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January 25, 2005

Excerpts: Category Killers - The Declaration of Indpendents

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 5:13 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Competent, creative independent retailers dont need to use resistance tactics in order to survive. These merchants understand that, to compete successfully, they must provide something that customers cant get anywhere else. To run a specialty store that successfully competes with category killers, you have to specialize to an even greater degree. Small, independent booksellers are another category of retailers that need to find a niche if they hope to survive.
In the late 1990s, the ABA filed a federal lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders, alleging that the chains used their buying power to get betterand allegedly illegaldeals from publishers, such as cash discounts and better credit terms. The suit was eventually settled out of court, but whatever the result, independents that have not clearly established a reason for being will continue to be on the endangered retailer list.
The problem with many small independents is that they got into the business because they loved booksnot necessarily because they loved selling books. One bookseller who both loves books and loves selling books in a creative way is Collette Morgan, co-owner, with her husband Tom Braun, of the childrens bookstore Wild Rumpus Books in Minneapolis. In 1992, Morgan, a veteran of the book business, decided to open a store that would be something a corporate mind would never dream up and that a large company could never sustain; a place that would sell children a good time along with their reading material.
Morgan is often asked to speak to fellow owners of small bookstore owners. I tell them to stop bitching and complaining and get out there and do something different. Too many of them want to do things the same way as the big-box stores; then theyre dead in the water. We do things they cant do or wouldnt dream of doing. B&N guys in suits would come into the stores with clipboards taking notes. They were obviously trying to copy things that we were doing but they couldnt pull it off. They are too corporate minded. We try to do the opposite of what a B&N would do.
Wild Rumpus is two thousand square feet of bookstoreand zoo. While borrowing its name from a phrase in Maurice Sendaks book Where the Wild Things Are (the character of Max declares Let the wild rumpus start), the store design was inspired by Anne Mazers The Salamander Room in which a boy transfigures his bedroom into a place where his salamander would be comfortable. The lad gradually brings into his room trees, frogs, and birds, and opens up the roof to the sky.
The front of the store conjures up images of an English neighborhood bookstore. The front door of Wild Rumpus is really a door-within-a-doorone for big people and a four-foot-high purple door for little people. The ceiling opens to expose the sky above the garden. Children can settle into a little shed where they can curl up to read scary books. Resident animals are all over the store: four cats and two chickens (Dalai and Elvis) roam the floors; a half-dozen occupied bird cages are scattered throughout the store; gray rats are confined to a clear Plexiglas-covered cage, which doubles as the creaky floor of the Haunted Shack, where little boys come to play and to watch the rodent entertainment. Separately caged tarantulas and ferrets hang out by the counter. An aquarium of fish can been found in the bathroom behind the one-way mirror, so that they can only be seen in the dark.
By creating an inviting place, Morgan has found a way to create traffic and make Wild Rumpus a destination store in the urban Linden Hills neighborhood of south Minneapolis, where, within ten miles, there are six Barnes & Noble stores, three Borders, a Target, and a Musicland. On Saturday afternoons, Wild Rumpus regularly hosts a wide variety of typically quirky in-store events to attract its loyal audience of young customers. Drop in some Saturday, and you might see the shearing of a sheep, and a display of books on how to raise sheep or how to card and dye wool or how to knit.
Category killers are forever trying to be part of the community and to show that they are being good neighbors and corporate citizens. The big boxes can do this to some extent, working with local groups on community clean-ups or sponsorships. But small independent stores can also do this because they are truly a part of the community.
Wild Rumpus works closely with community organizations. We would rather devote our energies to community outreach, rather than opening up another storefront location, said Morgan. The store has had a long-standing association with local pediatricians, selling them the childrens books that are available in their offices. Learning that schools in the Twin Cities were increasing courses in French classes, she increased the number of French-English titles available in the store.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and its Impact on Consumer Culture by Robert Spector. Copyright 2005 by Robert Spector. All rights reserved.