Barnes & Noble Is Dying, But This Could Save Them
I have complicated feelings about Barnes & Noble.
Their business is failing and I recognize B&N's demise would be catastrophic for readers who have no other physical bookstore at which to shop. Thus, I support the cries to save them.
That being said, I personally despise Barnes & Noble. I find them insufferable on several levels, which I've ranted about on this blog, and avoid giving them my money. Which is unfortunate for them since I read over 100 books a year and buy most of them at full price.
Nonetheless, I would like for some readers to give them some of their money so they don't completely go under. More importantly, I'd like to see Barnes & Noble make a massive commitment to change––to listening to the readers who are their lifeblood so they can design a bookstore experience that actually serves the people they're meant to serve AKA, the people who could keep them afloat.
B&N has a problem with handing down directives from C-suite execs on high who think they know what their customers want, but without actually listening to their customers or the employees who work directly with them. That's a recipe for disaster for any business, but especially one in a competitive marketplace such as bookselling.
One night while reading Andrew Laties' book Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Bookstores Represent Everything You Want to Fight for from Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities and I couldn't help thinking that contained within its pages is everything Barnes & Noble is doing wrong. Inspired by what I read, I filled several pages of a notebook with things I (and I'm sure other voracious readers) would like to see them do to improve.
*A necessary caveat: I'm not a bookseller, nor have I ever been, so this approach is purely from the perspective of someone who shops in a lot of bookstores and, for an individual, spends a good chunk of change in bookstores.
Standardize pricing between your online and retail stores
Look, I'm no fool, so I understand that it's obviously more expensive to run a retail bookstore versus an online store. But imagine how annoyed a customer is when they see the book they want in a physical B&N for $18 and see that very same book on B&N's website for $9. (This has happened to me before, so I can personally attest to the high level of frustration.)
And B&N actually doesn't gain much from this practice because all it does is disincentivize readers from visiting their physical stores. Because once they figure out the prices for the same company are drastically lower online and that, besides the occasional children's programming B&N does little to no in-store activities at most of their locations, why would anyone bother going to the actual retail location? Of course 600 B&N's are closing––no surprise to me there!
If they don't want to standardize pricing across the board, the least they could do is allow employees to give the customers who point it out the online price at the physical store. At least then people will remember the positive customer service experience and will be inclined to visit again.
Speaking of customer service, B&N needs a hell of an overhaul...
I mean, I quit going to Barnes & Noble after 3 rough customer service experiences. And that's not including the time I tried to buy a membership online because I was doing ALL my Christmas shopping that year on their website and wanted the discount and they refused to send me my membership number even though I had over $300 worth of merch sitting in my cart on their website. Nor is it including all the times a cashier tried to push a membership on me before I was ready and I had to say no like four times while just tried to check out.
I've never in my life seen a company that seems to have so little empathy or care so little for what their customers think or feel. And I know if this stuff has happened to me it's happening to other people who shop there as well. I don't blame people for not shopping at B&N. They don't treat people well and they don't fucking listen.
Meanwhile, companies like Disney and Zappos are known for their excellent customer service and they offer trainings on it for other companies who struggle. I would highly recommend B&N take advantage of the opportunities before them.
Then again, they haven't listened to me before, so they'll probably ignore that bit of advice too.
Stop buying the shit that doesn't sell
This should be a no-brainer, but have you ever seen anything more predictable than a B&N clearance section? They're the same in every store: the same cookbooks with juicing recipes, the same pilates how-to guides, the same wire-bound journals, the same activity boxes with origami and string art, the same obscure history books that got lukewarm reviews three years ago.
I've been seeing essentially this same setup in the clearance section for over a decade. You'd think that eventually they'd figure out that this stuff doesn't sell and would find other means of getting rid of it that could benefit them. For example, striking up a deal with a place like Half Price Books that buys similar clearance items at a discount to resell in their stores, or even donating the items to homeless shelters and after-school programs to get a charitable write-off on their taxes.
Then once that floor space is free, fill it with what does sell or use that space for programming that would draw people to the store. And if they need inspiration for programming, they'd do well to look at Books Are Magic and Literati, which are indies that are particularly good at programming (AKA getting people in the door).
Get out of malls
I've never understood why B&N insists on having locations inside malls. Even as voracious as a reader as I am, when I go to the mall, I'm there for clothes and shoes––not to buy books. Buying books is something I prefer to do in my neighborhood or closer to home, whereas a trip to the mall is just that––a trip––something I do a handful of times a year when I need some article of clothing that I can't find closer to home.
Bookstores do a much better job thriving in a smaller, locally based economy (even if they're a chain) than clothing stores. Think about it: mall rents are HIGH and when you break down the amount of money a retail bookstore would have to make on each square foot of space to be profitable in a mall, they just can't compete.
Aside from rare, out-of-print, and some signed first editions, the most expensive book in your typical retail bookstore probably wouldn't cost over $50. And a $50 book is still a rarity because many new hardcovers are between $26 and $35. Meanwhile, you could have a store that has shoes, accessories, and clothing where each individual piece costs between $25 and $350 for your H&M and Belk-type places and $1500+ for your Saks-level stuff. A bookstore would have to sell a hell of a lot of books for every one individual piece a clothing store would have to sell to maintain rent in a mall.
If I were CEO of B&N, I'd be researching what neighborhoods fit the bill for an educated population that enjoys reading, has enough disposable income to buy books and has a sizeable number of people who are childbearing age. Meaning, I'd be looking at neighborhoods that have high numbers of people with at least a bachelor's degree, people making a minimum of $40k a year on average, and where the average age is 25 at the minimum.
If it were me, I'd specifically be looking at college towns that have a decent economy outside the university (so students are incentivized to remain there upon graduation) where you have a high number of people who fit these categories but have reading tastes outside of whatever the campus bookstore or university-connected bookstore offers for classes. I'm talking about smart people who like to read for pleasure. Actually, how I'd begin such research would be to look at the map of Little Free Libraries online. A concentration of Little Free Libraries indicates that people value literacy, have disposable income with which to build and fill the libraries, and have walkable neighborhoods. Cha-ching! There's your target market!
And I get the appeal of malls: that's where large throngs of people who want to spend money go. But people also go to spend money in the economic centers of their town. And while they may not provide as much space as a full-size B&N, there are small, highly curated bookstores that are doing well, so there's something to be said for that.
I happen to live in one such neighborhood and the only bookstore in my zip code is a rare and out-of-print bookstore. Those are great, but they don't have what I'm looking for, so I end up driving across town several times a month to go to indies. These trips across town are anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour round trip. Even as much as B&N annoys me, if they opened a store in my neighborhood (and had decent customer service among other things), I'd support it. As would, I imagine, my neighbors.
Get some positive PR for once
When was the last time you saw something good about B&N in the media? First their sales are falling, then the Nook technology sucks, then their CEO is ousted, then they fire nearly all their full-time employees in their retail stores, then 600 stores are set to close...
I pay close attention to book news and I can't remember the last time I saw something good said about B&N. And considering that people want warm fuzzy feelings about bookstores because it's part of their appeal, image matters. I've got some ideas on how B&N can fix their image problem.
For one, since they're in the business of closing stores, they should only close locations that are not in book deserts. I repeat: ONLY CLOSE THE LOCATIONS THAT ARE NOT IN BOOK DESERTS. That way they can stop losing money on low-performing stores, but there's room for a positive spin. If they only close their stores that are in markets where another bookstore is present, especially an indie, they could frame it as "We understand the value of local, independent bookstores and don't wish to compete with them. Closing our store in this area allows us to focus more on serving populations that are in book deserts so we can bring books to a wider range of people."
Likewise, with store closings comes the loss of jobs and people were extremely unhappy when they laid off the majority of their full-time employees so they could avoid paying benefits. There's no positive spin on that because it amounts to nasty, capitalist greed that stomps on the little people.
However, if they gave a decent severance package and a good stipend for employees that were willing to relocate, they could frame that positively: "While this store wasn't profitable, we believe in rewarding the hard work of the people who did everything they could to keep it going. We reward dedication and service, so we're offering the employees who are willing to relocate a moving stipend on top of their severance package in hopes they'll stay with us and lend their talents to another store."
Stop trying to compete with Amazon
I'm not a fan of Amazon either, but I have to hand it to them: they're smart. Coupled with B&N's other issues, they're a big part of why Barnes & Noble is going downhill fast. Amazon completely disrupted the bookselling industry.
However, B&N has no one but themselves to blame for this because they took Amazon's bait and got into an ill-fated pissing contest. Amazon starts selling books online for as cheap as humanly possible, so B&N tries that too. Amazon makes an e-reader, so B&N does it too. Amazon adds a lot of other non-book things to their inventory, so B&N does too. Amazon starts a self-publishing platform, so B&N does it too.
B&N isn't original: they're just bad results Amazon. And it's what's killing them.
While successful indie bookstores know that highly curated, intimate spaces with good community programming are key, B&N is trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator and can't do it as well as Amazon. Being a loss leader and competing for the lowest prices was a battle they were always fated to lose and never stood to gain anything from.
Dear B&N, you're a BOOKstore. Not a music store, not a toy store, not an electronics store, not a board game store. I'm not saying don't sell things that aren't books because with the publishing industry's standard of price fixing, I realize there's a lot of money to be made on items with higher margins. However, it seems that B&N has forgotten that they cater to readers, so any non-book items should be reading-adjacent.
If you're going to sell music, put the Hamilton soundtrack on sale next to the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton––you don't need a whole music section. If you're going to sell toys, make them fandom-themed only or toys that coincide with children's books––don't just sell Beanie Babies for the hell of it. If you're going to sell electronics, make them things like book lights––no need to have speakers and headphones and such. That's what Best Buy is for. And obviously readers are more likely to be writers, so I understand having a variety of notebooks for sale, but is it really necessary to have calendars and thank you cards and office supplies too? You're a bookseller, not a stationer.
Book nerds are the bread and butter of bookstores, so it would make sense to cater to them rather than trying to be everything to everyone. The Wal-mart and Amazon approach clearly isn't working.
Or if you're going to compete with Amazon, at least look for ways you can beat them at their own game
I'm not talking about being a loss leader and putting other bookstores out of business. What I'm talking about is B&N needs to look for ways that they can wow people in ways that Amazon is simply unable to do or hasn't done yet.
I'll get into all that next week. It's a lot and warrants its own post, so stay tuned!
Are you a current or former bookseller and have differing opinions? I'd love to hear! Share your wisdom in the comments below.