Harry Potter and the Order of Stock

Harry Potter mania has come to Exeter. Yes, during a brief trip to the town centre this afternoon, we spied witches, wizards and some extremely cynical shop staff – the latter not so surprising, given the efforts required of them over the past couple of days. But what really surprised me was the lack of stock. We have two branches of Waterstone’s in Exeter. (A stranglehold that prevents the blossoming of any independent shops run by staff who don’t need customers to spell Norman Mailer’s surname when asking for his latest work, but I digress.) In the first branch, my enquiry about whether any Potter volumes remained was met by a polite and amused shake of the head. Only those customers who have reserved a copy, apparently, are able to purchase it today. It was the same story at the second branch of Waterstone’s. Quite extraordinarily – given the amount of dough that publishers are wont to cough up for the privilege – there was a large, empty table in the entranceway.

I struggle to understand how this can happen. On the launch day of perhaps the most anticipated book of the last two years, Waterstone’s Exeter sold their stock by mid-day. Each person who asked for a copy (and there were a couple in front of me) was turned away. Did Bloomsbury deliberately limit the amount that a given store could shift? Possibly, but this seems counter-intuitive. They can’t superificially kick up the value by throttling back demand in the way that Nike or Sony might with a new product. And, in fact, those new products (like the PS3) are more greatly limited by the availability of material resources like silicon. What limits are there on paper?

Overall, the affair is puzzling. As Grumpy Old Bookman has opined, there can be no better demonstration of the oddness of the book trade than Harry Potter: the most sought-after volume in the past couple of years is going to make very little money for anyone other than Bloomsbury.

Two copies were finally purchased in W. H. Smith, which seemed to have anticipated demand rather more accurately than Waterstone’s. Two copies? So my girlfriend and I can read them with squabbling.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

9 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Order of Stock”

  1. Not so surprising – the book has sold far faster than previous volumes, ever-increasing reservations (or pre-orders or whatever you like to call them) as the release approached, while the cut off date for chains et al to place their order passed many weeks ago. They have to get the order as right as possible – despite your preconceptions the publisher don’t pay anything for all the incredible work Waterstone’s and other real bookshops do to promote Harry Potter, and returns are capped at 10%. No shop, big or small, can afford to get their order wrong. The moral is – though as it’s the last book it won’t come in handy – order early, join the midnight queue, and enjoy the whole experience whatever the weather. Bad luck your Waterstone’s had run out – but their lack of stock probably means they did more right than WH Smith’s on the night, who most likely had stock left because fans preferred what Waterstone’s had to offer come the witching hour – more fun, a better price, better looking staff and the like.

  2. Thanks for your comment, anonymous. That’s a good point that the bookshops orders needed to be placed before the hype. The number of reservations can increase while the number of copies can’t, leading to few ‘buyable’ copies on the day. Still, even with a 10% cap for the returns, I’m still surprised that W’s would run out a few hours after the launch. But without the numbers I can’t be sure.

    Obviously, the good-looking staff will be a factor too 🙂

  3. ah, you’re still here! How’s the wrist?

    I noticed a table full of books at the local department store yesterday, narry a wizard in sight. Maybe we just leave it to those daft city-dwellers to get all worked up about a book. (Weather, on the other hand, we get excited about.)

    Is that two different hardback covers or is one a trade paperback?

    My daughter has seen the movies, as she found the books a bit heavy. I’m not allowing her to see the current movie for another couple of years, so she’s having another crack at the books, when we’ve finished ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’.


  4. Thanks, Helen. Actually, my wrist is much worse this morning, which is a bit irritating…I can recommend the books, but you can’t beat the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes!

  5. The book probably cost booksellers around £10 give or take £1 (Bloomsbury usually set HP discount rates across the board rather than differently for each individual customer according to size of order), so any sale close to £10 (W at £9, WHS at £10, Tesco £10, Woolies £9) makes little if any profit, once costs of sale have been applied.
    This year Bloomsbury set a 10% returns cap and HP is like Xmas but with only one book for sale, ‘everyone’ (most of the children and keen adult fans) wants it NOW not next week when the story has been widely broadcast. I’ve heard of 5 Ws,2 WHSs and a Woolies that sold out over the weekend. They could have ordered more, but wouldn’t have made much more money, if at all, many possibly reduced their losses by selling out, and might’ve been stuck with a children’s £17.99 hardback or loss-making last week’s news.

    I’m sure most stores put loads of effort into a brilliant midnight and Saturday, I loved doing the HP nightshift when I worked in a bookshop, but maybe the combination of the returns cap, limited profit (except on HP ‘extras’ sales) and anticipatory fear of lost sales to cheaper competitors and Amazon probably made the Hedwig Offices think less is more in this instance and staff on the front line just have to live with it and deal with the ensuing irritation and ‘humiliation’ (not so bad in the big scheme of things really) of running out on the biggest selling (if not profit) day in history.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Bellulah. That’s a good point about the kiddies wanting the book before the story becomes widely known. But would HP books really go unsold? I dunno.

  7. The husband and I had to have two copies, as well, for the same reason; we read them at the same time though.

    No problem here in the States, at least in Tennessee, with lack of copies. Well, I say that–we got our reserved copies at midnight and they had dozens of unopened boxes left and I’ve seen plenty of copies as I’ve visited bookstores over the weeks. (Used bookstores being the exception).

    I would tease you and expound on the importance of pre-ordering Ian, but twas the last book, so it’s a moot point now.

    (“Try W.H. Smith.” “I did. They sent here.”)

  8. I have to admit that I never fell under the Harry Potter spell. I haven’t read a single book in the series or watched any of the movies and have no desire to at all. I can’t say that they are bad or not worth reading (because I haven’t read them). I simply have no interest in them.

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