Barnes & Noble on the Brink
You know you’ve had a rough time when flatlining is a sign of good health. That’s the news from B&N as same-store sales decreased a mere 0.4% when investors were expecting a 2% decline. Shares rose on the news. The loss of only $30 million this quarter was mostly made possible by slashing the investment in Nook, which B&N plans to divest itself of by next year. The latest Nook tablet is a modified Samsung device, in fact, as B&N has veered from heavily investing in ebooks, swearing them off, heavily investing again, and most recently . . . swearing them off.
I worked in a B&N while in college, and have spent many an hour in their stores as a customer. I’ve also watched them closely as a publisher, hoping they would help grow reading and the adoption of ebooks. In my view, they haven’t done much right in over a decade. Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that B&N used to be the bad boy who knocked the indie bookstores out of business (or the fact that indie bookstores have been on an amazing comeback over the past six or seven years). What could B&N do better? How can they turn this around without becoming a gift shop that has a few racks of books in yonder corner?
The first thing I’d do is bring back the comfy armchairs. Remember those? A big part of my job at B&N was gathering the piles of books left around the armchairs and reshelving them (this task fell just ahead of collecting the subscription insert confetti around the periodicals).
Go to a B&N now and try to find an armchair. They have been removed. Perhaps the thinking was that people were reading and not buying, but that’s never how I used those chairs as a shopper. Sure, I left a stack of books behind (much kinder than reshelving them improperly), but I also purchased a stack of books. As an employee, I watched customer after customer do the same thing. But management saw the abandoned piles without realizing many books on the receipts came from the originally larger piles, and so the chairs were removed. The stores became less of a destination. There was less pair-bonding between shopper and store. Not as much cuddling or foreplay. Might as well sit at home, naked in front of the computer, and go for the dirtier, quicker, and less satisfying solo act of shopping online.
B&N has a long history of making decisions like these that go against the needs and wants of their customers. Shelving books according to paid advertisement is the biggest sin. We used to receive strict schematics called planograms (familiar to many sectors of retail), that instructed us where to place each title on a display. Compare this to the indie bookstore I worked in, where we were able to shelve according to regional tastes, employee recommendations, and actual sales rates. B&N applies the same sort of silliness to their Nook bestseller list, where the books readers want are often forced down to lower rankings while paid co-op space is provided to publishers in order to promote books nobody cares about.
When the customer of retail becomes the publisher, rather than the reader, you have a problem.
Loyalty cards are another issue. These cost a yearly subscription, and being asked if you have one right at the moment of transactional copulation is a buzz-kill. Dreading the pressure of signing up is a great way to block the dopamine release that might get me to come back. It would be like my wife, in a moment of tenderness, asking me if I remembered to take out the trash. No? Well, would you like to? Are you sure? It’ll save you a guilt-trip right now and 20% off any future guilt trip for the next year.
Regular discounts on all books (even if only 10% on paper and 20% on hardback) would have moved much more product than a loyalty card. The indie store I worked in did frequent promotions like this, and the results were obvious. All hardbacks were discounted, all the time. All staff picks (and there were hundreds throughout the store) were as well. Both sets of books flew, as we reduced the incentive to shop online and provided real curation, not bought curation.
What could have saved B&N (and what might work right now if launched immediately and with gusto) is a plan to embrace digital, not just in product, but in customer connection. If B&N offered a free audiobook and ebook with the sale of every hardback, and a free ebook with the sale of every paperback, they could get people through their doors. More importantly, the perceived value of the purchase would go up without impacting the actual cost of the transaction. Buy a book, get some electrons for free.
Except it would be better than free for the publishers and the bookstore. To qualify for the digital freebie, all you have to do is flash your FREE loyalty card. In exchange for the digital wares, B&N supplies the publisher with data on shopping habits. People who bought this book also like that book. And if there’s an author event (I’ll get to that in a moment), the readers who like similar books are notified in advance and invited out.
Speaking of author events, why not have more of them? B&N seems to hate author events. Indie bookshops excel at these. Part of the problem is the ordering system. Have a weekly indie night where a local self-published author supplied their own books—these are then purchased through the B&N till—and the author is given a cash cut on the way out the door. No need to predict sales and stock books or return them. I tried this with my self-published books, and the B&Ns I talked to were unable to process how this would even work. No, they would have to order them in advance and return them. No flexibility or creativity. Meanwhile, coffee shops and art co-ops were able to manage this, and we all made out.
At my B&N in college, I organized reading groups and book clubs. What happened to these? And where are the writing groups or the affiliation with NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNo? Where are the writing workshops? Turning B&Ns into the hub for all the aspiring and published writers in the community is a no-brainer. This is like comic shops having a gaming night. Sure, people don’t spend a ton during these events, but they make the store a hub of their social lives. We reward those hubs. Our lives orbit them.
All it takes is appealing to what the customer wants. Which requires remembering who your customers are. We’re the guys and gals draped sideways over the comfy chairs, piles of books at our feet, heads bursting with all we want to read, and often with all we dream of writing. Cater to us, not the stockholders. Cater to us, not the publishers. It’s what the indie bookstores are doing. And it’s why they’re going to eat your lunch.