Chapters under fire

Chapters under fire McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 25, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 09
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Chapters under fire

The deal that allows Chapters to manage the McGill Bookstore is coming under scrutiny in the wake of the store's less than stellar performance in terms of stocking textbooks required for McGill classes this semester.

In his annual report to Senate, English professor Kerry McSweeney, chair of Senate's bookstore committee, stated that the bookstore had only about 70 per cent of the required textbooks in on hand for the first day of classes.

He added that the "leisurely start" of the winter term -- many students skipped classes the first week since it was a short week and they wanted to extend their Christmas break -- helped mitigate the damage caused by the missing textbooks.

By the second week of classes, the situation had improved, but 18 per cent of the required titles were still missing.

McSweeney suggested that a small portion of the blame should go to those McGill professors who are "chronically dilatory" in placing their orders, but most of the problem was caused by disputes between Chapters and its suppliers.

Several publishers have been voicing complaints that Chapters hasn't been paying them for the books they've been sending to the chain. Jeff Swift, the president of Chapters Campus Bookstores, the division responsible for managing the McGill Bookstore, says the problem stems from an unusually high number of returns that Chapters has recently sent back to suppliers and which haven't been processed yet.

What is clear is that the McGill Bookstore got caught in the crossfire. McSweeney says McGill's professors and students "became pawns in a chess game between Chapters and its suppliers.

"This is nothing like the quality of service we were promised when Chapters took over the management of the bookstore."

Responding to McSweeney's report, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) Morty Yalovsky stated that the administration was concerned about the textbook situation at Chapters and has asked the company to provide a detailed report chronicling how it will prevent such problems from re-occurring.

The vice-principal stated that if the situation didn't improve markedly, McGill would reconsider its deal with Chapters and explore other options -- including seeking out other partners to manage the bookstore or having McGill run it again.

Ancillary Services director Alan Charade, whose responsibilities include overseeing the bookstore's operation, echoes Yalovsky's view.

"McGill expressed its feelings about this to Chapters well before the Senate meeting. This isn't the first time these issues have come up, but it will certainly be the last time. Chapters has its marching orders" to improve the way it deals with textbook ordering.

Swift says that won't be a problem.

He characterizes the tensions between Chapters and its suppliers as an unusual situation not likely to happen again.

In any case, Chapters Campus Bookstores will soon have a separate financial structure from its parent company, one that Swift says should shield the division from these sorts of supplier problems in the future.

He adds that a specialized computerized database, connected to both Chapters and its U.S.-based partner Barnes & Noble and updated each night, will allow Bookstore staff to keep closer track of the availability of textbooks.

"I'm very confident there won't be this kind of problem again."

Swift says that under Chapters management, the McGill Bookstore has been a vibrant presence on campus "hosting more book launches and events than any Chapters store in Canada."

And Swift believes Chapters has responded quickly when problems have developed. When long line-ups became an issue at the beginning of the fall term, the bookstore's first floor was rearranged to allow for more cash registers and, more importantly, to enable more customers to wait indoors. "We didn't want people waiting outside in January."

McSweeney says he remains skeptical about how well Chapters is managing the bookstore. "I do think that Chapters isn't devoting as much attention to the bookstore as they did in the early days of the agreement."

Swift suggests changes could soon be in the offing. With the arrival of the nearby Indigo store on St. Catherine Street, Swift is thinking of changing the nature of the McGill store's non-textbook stock. There would be fewer mass market titles and more specialty books in line with the interests of McGill's academic community.

The mention of Indigo raises another topic: Chapters is currently the subject of takeover bids both friendly (Future Shop) and hostile (Indigo). What would a change of ownership entail for McGill?

"We don't know how that's going to play itself out, but I don't think either offer would end up hurting us or the Chapters campus bookstore division," says Charade. If McGill did have qualms about the new owner, it would trigger an escape clause in the contract between McGill and Chapters.

Charade says McGill can also opt out of the deal with 90 days notice if it loses faith in how Chapters is managing the bookstore. "If they can't give us the comfort level we need, we'll explore our options." The key will likely be how well Chapters deals with the next textbook rush in the fall.

"In general, except for issues related to the timely acquistion of textbooks, I would give them a passing grade, maybe a B plus," says Charade.

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