From Jane Friedman:
It hasn’t been the best decade for Barnes & Noble, the biggest bookselling chain in the United States. As sales slowly eroded—and Amazon gained dominance—the position of CEO became one of the fastest revolving doors in the publishing industry. Each new leader trotted out a revised “concept store” to revive the fortunes of the bookseller, none succeeding.
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The Nook debuted in October 2009, two years after Amazon Kindle. At its peak, Nook enjoyed sales of nearly $1 billion a year. By summer 2019, in the last public earnings report from Barnes & Noble, Nook delivered less than $100 million in revenue per year, with negative profits.
In acknowledgment of Nook’s failure to compete against Amazon’s Kindle or even Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s chairman at the time, Len Riggio, told investors in 2017, “There is no business model in technology” for the chain.
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In a 2018 podcast from Knowledge@Wharton, a few marketing professors discussed what the future might hold for the beleaguered retailer. Wharton’s Peter Fader said, “They’ve tried lots of different things from devices to experiences to broadening the merchandise. Nothing’s working. At this point, they haven’t found that hook to save the business; nor have they found the vision or leadership to give people any confidence in it.” Wharton’s Barbara Kahn said that while the retailer probably does a good job overall, “The problem is they’re not the best at anything.”
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James Daunt is perhaps best known for spending the last eight years getting the venerable but once shaky Waterstones (with 283 stores) on its feet.
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Early on, when Daunt was asked what he thought of Barnes & Noble on his last store visit, he said, “There were too many books,” by which he meant that featuring the right inventory is more important that stocking a big blur of titles. Back in 2015, he commented to Slate, “My faculties just shut down when I go in there.”
On Sept. 11 of this year, the Book Industry Study Group hosted a conversation and Q&A with Daunt, in which he stressed a local-first selling strategy. Daunt says that if you give booksellers the autonomy to choose and display and curate their stores (rather than making decisions on a corporate level), those booksellers will make sure the books that customers want to buy are in front of them. “Ultimately we will sell more, customers will come into the store more, and publishers will sell more. That is the happy outcome that should reconcile publishers to this [new model].”
However, because of the focus on local booksellers making their own stock decisions, there won’t be any co-op going forward. Co-op is the practice of publishers paying for title placement throughout the chain. It’s a reliable way for publishers to guarantee sales, but it’s also associated with high returns. Daunt said, “Co-op and promo and all of that doesn’t actually work with my way of running things, when one talks about giving stores the autonomy to do what they want. That’s not a form of words. That’s actually meant. Therefore you can’t take co-op.” Daunt said that no store would be required to stock even blockbuster titles like Rage by Bob Woodward (although it would be expected every bookseller would logically want some number of copies).
Furthermore, because of this local-first strategy, a number of longtime buyers for the chain (headquartered in New York City) have been let go. Some of these buyers, such as fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley—once profiled in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “So Many Books, So Much Power”—had been with the company for decades.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
PG says there are a million questions about the future of Barnes & Noble after the pandemic.
In retrospect, Len Riggio picked a pretty good time to sell his controlling interest in Barnes & Noble. The bookstore chain is now owned by Elliot Management. Elliot says the following about itself:
There are a number of elements of the firm’s investment and risk-management activities that Elliott believes are essential to its goal of generating a consistent return to its investors. These elements include an opportunistic trading approach, the creation – not just the identification – of value, effective liquidity management, and managing operational and counterparty risk. The firm employs a value-added global investment approach.
More perceptive readers than PG may be able to discern what Elliot is thinking about its investment in Barnes & Noble based upon that statement. PG cannot.
Some possibilities occur to PG:
- Elliot’s other investments and businesses may have been so badly-damaged by the economic effects of widespread pandemic shutdowns that it has much more urgent issues to deal with than paying attention to or spending any money on Barnes & Noble. One possibility that comes to mind is that Elliot may have to sell itself to another company. Or divest itself of some of its major assets. (Note that this is pure speculation on PG’s part. He hasn’t done any research on Elliot and hasn’t any inside knowledge about what Elliot’s current financial circumstances are.)
- Elliot may apply the greater fool theory and search for someone who will buy Barnes & Noble.
- Elliot may give James Daunt some time to see if Daunt has any book magic left that might work to bring Barnes & Noble back from the dead.
- Elliot may require a huge cutback in the number of stores Barnes & Noble operates, keeping only stores in the most wealthy and book-loving locations and dumping the rest. Choosing this alternative might involve taking Barnes & Noble through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.
On what may be an even more important question – What’s happened to the Barnes & Noble employees that were staffing the stores prior to the shutdown?
- How many experienced bookstore managers have retooled themselves or otherwise obtained other jobs? Other than an unknown number of managers who have been sitting around waiting for Barnes & Noble to reopen, how many managers will decide they like their new jobs more or feel more secure in their new jobs than their old jobs managing a Barnes & Noble store? Will those managers willing and able to return to Barnes & Noble be the best of Barnes & Noble’s managers, the worst or something in-between?
- PG suspects that most of the peons working at Barnes & Noble stores prior to shutdown have found something else to do, maybe something that pays more than they earned at Barnes & Noble. At a minimum, the managers of reopened Barnes & Noble stores will have a big job hiring and training a bunch of newbie employees to avoid driving away early customers who venture into the reopened stores.
The next questions relate to Barnes & Noble customers:
Presumably, many regular purchasers of books who used to patronize Barnes & Noble and other physical book stores and who have not been subject to personal financial stress have continued to buy books.
Where have they purchased those books? Quite likely from Amazon.
PG suspects some percentage of those book buyers have become familiar with how to find books on Amazon, have enjoyed being able to order any book they like and having it delivered to them in one or two days. There may even be a small bit of satisfaction that arises from not having to pay the full retail price as they would if they had gone to a bookstore.
In its typical Amazonian fashion, the Big A has closely watched which books these new customers have purchased and started suggesting other books they might like. Perhaps the new Amazon customers have found some enjoyable new authors and their books via Amazon’s suggestions, including talented indie authors. Maybe Amazon’s suggestions have proven to be better than those they received when they asked a question of a clerk at Barnes & Noble.
One of Amazon’s largest competitive advantages over its online competitors is the extraordinary variety of ways that it helps its customers discover products they might like. There are lots of tools like Also Boughts and sub-sub-categories of books that let fans of Cowboy Science Fiction Romances find more of their favorite reads. Some book purchasers who have taken a deeper than normal dive into Amazon’s book section will become hooked. Amazon’s magic works for fishing lures, cooking utensils and leaf blowers. It also works for books.
Other questions that have occurred to PG include whether any of the Barnes & Noble landlords have gone broke and closed the malls or strip malls where Barnes & Noble stores formerly operated. And, for those landlords who have stayed open, has Barnes & Noble been able to keep up with lease obligations during this period of time or will the landlords be in a position to terminate Barnes & Noble leases and find other tenants?