From full service to self-service

The Government Printing Office will close all but one of its brick-and-mortar bookstores and lay off 45 employees as it becomes an Internet-based information source for government publications and documents.

The move raises questions about the staff's role in providing customer service when so much business is moving online. Many commercial firms have wrestled with these same questions, balancing the interests of walk-in customers with the burden of payroll costs.

Some would say that real bookstores are obsolete in the Amazon.-com era and that the costs of maintaining rent and personnel outweigh any customer benefits. There are, however, those who believe in the experience of browsing a store's aisles and conversing with living, breathing employees.

"There's nothing like going in and looking at a book hands-on," said Melanie Strong, manager of the Seattle GPO bookstore, which is scheduled to close July 1. "The customers can actually have human contact. People like that. It's the quality of service."

Other GPO bookstores closing July 1 include Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and New York.

By the end of September, the 13 remaining bookstores will also close, completing a transformation that began in 2001 to turn GPO into a primarily electronic agency. GPO will restructure its Washington, D.C., bookstore but keep it open.

The financial benefits of operating as an Internet-based information source are clear. In the first year, GPO expects to save $1.5 million, with annual savings expected to grow once closing costs and severance pay for employees are settled, according to Andrew Sherman, director of GPO's Office of Congressional and Public Affairs.

The smaller workforce operating online bookstores is another advantage. Internet bookstores collect $300,000 per operating employee compared to $100,000 per operating employee generated by traditional bookstores, according to statistics from 1998 provided by the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions.

"The public has already voted," Sherman said. "There is a demonstrated preference for accessing information over the Internet as opposed to brick-and-mortar bookstores. The customer service component is all there."

Some companies have found a balance. Borders Group Inc., a global bookseller based in Ann Arbor, Mich., joined the Internet craze in 1998 but did not find the success of many of its competitors.

In April 2001, Borders.com teamed with Amazon.com to create a Web site with greater capabilities and much greater revenue. Although the company has taken advantage of the benefits of selling books online, it has no plans to abandon its traditional stores.

Eliminating brick-and-mortar bookstores would "absolutely be doing a disservice to customers," according to Anne Skinner, multimedia supervisor at the Woodbridge, Va., Borders. She said there is something irreplaceable about the atmosphere of browsing, meeting people or having coffee while looking through the material before buying it.

Officials at Borders' corporate division agree with Skinner. "Studies show that our Borders customers spend an average of 50 minutes in our stores enjoying the experience.... The experience is very much one of destination shopping where customers come to spend time, to explore what's new and to see where their interests take them," said Anne Roman, Borders' corporate affairs counsel.

The loss of jobs is another downside of Internet competition. Seventy Borders employees lost their jobs when the company joined Amazon.com. After the 13 GPO bookstores close, 45 employees will lose their jobs. One-third of these employees have opted for early retirement, and the rest will be given reductions-in-force letters and severance pay.

Such compensation is of little comfort to GPO bookstore clerks such as Barry Bernard of Portland, Ore., who will be unemployed beginning July 1. There was "no effort made to save jobs," he said.

Bernard said he believes in the purpose of the bookstores and feels their closure will take something invaluable away from the community. "I think it's a bad idea. We, actually, as far as I'm concerned, perform a public service."

GPO officials defend their decision, claiming that the evidence suggests there is no longer a need for bookstores. Soon 85 percent of orders will come through the Internet, and in some stores, walk-in traffic has slowed to one customer per hour. Services provided by bookstores can be duplicated by online bookstores or phone orders, GPO officials maintain.

The question remains, however: Has too much been sacrificed in the surge to employ technology and increase profits?

"I have not had a single customer come in [who] has not said we will be missed," Strong said. "They're going to miss us, they need us."

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