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.

Corporate Responsibility Done Well

JenisTrue confession. I love ice cream. And Columbus is a great place to get good ice cream. Graeter’s, based in nearby Cincinnati is a long time favorite. Handel’s, based in my home town of Youngstown also has a store near us in Powell where we can get really good ice cream like we remember it at a walk up stand.

And then there is Columbus-based Jeni’s which has quickly expanded to a national chain known for its exotic and unique flavors like Salty Caramel and Queen City Cayenne that one can find nowhere else. This is where we often like to take out-of-town friends who we want to give a taste of Columbus.

Jeni’s has recently been in the news over a product recall. Here’s the story in their own words:

We received the call that no ice cream maker, chef, or entrepreneur wants. A randomly selected pint of ours tested positive for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Out of an abundance of caution, we made the swift decision to cease all ice cream production and sales until we can get to the very root of the problem. We are enlisting the help of experts so we can identify the cause, eliminate it, and return as quickly as possible to the business of making ice cream.jeni (from their corporate website

Unlike another major ice cream manufacturer who had apparently been aware of a similar problem for some time, Jeni’s acted immediately. No one reported being sickened. Jeni’s closed all its stores and pulled all its products and shut down manufacturing until they could be sure that no products were contaminated. I’m sure this has cost them a great deal. They have not sold any ice cream since April 23 while they’ve eliminated all sources of the bacteria and revamped their manufacturing process (it is May 12 as I write).

What Jeni’s succeeded in doing is generating huge customer support by doing the right thing, by being so transparent, and by communicating that customers and customer safety came ahead of any financial consideration. This is evident in a post from their Facebook page:

During the past two weeks, we have read every single letter, note, email, comment, and tweet from you. We printed them out and hung them on our walls. We cried together, overwhelmed by your show of support. It has kept us going around the clock when we didn’t think we could work anymore. You are why our company exists. We could never do what we do without you. And we are grateful at a level that words will never be able to convey. So we will try and show you the only way we know, by getting back on our feet and scooping our hearts out for you soon.

*Thank you.*

Love, Jeni

Sure, the cynic will say this is just public relations done well. But we have so many contrary examples, such as auto manufacturers who are sometimes aware for years of safety defects and have to be forced to do recalls by the government. What I see though is that Jeni’s gets what so many forget, even when there is not a product safety issue — that good business will always put the customer first and recognize that customers are why the company continues to exist.

In a recent post, I wrote about a fast food enterprise that seems to have forgotten the customer in at least some of its practices and considered the implications for booksellers (this is a book blog after all!). I’m not sure what the equivalent to a product safety issue would be in a bookstore (although I could see this occurring with some of the non-book items sold in many stores). What I think bookstores can learn from Jeni’s is a relentless concern for the customer with heart. Amazon is relentlessly customer oriented. But what brick and mortar stores can do is not only provide good service but communicate that they really care. This might be hard at times for “bookish” people. Perhaps remembering that the people in the stores to some extent or more, also love books might help!

I learned this morning that Jeni’s will be back on its feet soon. Yesterday, Jeni’s founder, Jeni Britton Bauer posted this on their Facebook page:

It’s been a flurry of activity this past week in our production kitchen. We removed walls, set up foot foaming stations; we now have a conveyor belt! We examined and reworked every single process. Thanks to the team from around the country who made it work alongside the tireless army that is ‪#‎teamjenis‬. We plan to fire this baby up by the end of the week. “Mr. Sulu, stand by to take us to maximum warp.”

I love the Star Trek allusion. Perhaps the appropriate response would be, “live long and prosper.” That’s my hope for these folks and I look forward to doing my part to help that happen!

Review: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

The Everything StoreIt is probably no exaggeration that hardly a day goes by without me having some contact with Amazon. If nothing else, there are usually a few e-mails from them in my inbox. When I’m writing about books, I sometimes link to their listing of the book. I have a library of e-books, many from Amazon on my Amazon Kindle. I’ve ordered everything from books to batteries for my car keys to rice cookers from their website. I guess I’m something of a poster child for “the everything store”.

Brad Stone, a Bloomberg Businessweek writer covered Amazon from its beginnings and gives us a fascinating narrative of both the company and its founder based on insider interviews as well as his long relationship with Jeff Bezos.

The story begins with a child prodigy who never knew his biological father until a few years ago. Years later we meet him working as a highly successful hedge fund analyst for D. E. Shaw as he conceives the idea of an online everything store at the dawn of the internet. He left in 1994 and ended up a year later writing to a former associate to come join him in Seattle to help with a start up he was calling Amazon.com. The rest is history. Tumultuous history.

By Steve Jurvetson (Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Jurvetson (Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of the tumultuousness lies with Jeff Bezos himself who was relentlessly focused on one thing: delivering a great customer experience while scaling up product categories from books to music to toys to most anything imaginable. Stone recounts the harrowing struggles to build an infrastructure capable of providing the service to which Bezos was fanatically committed–from website to fulfillment centers to shipping. Bezos found the investors to buy him the space to trade operating losses for market share, giving him the leverage to relentlessly negotiate the lowest prices from suppliers (a tactic he learned from Walmart). He described his mindset as a cheetah hunting sickly gazelles.

Bezos, like counterparts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, was known for his legendary temper and withering “Jeffisms” but also his honking laugh. He demanded total dedication from his executives and most found it both exhilarating and exhausting to the point of burnout. A forward of a customer e-mail from Bezos with a question mark would bring everything to a halt while a satisfactory resolution was made. Instead of PowerPoints, Bezos demands six page narratives from executives in business meetings, believing that much gets obscured between the bullet points.

He sought to define Amazon not as a retailer but as a technology leader. The creation of Amazon Web Services led to the advent of cloud computing as Amazon realized that its server capacity could become a profit center. And he had the courage to creatively disrupt the core of his business, bookselling, through the Fiona project to develop an e-reader and to pressure publishers to provide 100,000 titles in e-format by the launch date of the first Kindle. Others had attempted to develop e-readers. Amazon figured out how to use cellular service to instantly deliver titles to those e-readers and to provide a selection that made it a viable product that would change the way we read.

While driving companies like Circuit City and Borders into bankruptcy, Bezos wrestled to define the company in “missionary” rather than “mercenary” terms. And his own struggle perhaps explains why so many of us have a love-hate affair with Amazon as well. We love the flawless ease of downloading a book to a Kindle or other device before going on a trip and the wonder of ordering a last minute gift and having it at your door in two days (for free with Prime). Yet we hate that apparent competitive ruthlessness reminiscent of the robber barons that has contributed to the demise of big booksellers like Borders and some of the smaller indie stores as well. And perhaps we don’t like to admit to ourselves that convenience and sometimes price trump principle and aesthetics in our own purchasing habits. Yet we find ourselves fascinated with the person whose genius and relentless drive built this sprawling enterprise out of a website and very limited warehouse space in Seattle.

What is yet more fascinating is the personal dream Bezos’ Amazon wealth helps to fund–a venture called Blue Origin, aiming to develop commercial space flight from a 290,000 acre ranch in Texas. Brad Stone gives us a narrative of a man with no small ambitions, a razor-sharp intellect, and a relentless focus on the person who will consume his product, whether purchased at Amazon.com or read in his recently acquired Washington Post. I came away from this narrative with a deeper understanding of the incredibly fine line Bezos and his company walk between genius and hubris. The question I wonder about is whether Bezos will be able to sustain walking in that tension and living on that edge.

Unsung Heroes

"Washington Dulles International Airport main terminal". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_main_terminal.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_main_terminal.jpg

“Washington Dulles International Airport main terminal”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_main_terminal.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_main_terminal.jpg

Isn’t air travel when “weather events” occur fun? I have a whole variant on Sartre’s Hell that involves websites that don’t work, long periods on hold, frenzied rushes through unfamiliar airports, flight cancellations, mechanical difficulties, and more. I won’t bore you with the details of attempting to fly from Columbus to Dallas and back because you probably have stories that may easily top mine.

What I want to highlight are the unsung heroes in my own saga, the people who provided good customer service, who helped at key points along the way–not to deal with the weather and its affects nor to fix malfunctioning planes–but to make a lousy situation a bit more pleasant and to get me to my destination and back. My big regret is that I did not get the names of these heroes, being absorbed in my own travel woes. But I can at least celebrate customer service done right in three instances over as many days.

The first was on Sunday night when I called my airline after my connecting flight to Dallas was cancelled and there were no alternatives online. Because so many others were in the same predicament, the hold times on the phone were long–I waited 80 minutes. The first thing the rep did was acknowledge this and apologize–probably a standard script but still helpful. Then he graciously and quickly solved my problem, booking me on a different airline which actually got me to my meetings sooner than I needed to be! And it was all done right, confirmed on the itinerary I immediately received and the boarding passes I immediately was able to print from the other airline. Only afterward did it occur to me that all the time I’d been on hold, he’d been getting an earful from an avalanche of customers. None of that came through in our conversation.

The second was a small thing but helped make the difference between making and missing a connection. My flight out of Columbus on Monday needed to de-ice, which delayed us. We were met by a gate agent who not only gave me the gate of the connecting flight but gave me clear instructions of how to get from one terminal to another at Hartsfield in the quickest possible fashion. I made my connection with five minutes to spare.

The third was the customer service rep who helped us last night as my returning connection from Dulles to Columbus was cancelled after a two hour wait due to mechanical difficulties. This was at 11:20 pm. Before midnight I not only had an 8:20 am flight booked to Columbus (even with TSA Pre-check!) but also was checked into a comfortable hotel room with meal vouchers for breakfast. He even helped navigate me through Dulles, which I’d never flown through before!

I suspect that most of these folks probably feel under-appreciated by both the traveling public and perhaps by the airlines for which they work. They are not making big bucks and probably have to scrape in their personal lives to make ends meet. But I’d propose that they are very crucial in a world where our best laid plans are subject to weather and mechanical vagaries.

So I want to sing the praises of these unsung (and unnamed) heroes. And in the future, I hope to have the presence of mind to get their names to let their employers know how well they’ve been represented by these people when they are getting us at our worst. And maybe that will serve as a small reminder that customer service really pays.