Lessons From Barnes & Noble

Lessons From Barnes & Noble

Friday, January 26, 2024, from Floor Covering Weekly

By Jonathan Trivers
Remember when small stores throughout America opened and started to offer this thing called VHS tapes of movies? Wow, instead of going to the movies, you could bring the movies home and watch them on your 13-inch TV.

In our small town, we rushed to the new store. After walking around the store we asked the owner how the movies were organized. His answer: “They are not organized at all; you just hunt until you find something you want.” He thought it was such a marvelous idea to create a treasure hunt for VHS tapes.

That shop was gone fairly soon after its opening, even before Blockbuster wiped out most others in the town. This is a pretty extreme example of a retailer doing what it wanted without regard for its consumer.

On to Barnes & Noble. In 1917, Mr. Barnes went to New York to join G. Clifford Noble — Barnes & Noble. This became the flagship store with 150,000 books.

In 1971, Leonard Riggio acquired the company. The company went on a buying spree. In 1987, the company made its largest acquisition — B. Dalton bookstores. In the 1990s, Mr. Riggio decided to go big and create a superstore, which was bookseller’s words for big box retailer.

And along came Amazon. Barnes & Noble treated this new bookseller just as Sears treated Walmart. Benign neglect. I mean, who was going to buy a book from some website? Sadly for Barnes & Noble, a whole bunch of folks did exactly that. Barnes & Noble was very late getting into some form of online selling and they did a poor job of it anyway.
Amazon introduced Kindle, a non-book, book. Barnes & Noble mocked them and then introduced their own e-reader, but it was way too late.

Barnes & Noble was in a state of tumult. To fend off Amazon, it had closed more than 150 stores amid a series of leadership changes.

Barnes & Noble wiped out many independent bookstores and Amazon almost wiped Barnes & Noble off the map, as it were. Actually they were withering — kinda a fast wither. And then James Daunt purchased Barnes & Noble in 2019. He said, “The old Barnes & Noble had quite a masculine aesthetic,” a style influenced by the “small little band that happened to own the company.” Ouch. The green carpet is gone. Dark wood shelves are no longer in favor.

The renovated stores are bright, super friendly. Mr. Daunt said, “The curious trick has been that if you actually let the local bookselling teams do what they think is best, you suddenly get much better bookstores.” As Mr. Daunt said, “If you just want to buy a book, the guys in Seattle will sell you a book. The enjoyment and the social experience of that engagement with books is in a bookstore. That’s our game.”

We don’t know if Barnes & Noble is going to make it, much less be successful. But we do know they had the good sense to question everything and they came up with two important findings: local is more important than consistency — it is better for a store to reflect its locale than a consistent national look. And second, since books are a commodity (you don’t offer a book with two new chapters that no one else has) the bookstore must be all about the experience.

Jonathan Trivers, a regular contributor to Floor Covering Weekly, is also the author of the marketWise section of FCW’s Statistical Report. He can be reached by email at [email protected].