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November 26, 2007

Good Deed or Scam? (OT)

Filed under: Barnes & Noble, Bill Bickel, books, charity, Christmas, scams — Cidu Bill @ 7:20 pm

Maybe somebody who works at Barnes & Noble can clear something up for me:

Barnes & Noble stores has special displays of children’s Christmas books by the registers, and they’re asking customers to buy one or more and leave them in a special box to be distributed to needy kids (because in our county there are no needy kids living in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist families; but that’s another matter).

I bought and donated a couple of books, and then I started to wonder: Customers are buying these books at full retail price which means needy kids do get free books, but Barnes & Noble gets their normal profit, which is give-or-take half the retail price of the book — and I wonder whether this special display also makes a good dumping ground for Christmas books that aren’t selling (because how many people are going to be very selective about books they’re giving away to strangers?)

If I’m missing a fact or two that might put Barnes & Noble in a slightly better light here, I hope somebody will tell me.


  1. Back in the early ’90s, Burger King’s ran some commericals in which their CEO (whose name I forget) looked earnestly into the camera and spoke about how concerned the company was about a recent natural disaster (I forget that detail as well). To provide relief, they would be donating $1 for every purchase of whatever their latest sandwich offering was (I definately don’t remember what that was). Of course it just so happened that the particular sandwich they were connecting their “humanitarian” efforts with had been a complete flop. What I do remember is that the commerical ended with a twist on the tagline they were using at the time: “sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules.” I remember thinking yes, especially the rule that says you shouldn’t try to capitalize on the misfortune of others. Just my long-winded way of saying that you shouldn’t bother looking for a better light with B&N, because I’m sure their isn’t one.

    Comment by Robverb — November 26, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  2. While I don’t know anything about this particular promotion, I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb when I guess that you’re not missing facts that would put B&N in a better light. For the simple reason that, did such facts exist, B&N would have been sure to prominently plaster them across their display

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 26, 2007 @ 9:01 pm

  3. I know of a pet food store near me that had a bin near the front door for donating food to the local animal shelters. I heard from someone who worked there that, at the end of each day, the employees would divide it all amongst themselves and/or restock it and get the cost of it out of the register and split it with the assistant manager.

    Since then, I’ve been making donations more directly.

    Comment by brien — November 27, 2007 @ 12:34 am

  4. A fact that WOULD but B&N in a better light would be if they matched your donation by giving a free book to the kids for each book (or every two books or whatever) that was purchased. But you’re right. They still get their profit, and they’re the ones who get credit for donating the books. Clever. Smooth. Sick.

    Comment by Jim M. — November 27, 2007 @ 4:52 am

  5. Yes, but to give them a little credit, B&N also has a program where they set up gift wrapping stations in their stores at the holidays. Different groups can sign up for time slots during which they wrap gifts for customers. The customers give donations as thanks for the wrapping and the donations go directly to various charities (I believe selected by the wrappers with some approval by B&N to make sure they are legitimate–not quite sure about the logistics of that part). B&N donates all the wrapping supplies and the prominent location, customers donate what they feel comfortable with. And wrappers get to help out charities beyond what they could donate directly (often scouts and other childrens’ groups participate)

    Comment by HRM — November 27, 2007 @ 10:47 am

  6. The charity to which the books are being donated likely didn’t have to pay anything to get those books. You didn’t pay more than retail for the books, so B&N must be the one making up the cost. The advertising, stocking, processing and distributing of the books may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but someone had to pay it. Also, would you have donated those books if the display wasn’t there? B&N is supporting the charity by having that display there. They could do more, but at least they are doing something. If you don’t want B&N to profit from it, then next time simply write a check to the charity instead. I’m not in support of what B&N is doing (they should be forfeiting their profit on the books), but in the end they are helping the charity.

    Comment by Ted — November 27, 2007 @ 11:25 am

  7. Barnes & Noble “making up the cost”? That cost is more than covered by the profit they make on the sale of the book — otherwise they wouldn’t be in business.

    Yes they’re helping the charity, but they’re helping themselves just as much. I wonder if they’d agree to pass along to the needy a book I brought in that I’d purchased elsewhere.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 27, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  8. Ted, I don’t follow what you’re saying. The advertising, stocking, processing, and distributing costs, and use of store space, that B&N paid for are significant. But they pay those things for any book they sell, in order to get the profits from selling the book at retail price—which they received in this case, so they’re not “making up the cost” of anything. Bill is the one who made up the cost. B&N made out just as they would with any other promotional scheme.

    If I ran a “business” in which I offered to take $20 from you, and in return, give $15 to charity, I don’t think you’d say “at least Autumn Harvest is doing something.” It’s true that the charity is being helped, but here it’s being helped by Bill, not B&N.

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 27, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  9. Whoops, Bill, your post came up while I was still typing mine. I see I just repeat you, so never mind.

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 27, 2007 @ 12:07 pm

  10. Bill, did you get any indication that the books were marked down? Unless they are selling these books at cost or taking a loss, this is just fleecing. I’m actually appalled and have to wonder what idiot thought up this scheme. Just like you are second guessing your “donations” and talking about it, there will be others and eventually the media will pick up on it. Ohhhhh, not good for B&N’s image.

    Comment by Lola — November 27, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

  11. I can testify about the gift wrapping. We raise Guide Dogs, and my wife has organized the gift wrapping to benefit our club. Wrappers bring their dogs, which attracts shoppers, so the club gets choice time slots. I’ve also dealt with the community relations manager for our local store a lot, for writing groups they support and contests. I think it is at least possible that they donate some of their profit also. The Half Price books near me has a similar program where you buy books for schools, so B&N didn’t invent this. The next time I go into ours, I can ask.

    Comment by Scott — November 27, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

  12. Anyone ask B & N. ?
    I suspect our suspicions are correct but a letter to B & N and a cc to the NY Times might spur
    a charitable response. On the other hand the NY Times might not
    want to embarass an significant advertiser.

    Comment by Frank — November 27, 2007 @ 8:10 pm

  13. I don’t see why this is so bad. My local grocery store has a bin near the exit where one can drop food for the local food pantry. This seems roughly the same. There is no discount on the food one puts in the bin, nor would I expect there to be. Even if the store’s only contributions are floor space and convenience for the donor, that seems worthwhile to me. Many people intend to donate to this and that; the bin helps them turn those intention into action.

    As for the book selection, I don’t think I’d worry too much. I buy all my books online now, but when I bought children books for charity, I tended to get important books from my childhood – “Charlotte’s Web”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – or favorites of my niece and nephews. I can’t imagine any book lover doing otherwise.

    Comment by solarrhino — November 28, 2007 @ 2:04 am

  14. First, Solar, B&N has a special display of “books for needy children.” I have no idea whether you can buy just any book in the store (the “bin” of books that were donated is behind the counter, and not accessable to the public). I suppose they wouldn’t refuse a book that wasn’t from the display, but it would be a rare customer who would even ask.

    In a supermarket, of course, the customer chooses what he wants to buy to donate.

    Second, the profit margin on books is much higher than the profit margin on supermarket food items.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 28, 2007 @ 2:15 am

  15. Actually, the grocery that I mentioned does much the same. During this season, they put out a table with pre-bagged groceries, the top of the bag folded over and stapled shut, with no obvious way to tell what is actually inside.

    I agree that, in both cases, the businesses are benefiting to some degree from the charitable impulses of others. I’m just saying that that is not evil, even if the business does benefit. In the end, it’s up to the buyer: take time while shopping to think of others; grab something at the checkout; or do nothing at all. Personally, I’m “selfish” enough to write checks – that way, I can take donations off my taxes. How evil is that? 🙂

    Comment by solarrhino — November 28, 2007 @ 3:18 am

  16. I’d come down on the side of “not a scam, but by no means generous, either.” All they’re really doing is facilitating gifts from their customers. And it depends on how they’re presenting it–do they hand out the books as a gift from B&N or from B&N’s customers?

    Comment by Mark — November 28, 2007 @ 11:26 am

  17. Solar, the difference is, when you make a charitable donation and take a tax deduction, you’re still coming out behind monetarily. B&N is profiting, and that’s just plain wrong.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 28, 2007 @ 2:54 pm

  18. When I get the occasional impulse to do something nice for someone for a change, I tend to buy the loss leaders, provided it’s something that kids would actually want. This allows me to maximize the value of the money I’m spending, and has the effect of caysing a small loss for the store, which means we are both being more generous than we are accustomed to.

    Comment by arik1969 — December 10, 2007 @ 3:35 am

  19. The program chainwide is available for ANY book to be deposited in the book donation… not just “christmas” titles.

    Also, BN is a RETAIL BUSINESS, not a charity. It’s admirable when anyone does anything to help charity, but first and foremost they are in business for themselves, and that’s okay. No one is forcing any customer to contribute anything.

    ALL businesses take a profit from charitable donations (Christian Children’s Fund, anyone?), so it’s unfair to single out BN for persecution over a common practice executed by more “charitable” organizations.

    Comment by kieryn — December 14, 2007 @ 4:21 pm

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