in relation to Ladies Home Journal; the ID made that determination. And since only the torn off covers were necessary for confirmation of a “return”, the “bulk” cost of distribution was in putting the copies in, not taking back the overage. And because newspapers and magazines had a disciplined frequency, it was obvious that you had to clear out yesterday’s, or last week’s, or last month’s to make room for the next issue.
When the first mass-market paperback publishers started their activity right after World War II, providing books for, among others, returning servicemen who had access to special servicemen’s editions of paperbacks (in a program created by the polymath Philip Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian and friend of my father’s) they helped the jobbers along by having monthly lists. They also were comfortable with a book only having a one-month shelf life and having the stripped covers serve as evidence the book hadn’t been sold.
For quite some time, the initial allocations to the ID wholesalers (the local rack jobbers were called “Independent Distributors”) were really determined by the paperback publishers. Eventually, that freedom to put books into distribution choked the system, but there were a lot of other causes of the bloat. By the 1960s, many bookstores were carrying paperbacks and many other big outlets were served “direct” by the publishers, leaving the IDs with the least productive accounts. But VMI, even without any system and very little in the way of restraints on the publishers, was responsible for the explosive growth of mass-market paperbacks in the two decades following World War II.
In the late 1950s, Leonard Shatzkin, my father, introduced The Doubleday Merchandising Plan, which was VMI for bookstores on Doubleday books. For stores that agreed to the plan, reps reported the store’s inventory back to headquarters of Doubleday books rather than sending an order. Then a team posted the inventories, calculated the sales, and followed rules to generate an order of books to the store. Sales mushroomed, particularly of the backlist, and returns and cost of sales plummeted. Doubleday was launched into the top tier of publishing companies.
In a much more modest way, a distributor that my father owned called Two Continents introduced a VMI plan in the 1970s. Even with a very thin list and no cachet, we (I was the Marketing Director) were able to get 500 stores on the Plan in a year. We achieved similarly dramatic results, but from a much more modest base.
Two Continents was undone by the loss of some distribution clients. The Doubleday plan was undermined by reps who convinced headquarters years after my father left that their stores would be more comfortable if they wrote the Plan orders rather than letting them be calculated at headquarters. And the rise of computerized record-keeping systems for inventory and national wholesalers who could replenish stock quickly improved inventory performance, and store profitability, without VMI. Although our client West Broadway Book Distribution has successfully operated VMI in specialty retail for more than a decade, and Random House has worked some version of VMI at Barnes & Noble for the past several years, the technique has hardly been considered by the book trade for a long time.
It is time for that to change. What can foster the change is a recognition about VMI that is readily apparent in West Broadway’s implementations in non-bookstores, but would not have been so obvious to the bookstores using Doubleday’s or Two Continents’ services.
From the publisher’s perspective, the requirement that there be a title-by-title, book-by-book buying function in the store in order for the store to stock books purely and simply reduces the number of stores that can stock books. The removal of that barrier was the key achievement of the ID wholesalers racking paperbacks after World War II. Suddenly there were thousands of points of sale that didn’t require a buyer.
From the store’s perspective, buying — and managing the supply chain to support the buying decisions — is expensive. VERY expensive. Books are hard to buy. New ones are coming all the time; the number of publishers from which they come (and who are the primary sources of information about the books, even if you could “source” them from wholesalers at a slight margin sacrifice for operational simplicity) is huge; the shelf life of any particular title is undeterminable; and the sales in any one outlet are very hard to read.
Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.
Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)
Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.
To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!
These data points demonstrate another compelling reason for VMI. When a store sells none of 80% of its titles in a month, and of the ones they do sell 80% of those sell one unit, they clearly need information about what is going on in other stores to know which ones to keep or reorder and which ones to return. Above the Treeline is an inventory service which provides its stores with broader sales data to address that issue, but the information is not as granular or as susceptible to analysis as what a publisher or aggregator could do with VMI.
Partly because of the high cost of buying and a supporting supply chain that a book outlet requires, publishers will see shelf space for books drop faster than retail demand. (The closure of Borders, which wiped out a big portion of the shelf space, is part of what is behind the recent good sales reports from many independents.) At the same time, retailers of all things will be under increased pressure to find more sales as the Internet — often, but not always, Amazon — keeps eating into their market.
This all adds up to VMI to me. We’ll see over the next couple of years whether industry players come to the same conclusion.