Does Barnes & Noble Need to Think Like an Indie?

512px-Barnes_&_Noble_Fifth_Ave_flagship

Barnes & Noble former flagship store, closed in 2014. By Beyond My Ken (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses-SA/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Barnes & Noble just fired their CEO, Ron Boire, hired just over a year ago, as sales figures for the chain continue to decline, attributed to store closings, poor NOOK sales, and declines in sales at BN.com. At the same time, Barnes & Noble is experimenting with “concept stores” with larger cafés that serve alcohol.

I wonder if Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking much more like the indie booksellers, who are actually opening stores, seeing at least modest sale increases and are surviving the greatly exaggerated “death of reading.” First of all, I don’t think they are ever going to compete with the uber online bookseller. That despite the fact that BN.com has, in my opinion a much cleaner look and integrates well with its local stores, where you can order an item to be reserved in your local store (if it is in stock) and pick it up in an hour. Prime Now, which involves a Prime subscription and will deliver in two hours to homes in many areas has very limited selections in books eligible for such delivery, although they offer many other items not available through BN.com.

From all I can tell, indie booksellers work hard to draw people into their stores, particularly repeat customers. It seems that there are several key components to this:

  • Quality service from booksellers who love books. These are people who help you find a book, call you when a book you might like is in their store, and recommend books that fit your reading tastes. There are some of us who find the human touch much more appealing than an algorithm. I have to admit, the booksellers I’ve dealt with at our local Barnes & Noble stores have fit this description in many regards, although it seems I rarely deal with the same person twice.
  • Author events. Surveying our local Barnes & Noble store websites, only one of the stores in my area had any author events scheduled. This store had three posted between August 18 and mid-November 2016. The other events at all stores were events for children–a lot of events for children. I will give them credit for encouraging youthful readers, but what about events for teen readers, for young adult readers, for graphic novel readers? What about events for plain old adult readers?
  • Host book clubs and help launch and source community-based groups. According to a Publishers Weekly article, such groups have been an important part of indie stores bottom line. I could not find any evidence of efforts to encourage book clubs on local Barnes & Noble store websites, nor have I seen this in stores.
  • Host other fun reading events. Admittedly some stores have capitalized on parties around the latest Harry Potter release. Silent reading parties have become trendy in some places, a place to go and read quietly with others, perhaps with wine and cheese (which may be part of the idea for stores serving alcohol and having expanded cafés).
  • Use the web and social media not just to sell stuff but to relate to customers. Many indie stores, particularly used and rare stores in out-of-the-way places have a significant percentage of sales online. I think of one store I’ve ordered from on several occasions in an out-of-the-way part of eastern PA whose owner I’ve interacted with regularly via blogs and Facebook because of shared book interests. I’m a customer because of those interactions and even promote (with no personal benefit) his store on this site.
  • Give managers and booksellers a stake beyond just keeping their jobs. For indie sellers, this is their livelihood, lucrative or not. I could not ascertain from online searching whether Barnes & Noble provides any kind of sales or profit-sharing incentives. With that, I would also give a certain amount of creative latitude to these folks to market to their particular community’s needs and interests. There should be rewards for creativity and hard work beyond salaries or hourly wages, if it benefits the bottom line.

I don’t know what to say about Nook. It strikes me as the Betamax of the e-reader world–superior in many respects to Kindle in both hardware and software aspects, but a loser in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is the leveling off and decline of e-sales in general. Unless they can create the marketing cachet enjoyed by Apple products by combining elegance and technology innovations, I personally think they need to cut their losses and support existing e-readers and users of their phone and tablet apps.

I’d like to see Barnes & Noble make it. They occupy a niche distinctive from used bookstores as the only seller of a deep and wide selection of new books physically accessible in many communities. I just hope that they will decide to focus significant attention on the core of their business, and not just on fancier cafés. The indie sellers seem to understand that outstanding customer service and relations are key to their survival. I hope Barnes & Noble has not gotten too big to understand the same.

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