Maybe it’ll seem odd, but I’m on the Christian bookseller side of this thing. Walmart is a growing shit stain in a retail world already full of crap. The crap involved in this case is Sarah Palin’s self-gratifying brag book, Going Rogue, which normally retails around $28 that Tennessee Walmarts (and others) are or were selling for $9 recently. A Christian bookstore in Nashville is feeling the pressure, willing to sell their books at cost, but can’t afford to go lower. Customers are discount whores, of course.
Christian retailers believe these extreme discounts are illegal and could drive them out of business, and they’ve asked the government for help. Recently, the Christian retail trade association known as CBA filed a complaint with the Justice Department, accusing Wal-Mart, Amazon.com Inc. and Target Corp. of predatory pricing.
“What happened was that giants were fighting the battle and the little guys were getting trampled,” said Eric Grimm, business development manager at CBA, formerly called the Christian Booksellers Association.
Grimm believes that the price war violated fair trade practices laid down by the federal Robinson-Patman Act. “We think their intent was to dominate the market with predatory pricing,” he said.
But the major retailers deny they’ve done anything wrong.
Greg Rossiter, spokes man for Wal-Mart, said the retailer was giving customers what they wanted. He said the sale was a good business practice.
“We are committed to providing our customers the best prices possible,” he said.
When asked if Wal-Mart sold the books at below cost, Rossiter declined to comment. “We don’t get into the pricing strategy for specific products.”
Of course they don’t. Basically it works as follows – Walmart is such a large company capable of such large orders that it can demand to buy copies of books (or anything else) at a reduced bulk cost that no other company would have the stones to demand and these companies are stuck with it because a) they want to sell the shit and b) they don’t want to piss off Walmart to a point where they never buy from that company again. Walmart has gotten very good at gauging what items are going to be good sellers and they are willing to sell those items below cost at a loss because they know their customers will buy other (+28% above cost) things during the same trip to the store. This kind of “loss leader” approach isn’t illegal but it always damages smaller competitors who unable to provide the same deals and still stay afloat.
Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, said the Christian publishers abide by the Robinson-Patman Act rules. But they have no control over the pricing in stores. And publishers get paid the same wholesale price, no matter what the stores decide to charge for the books.
“We can’t really tell a retailer how to run their business,” he said.
It’s really up to customers to do that.
The article also suggests that “offering such low prices will devalue books in the minds of consumers.” I don’t think that’s the case. Cheap books means more people can afford to buy and read them. I think literacy is so important and it’s great that books can be this affordable.
That said, I think if people really start demanding cheap books, it means publishers will resort to making more books cheaply. And I think a lot of publishers have already gone that route, judging by what the library receives when it orders. Thin book jackets, poor binding, bad glue jobs, crappy cut paper jobs. We had one book that recently made it onto the shelves with 35 pages not included when they bound it. At least someone wanted to read it, which is why the missing pages got noticed. I think many publishers are cutting costs left, right and center and will continue to do so, or risk going out of business altogether.
I think what also concerns me is a future where retail giants like Walmart are the ones who dictate what people should read. They only supply certain titles to their shoppers as it is, so what happens to publishers that Walmart doesn’t support? If independent book sellers are shoved out of business, the only books people will be able to get will be Walmart-approved books and I don’t like that idea at all. That’s not a free press world.
I don’t think I want to see every book go digital either. I’m in no mood to read on a Kindle. I want the smell of a book, the sound of pages flipping, the feel of the ink on my fingers. I want the Printed Page Experience in all its glory.
Walmart and others like it will continue to offer what they’ve got for as cheap as they can sell it. Customers will have to decide what they want to do about that.