Borders and the Froot Loop Gambit

March 13, 2008 | 14 3 min read

A recent Wall Street Journal story (I’ll summarize here if you can’t access it), is reporting that Borders intends to “sharply [increase] the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out.” It is hoped that this move will increase sales, but “the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%.”

The article goes on to note that “Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers’ efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation’s largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories.” A little later, the reporter concludes, “With the book market facing unmitigated gloom, Borders has little choice but to experiment.”

I’ve talked about chain stores and how they do and don’t satisfy the avid reader: In “What Makes a Bookstore?“, a golden oldie from about four years ago, I granted that “when it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains.” But I relish and much prefer the relevance of a good independent bookstore, which should allow one to “walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.”

In this framework, putting ever more books face-out and thinning inventory is exactly the opposite of what I want a bookstore to do. The failure of chain bookstores is that they try to make the bookstore experience like any other retail experience, placing the merchandise just so in the hopes that it will entice the shopper. Indeed, according to the WSJ, “The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard’s Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out.” John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, has a similar point of view. “‘Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,’ he says. ‘You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It’s a little bizarre that it’s taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.'”

And who knows, tests have shown that “sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores.” Still, further down this path lies the ultimate in bookselling vapidity, the airport bookstore, where all the books are face-out, and the desperate traveler is forced to choose between bad or worse.

As I thought about turning books into so many boxes of Froot Loops, the article left me with a final question. Many bookstore regulars may not be aware that bookstores, from chains to indies, accept what’s called “co-op” from publishers. Ostensibly, this is money that is meant to help market certain titles. In practice, co-op money dictates display areas, what ends up on prominent front-of-store tables, and, yes, face out placement on shelves. The article doesn’t mention co-op explicitly, but I wonder if this is another motivation for Borders. If so, putting books face-out may lead to incrementally more sales, but it may also bring in more marketing cash from publishers, and the end result is an ever more pre-packaged, market-tested, one size fits all experience for readers.

Edit: Thanks to F.S. for the correct spelling of “Froot.”

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Great article. Just one trifle: the good people at Kellogg's spell their wholesome product Froot Loops, I suppose to make sure nobody thinks there is actual fruit involved in its creation.

  2. I really appreciate you writing this article. I work at a Borders, if for no other reason than because there's no other bookstore in my immediate area other than a Christian family bookstore. I was dismayed when we were given our new visual standards, including the so-called "super face-out" (in which a face-out is put on top a horizontal stack and beside one or two spined books — supposedly a space saver, I think it looks like trash) and "angel displays" (in which books are placed on a plastic holder to elevate them above a stack on a table). It feels to me as if we are pushing these titles too hard down the customer's throat. I've actually always been wary of just how much Borders puts on endcaps and tables, as I've found that it makes specific titles harder to find. As for the "co-ops," we are told what to put on the tables and most of the endcaps, but, in my store at least, faceouts are largely left up to the booksellers. We do them as shelf space permits (or requires, to fill holes), and are typically done only with titles of larger quantities.

  3. It's not a surprise that face-out books sell better, as they enjoy a sort of spotlight. But what will happen when more and more books get this kind of treatment? Won't there just be too many books for the consumer to look at?

  4. I'm glad you mentioned the co-op question. I too was wondering if that might have entered into the stores' thinking.

  5. I can't tell you how they do things at Border's, but I can say how we at the best bookstore in the United States roll: The majority of the time, we display the books we want to display in the manner we want to display them (sometimes that means facing them out, etc.), then we see if we can add revenue through co-op. Very rarely is a display generated specifically to claim co-op. You'll see it occasionally, but to be honest, they're usually displays that have some relevance anyway.

    I see the logic of Border's strategy, and since I don't have to shop there, I wish them well. But if I lived in a place where great independent bookstores weren't plentiful, I'd probably be upset. It seems like they are conceding that if a title is at all obscure, the customer will probably simply order it from Amazon. It's a little depressing.

  6. I had not even thought about the co-op side of this move. Thanks for the insider's look at this tactic.

  7. Jessica's comment rings true. If most bookstore customers enter the store looking for specific titles, vs. on impulse-buying sprees, this "marketing" strategy is a profoundly dumb idea.

    One could argue that the success of Amazon and the like is attributable to what is essentially its "spined" display — the search results page, with minimal information about each hit. Similarly, one could argue that with a heavily face-out policy, Borders may as well dispense with their convenient "search our inventory" terminals. So so late-20th-century, no?

  8. It should be pointed out that the article states that customers leaving the "experimental" Borders stores felt there was more inventory on display rather than less.

  9. I really like the way Borders shelves their books now – one shelf at eye level with books (featured titles, presumably) facing cover-out, with the books on all the other shelves being spine-out. Even if I'm not interested in the cover-out books, a lot of times they remind me of other books I'm looking for. But increasing the number of cover-out books will probably be too much of a good thing, and will lessen the overall impact of the practice.

  10. The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.

    The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.

    Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.

    If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they'd have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?

  11. I have worked in the UK book industry for many years and face outs are the norm here, and I would suggest are a good idea. Most customers come into a bookshop with no idea what they want, so aiding their selection, particularly if they are time pressed, with key titles faced out gives them an easier choice. A bookshop that does not give any indications to their customers about the books they think are best would seem to me to abdicating their responsibility

  12. Just wanted to make sure everybody saw that Galley Cat has picked up on this post and brought some new info to the table. Oh, and they also mention Max by name!

  13. Wait a minute here. This article makes it sound like Borders is a company, and they're trying to make a profit for their owners! That can't be true, can it? Don't they know people open bookstores because they love books and hate money?

    And the authors who sell more books because of better marketing are going to be REALLY pissed when they find this out!


    (oh irony, thy name is blog comment)

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