And the cost of doing business with the Marine Corps Exchange
Much buzz was about in the fall of 2012 when Mrs. Amos’ First Lady of the Marine Corps (FLOTMC) Recommended Reading List launched for family members. After all, the Commandants of past have held a recommended list of books for years. It was immediately applauded and celebrated by not only families in the Marine Corps community, but other services as well. Mrs. Amos stated that she was “humbled by the enthusiasm.”
Amos selected a handful of books based on a committee of military spouses to help families navigate military life and highlight military spouse authors.“These authors do not write these books because they think they’re going to make a lot of money.They write these books because they have a story to tell… because they have a life they are proud of to share with others,” said Amos.
A second list was announced in the fall of 2013 and it was hoped that the program would continue alongside the Commandant’s List for years to come.The program met its end recently when new leadership arrived and the Exchange told Mrs. Dunford they weren’t making a profit. In fact, it was actually costing the Marine Corps money to print bookmarks, posters, and other promotional materials.
Many were shocked when they heard the news, including author Mollie Gross, whose book Confessions of a Military Wife, made the list. She said, “I am shocked and disappointed to hear the reading list will be discontinued as it fueled so much positivity in the community, not just for military spouse authors to promote their works, but also because it provided resources for those on the home front.Many book clubs and groups began because of the reading list; it brought women together and started conversations in the community.”
Here’s where the situation gets sticky. Originally the Exchange wasn’t going to agree to carry books supporting the FLOTMC Recommended Reading List, because many of the books came from small publishing houses. They were not willing to work with those houses directly.The first year, the Marine Corps Association handled orders from the smaller publishers, but the Exchange was not happy with MCA’s terms.So for the second year, the Exchange wanted to work with only their major distributor, which would limit the list to books by major publishers.
Elva Resa Publishing, whose founder is a Marine wife, stepped up to volunteer as a distributor for small to mid-size publishers and self-published authors, building on its existing relationships with those publishers through its online store, MilitaryFamilyBooks.com. Due to the Exchange’s discount and returns policy, Elva Resa realized it wouldn’t make any money in the deal, but wanted to support the military community and give those authors a chance to be featured in the Exchange.
Some Exchanges fared better than others and most of the time it simply came down to store managers knowing how to place and advertise the books. Most of the time, all the books were simply placed in the book section, with several store managers citing “headquarters restrictions” on what they could do. One book in particular, My Daddy is a Marine written by Marine Spouse Alia Reese, is the perfect example of a book that sold well when placed in the children’s section or ‘hero section’ of the Exchange with other “pride” items, since it’s more than just a book, it’s a customizable photo album for young children.
Alia and other authors reported successful signings at Exchanges that promoted and held the signings at the front of the store and in connection with other base events. Other Exchanges held signings and placed the author at the back of the store and didn’t let anyone know they were there. In one case, a book signing had been arranged and the Exchange ordered 100 of the wrong books. They then returned 80 of those incorrect books to Elva Resa, damaged and nonresalable.
Overall, the Exchange has returned a staggering number of books to Elva Resa, many haphazardly thrown into a box without packing materials, with damaged corners, bent spines and other wear and tear from shelf stocking. Some books were written on with Sharpies. Since these books were not resalable (even the Exchange wouldn’t accept their own returns when they reordered the same books), Elva Resa was left with no choice but to donate these books to various FRG groups and absorb the cost.
Elva Resa wasn’t planning on making a profit in this venture to support military families, but didn’t foresee the vast amount of returns. They tried early on to guide the Exchanges with various ideas and offered suggestions based on two decades of insider knowledge of selling and promoting books. The Exchanges weren’t interested.
Fast forward to today. With the close of the reading list program, the Exchange decided to no longer carry the books in their stores. Rather than promote the existing inventory at the holidays or put the books out front to sell through, the Exchange sent notice it plans to return approximately $10,000 worth of books to Elva Resa, an amount that would devastate the small publishing house. Some of these books are still on the shelves and some are in the back of the stores waiting to get shipped back to Elva Resa.
Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, publisher at Elva Resa, sent a note to customers this week who may be considering a purchase of these books, asking them to please go to their local Exchange to buy the remaining inventory rather than purchase from other sources, simply to try to minimize these returns. MCX headquarters granted her a two-week window for customers to buy the books before they are shipped back.
“We could all do the right thing here,” she says. “If the Exchange ships back all those books, it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the families, authors, or publishers. And even MCX loses more money in the cost of shipping back the books. If, instead, the Exchanges put the books out front and center to allow families to easily purchase the books, and if our customers will buy these books from their local Exchange in the next week or two, everyone wins. Marine families get great resources, the Exchange doesn’t lose more money, and Elva Resa minimizes the loss to our business.”
What really corrupted the First Lady’s Recommended Reading List? Certainly families were purchasing books, but in this girl’s opinion—I attended several of the signings—it appears to be poor management and implementation of the program by the Exchange.
If you live near a base and can purchase a book, please do so. If you don’t need the book, consider donating it to your local library, school, or a family in your unit who could benefit. Ask your local MCCS or MWR manager to buy a handful of books. If you don’t see the books on the shelves, ask the store manager (some stores have already taken books off the shelves to return but could go in the back and get the book for you). Let’s gather together and help this Marine Corps spouse’s business out so that she doesn’t have to eat these outrageous expenses. Consider it your random act of kindness for the day.
What are your thoughts on the program ending? Did you attend a book signing or purchase books from the Exchange? Please share your experiences.