Barnes & Noble, once an indie killer, is losing out to mom-and-pops

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images
Feb 27, 2018
Matthew Stern

The most recent chapter in the story of American bookstores has taken a surprising twist. Barnes & Noble, one of the main players in the wave of market consolidation that once threatened the future of indie bookstores, is now losing share to mom-and-pops.

Barnes & Noble is eliminating store positions and changing its labor model in an effort to cut costs, according to MarketWatch. And Amazon.com isn’t the sole reason for the big box bookseller’s continued slip. Dan Cullen, a representative for the independent bookseller trade group, American Booksellers Association, said that independent bookstores are undergoing a resurgence and experiencing consistent growth. In 2017, sales at indie bookstores were up 2.6 percent year-over-year. Barnes & Nobles’ sales, meanwhile, dropped 6.4 percent over the holidays and online sales dropped 4.5 percent.

Throughout the 1990s, big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders came to be seen as the scourge of independents, offering assortment and price that mom-and-pops couldn’t compete with. Then came Amazon with ultra-low prices and unprecedented product variety to undercut the big boxes.

The mid-2000s saw the advent of e-readers, which had tech buffs speculating that both physical books and the bookstores that sold them were going the way of the dodo. But e-books are widely regarded to have peaked. Sales have plateaued if not declined, a trend that at least one major global publisher, Hachette Livre, has said shows no sign of turning around, as The Guardian recently reported.

In a post-big box retail environment, mom-and-pop bookstores are demonstrating big advantages that a chain like Barnes & Noble would have trouble matching.

Indie bookstores can cultivate a sense of community and, in turn, a type of loyalty that customers don’t feel for chains. And in terms of operations, indie bookstores can move more dynamically, partnering with other businesses in the local retail community for promotions, running events that cater to the specific interests of their customers and tailoring their assortments based on what their customers want. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is there still a place for a big box bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble? What steps will Barnes & Noble have to take to remain successful with Amazon on one side and local bookstores on the other?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Barnes & Noble may succeed online, but I think the era of the big box category killer is winding down."
"It does bear mentioning that Barnes & Noble partnered with Starbucks to create a retail experience — experiential retail was a thing."
"Big box bookstores can survive by imitating the communities created by indies. Apple has done this in its new stores with its Town Square approach."

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38 Comments on "Barnes & Noble, once an indie killer, is losing out to mom-and-pops"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

In its current form, Barnes & Noble will not succeed. Barnes & Noble needs to offer something that others do not; it needs to create a value proposition and store experience that shoppers can’t get anywhere else and until it does that, it is destined to fail – slowly and painfully. It’s not clear to me what the answer is, but the current trajectory is most certainly not an interesting one.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Community and lifestyle affinity are really a big thing today. Barnes & Noble may succeed online, but I think the era of the big box category killer is winding down.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

Agreed, Paula. Indies have the upper hand when it comes to connecting with the community, partnering with local authors and groups, and offering a more curated selection. All of which are increasingly important today.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

I couldn’t agree more Paula! While e-readers are ubiquitous these days, consumers still enjoy going to their local bookstore and connecting with their local communities, as well as with indie authors. The one-stop shop concept and being everything to everyone is not necessarily the winning ticket.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Agreed, if you want a category book killer you go online now first, and then open a few strategic showrooms. If someone is looking for niche books and to support the local community, they go to independents. Unless B&N can reinvent itself into a network of independent book stores catering to local needs, I don’t see a book big box category working any more.

Jennifer McDermott
Guest

I’m happy to see mom-and-pop stores on the uptick, but don’t believe a Barnes & Noble closure is around the corner. At least not judging by the lines at my local one! I think they do a fine job of engaging customers through community events and outreach programs, and have the scale to implement positive changes quickly.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

This is where the principle of “making the problem the answer” comes into play.

What if Barnes & Noble became the champion of mom-and-pop bookstores? What if they provided the whole range of backroom services to thousands of independent bookstores and we never saw the Barnes & Noble name again? This would support Paula’s concept of “community and lifestyle affinity” as the driving force in this sector.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
1 year 6 months ago

They’re going to have to adapt and change. (It’s like they don’t read RetailWire!) It’s not enough to sell books, just like it’s not enough to simply sell anything. If they want to compete, they need to give the consumer a reason to go to their stores.

Indie retailers are curating books, running book clubs/kids reading circles and so much more. Indigo, the Canadian equivalent to Barnes & Noble, has made sure that mom has a whole section of experiential houseware accents to shop from while her children are at storytelling time.

The sad part is, Barnes & Noble has the space to make these moments experiential — they’ve just got to stop trying to be ordinary.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking like an indie bookstore. Instead of cutting store positions they should be cutting executive positions, lowering executive salaries and bonuses and investing in reinventing their stores.

Bring in events that will attract and appeal to customers, local events that are community-based and tie into the local school districts. Have book promotions, writing contests, more book signings, author speaking engagements, workshops and creative programs that motivate the local customer. Rather than reduce store positions, increase them with trained specialists that can “wow” customers with their knowledge and ability to make customers feel like they don’t want to leave. Stop thinking like the big box bookstore and make the business more customized for the local customer and Barnes & Noble will have great success.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Barnes & Noble is probably the best example of retail laggardness in the digital age, even beating out Sears.

Arguably the biggest name in bookselling in 1995, when the shot heard round the retail world was fired (essentially aimed right between their eyes), they missed it. Management was stuck in the big box expansion mode of the ’80s and ’90s. They lost their music business, tried to play catch-up with dead-in-the-water attempts like the Nook, and now are missing out on the full circle resurgence of local, personal, community, and/or specialized bookstores. Being tied to malls is not too cool anymore either.

It’s hard to hold out hope for them. So many chances for differentiation and innovation were missed. Although Amazon still sells plenty of books, the brand is hardly thought of by consumers as a bookseller. That should be an opportunity, but with Audible, iTunes audio books, and the independents squeezing from all sides, they seem to be suffocating.

Charles Dimov
Guest

Definitely, there is room for a big box bookstore chain like Barnes & Noble. However they need to be extremely effective at omnichannel retailing. This line of business competes head on with Amazon — which provides no easy trails. Barnes & Noble has an opportunity to become relevant by offering what Amazon is still struggling to achieve (in-store pickup dominance). As of today, a customer still does not have this option at Barnes & Noble either. It all starts with an order management system to build a converged (unified) commerce solution that can get them up and running fast. The opportunity is now.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

My recent customer service interactions at big box bookstores would indicate that retraining associates to look up from their screens and engage with shoppers would be a critical first step in changing the experience for the better. A second step might be to declutter the store of all the gifts and souvenirs in order to gain some space for shoppers to explore the books without being on top of one another!

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

By building alliances and closer ties with their local communities, Barnes & Noble will have a chance to survive and thrive in this new retail world. It’s fascinating to see that consumers are flocking back to the mom-and-pop corner bookstore, whereas 20 years ago, Barnes & Noble caused such a disruption with their big box and coffee model. Retail is relentlessly changing, and what worked 15 or even a few years ago will not be very effective today.

The new smaller-scale and curated Barnes & Noble seems to be the right road ahead. Similar to Amazon Books, less should be more for Barnes & Noble.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust
Mohamed Amer
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
1 year 6 months ago

When you break through all the noise, you either have a low-cost business model based on scale or a highly agile differentiated offering that is difficult to mimic. The previous moat for Borders and Barnes & Noble withered away with the advent of Amazon’s online/digital business model and redefinition of value and convenience for consumers.

An approach for Barnes & Noble is to integrate each location with the community it serves and to bring personalization into the store. This means understanding book title demands by location and market, their customers’ activities online and offline and differentiating their stores into an experiential theater of the imagination. Models for labor content and IT investments will follow from the strategy.

This could lead to creative partnerships with non-conventional digital publishers, local authors, artists and makers, as well as exploring the intersection of digital radio and connected TV in a new business model.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

To anyone who shops for books, this is hardly surprising.

While customer service at Barnes & Noble is good, it isn’t as personal as that found in many independent bookshops.

However, it’s the store environment that’s the real killer. Most Barnes & Noble stores are rather shabby and full of random products that have little to do with books. And sticking in a down-at-heel Starbucks that is nowhere near as good as Starbucks’ stand-alone stores does very little to lift the atmosphere.

Most Barnes & Noble stores are out of the way, and there is no reason for people to drive to them when they are so uncompelling. Comparatively, many independent booksellers are local and convenient.

Books is a tough category, but Barnes & Noble does itself no favors.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Having a pulse on localized tastes and interests (and planning readings and events around those preferences) is part of the reason for the revival of independent bookstores. And consumers have lost their appetite for big-box shopping, if the Toys “R” Us saga is any indication. But Barnes & Noble is not doomed as long as it uses data in support of a localization strategy (or ramps it up), and as long as it weeds out dying categories (music and movies) at a faster clip.

Joy Chen
BrainTrust

Barnes & Noble needs to provide an experiential component to modern bookstores. It needs to provide something more than just books and low prices to compete. There is a place for a big box bookstore, but the game has changed.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Authentic vs. commoditized. Mom-and-pop versus commoditized. Amazon.com is virtual and a whole other business model. Amazon bookstores are small and rather intimate, laced with the ability to touch Amazon technology. Barnes & Noble is a bit cavernous, with random associates available to assist and lots of generic-type sale books. Another time, another generation, another mood. Barnes & Noble may be too big to go small and authentic.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

Books are alive and well but that has to be a curation element to their discovery and Barnes & Noble has missed the boat. Has anybody seen the amount of subscription services there are for books? At last count, I think there were close to 30. They of course won’t all last, but there is clearly a unique passion for books and, to Ken’s point, Barnes & Noble seems to have missed every trend since 1995.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

This news is just further evidence as to how much experience matters in today’s climate. Personalized, communal and consistent experiences are winning out over the more homogenized experiences of the big box store. As many others have commented, this comes as no surprise to anyone watching customer dynamics shift toward meaningful experiences versus convenience and (overwhelming) selection.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

It does bear mentioning that Barnes & Noble partnered with Starbucks to create a retail experience — experiential retail was a thing. Still, the learning curve seems to be too slow for Barnes & Noble to stick around much longer without immediately undertaking a major overhaul of their business practices.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Big box bookstores can survive by imitating the communities created by the indies. Apple has done this in its new stores with its Town Square approach. Barnes & Noble would need to reach out to the indie community and provide services that would entice the readers to come to their stores — book clubs, lectures, idea exchanges, etc. To compete against Amazon, Barnes & Noble needs to provide either unique products, better service and book knowledge or both; having better offerings than what Amazon can provide online.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

This is a little like “Mission Accomplished” – much too early to say indies are putting Barnes & Noble out of business. As I wrote this past week in How to Create Loyal Retail Employees, their blanket firing of some of their most engaged employees was a huge misstep. But as we move to a more video-centric life, the story is hardly written that Barnes & Noble is gone and indies are profitable.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Barnes & Noble used to be the disrupter to smaller mom-and-pop retailers. They were big and seemed to be almost everywhere. Over the years they have reduced the number of stores, opening up the chance for the independent to gain some traction. The independents do have the advantage of being “local.” Take a look at how independent hardware stores, like Ace Hardware, have competed against the big box stores who can literally move in next door. The community connection is just one advantage the local mom-and-pop/independent bookstores have.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

In the current age of personalization, shoppers want curated discovery as a key part of their in-store experience. Barnes & Noble fails on all counts to deliver on this experience today — but they can still change.

Somehow, they have missed what is happening in the resurgence of local businesses and bookshops. Barnes & Noble should use their scale to deliver the same curated merchandise, add local events, support book clubs, etc. in each of their locations — tied to the local community. The same plan that works for those independent booksellers will work for Barnes & Noble but they will need a different type of store manager and, dare I say, a different type of executive to execute on this plan.

Liz Crawford
Guest

To be a big box category killer, you need a big box. A big box is walked. A big box can’t specialize in every category. These conditions set the stage for category killers. These offer depth of array and a relevant, boutique experience.

Contrast these conditions with etail, which isn’t walked, and can specialize in anything through aggregation.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Can you imagine, a successful (smaller) retailer with no AI, mobile app, or personalization engine surging and threatening the big guy? Maybe time for “Sleepless in Seattle” the sequel….

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
1 year 6 months ago
I’m not going to try to answer your question, but I thought I’d add a few recollections — a footnote on culture. I worked at B&N in the mid ’90s on a project to build an inventory management system that ran at the store level — Len Riggio, founder of B&N wanted a way to localize the mix. I remember an exchange where he said: “My competitor is not Borders, it’s Loews Theatres, I want to be the Friday night option.” Also, during a walk through the store, upon seeing a group of college kids with book bags, he said: “This is good, I am part of their life ritual.” There’s more, but the point is their DNA was not bean counting, it was experience (see the quote below.) I wonder what would have happened if they didn’t sell books on Trinet/Prodigy in the 1980s — would they have responded earlier when the net was commercialized? The moral of the story: retail reflects culture and culture is a moving target — especially when something as… Read more »
Al McClain
Staff

But, Vahe, at some point they lost their way and the stores became run down, and they removed many of the comfortable chairs for fear that customers would linger too long. Nowadays, on my rare trips to B & N, I rarely see a place to sit.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
1 year 6 months ago

Thanks for responding Al. There were many moving parts and perhaps Len should have spent less time with GameStop and more time on B&N. If they focused on the store would they have retained more book lovers? How about the Nook? To be sure, there are many others who have better hold on the forensics, but what you are saying is so fundamental, short the stock when the store quality and experience metrics go below the 200 day moving average.

David Fannin
Guest
1 year 6 months ago
Barnes & Noble, has never been able to reconcile their sales per square ft. They took seating out of the bookstores to direct customers to their cafes, to fill those empty seats. They still sell “discount cards” as a lazy way to increase their gross profit margin per transaction. They still have gifts and cards to increase items per transaction, but those categories have been decimated by online ordering and email. These are all ideas from the late 1980s. What B&N has changed for the negative, is their customer service levels. They have fewer associates on the floor. The customer service desk in their stores is usually empty of employees. They just laid off over 1800 people with over 5,000 years of bookselling experience. Is that customer or employee centric? Hopefully, all those smart people B&N let go will open bookstores that have the right customer service to employee ratio needed to be profitable. Because bookselling is really all about positive human interaction. Everyone should visit Tattered Cover in Denver — you will see what… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

A feel good story — at least from the perspective of indies — but I’m skeptical: most of the time that I see stories about local stores in my area it’s that they’re struggling … or worse. Is it possible the 2.6% y-on-y is just a blip? Or just the effects of consolidation?

As for B&N, they seem to have the worst of all worlds — price-slammed by Amazon but lacking the atmosphere or adaptability of local stores; and with Borders now gone, they have to absorb declines in the (national) book market all by themselves.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

We’ve seen a similar resurgence of sorts working with independent pharmacies, also. It’s their specialization and personalization that sets them apart and allows them to shine. If I were reinventing Barnes & Noble, it would begin with three questions in mind: 1) What customer am I really serving (and why)? 2) Could I make the experience within Barnes & Noble better/different/customized/memorable? And 3) How could I curate something in such a way that each guest feels unique, individualized, and special? I’ve specifically got ideas about curation in the book selling space that would reshape the experience. And catering to the needs of consumers MUST begin with a shopper’s perception and their experience — not the retail operator.

Judey Kalchik
Guest

Barnes & Noble can and will succeed when it taps into the knowledge and connections created by the store teams.
Individuals and store teams have successfully connected with their communities, encouraged local authors, teachers, clubs, and readers.

It is feasible to create the “third place,” and there is room for a larger footprint than can be sustained by many independents.

It will take trust on the part of corporate leaders to partner with the front line … and the existing (and often tenuous) trust has been severely strained due to the layoffs of “the 1800” recently dismissed employees. Those that are left are struggling to create new processes, fulfill existing workload, and re-frame their working environment.

In order to succeed, true partnership and communication must take place, and B&N corporate must demonstrate a willingness to be transparent with their store teams.

Min-Jee Hwang
Guest

Barnes & Noble needs to tap into experiences. Shoppers might not want or need a new cook book every month, but what about a cooking class with a well known chef to get community members into stores? I think Bares & Noble could have success going the route of Nordstrom Local and making their stores an even more enjoyable place to hang out and buy services that relate to their core offerings. Barnes & Noble needs to learn from the ways of indie retailers in order to stay relevant, because engaging in a price war with Amazon won’t gain them any victories.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Wow, I cannot believe that we are having this discussion. Ebooks are current, and the future. Go to any college campus, ask any publisher, look at the online book sales of Amazon. This is so obvious. The fact that ereaders are not growing is because the way that people read, watch and communicate has shifted to the mobile phone.

Barnes and Noble’s days are numbered unless they focus on other markets, and cross-pollinate their target audience to different products for the people who come into their retail stores. Books are great. There is a limited place for books and that is why the small book store is still surviving. However, the entire book market will continue to shrink as the online book category grows. Technology is the culprit, we feast on its rewards. Bookstores as we have known them will be the dinosaurs of a bygone era.

Dave Lunn
Guest

It makes sense that indie bookstores are making a comeback. Big box bookstores had their heyday in the 1990s and it’s the neighborhood bookstores’ time to shine. Like most things retail these days, customers want to enjoy the experience that in-store shopping offers. It’s tangible, social, fun and for some, even nostalgic.

After a decade of reducing headcount, retailers are struggling to offer personalized experiences with less employees on hand. Perhaps big box bookstores need to automate some of their back-office duties, such as manually counting and managing cash, in order to free up staff to deliver more personal, improved customer experiences that shoppers so crave. Even still, they have their work cut out for them if they are to compete with the warmth and coziness that independent bookstores deliver.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I admit that I am a compulsive book buyer, my shelves are full and my Nook is overflowing. I love my local indie bookshop, but I am spending more time at Barnes & Noble lately because of my grandson. And I am not alone, there are plenty of other parents and grandparents there, holding a cup from the in-store cafe and enjoying time the store. My local B&N does a good job with in-store events; its Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball last December had lines out the door. It currently has 10 in-store events scheduled in March, and that’s considerably more than our indie book shop. B&N seems to be working hard on connecting with local communities and I give it a lot of credit for that.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Barnes & Noble may succeed online, but I think the era of the big box category killer is winding down."
"It does bear mentioning that Barnes & Noble partnered with Starbucks to create a retail experience — experiential retail was a thing."
"Big box bookstores can survive by imitating the communities created by indies. Apple has done this in its new stores with its Town Square approach."

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