Can Barnes & Noble’s in-store experts beat algorithms?

Discussion
Source: Barnes & Noble - "Thrill Seekers"
Dec 19, 2018
Matthew Stern

Once upon a time visiting a chain bookstore meant having the chance to chat up an associate that could tell you about what was happening inside the books on the shelf. Some stores even tested incoming staff on their literary knowledge to make sure they could manage customer questions on the floor. Recent years have seen working at a big box bookstore become more of a plain old retail job than a reader’s dream job. But supported by a new ad campaign, Barnes & Noble is using its associate expertise as a prime selling point for the holidays.

The “Nobody Knows Books Like We Do” advertising campaign consists of a few different types of spots.

The “Bookseller” commercials, the ones most geared toward selling employee expertise, consist of eight 15-second spots in which a customer asks a Barnes & Noble employee about a gift item (a thriller, for instance). The employee then humorously guides them through a barrage of in-depth questions on the product to guide them to the ideal product.

Harry Bernstein, CCO of Havas, the agency that created the spots, told Adweek that engaging with an expert who shares your interests can often provide a better recommendation than an online algorithm.

Barnes & Nobles’ YouTube page also features another series of recent spots that depict real employees giving their top picks for holiday gifts.

Promoting the expertise of its associates and its superiority over impersonal, data-driven recommendations is a move that seems geared at both offering an alternative to the experience of book buying on Amazon and making Barnes & Noble feel more akin to the mom-and-pops which have experienced a recent wave of revival.

Barnes & Noble isn’t the only retailer that has begun to tout employee expertise as a virtue. Earlier this year, Target’s CEO Brian Cornell announced that the chain was making it a priority to have trained experts staffing the store in specific categories. And such a strategy may be playing a role in Target’s fairly steady turnaround throughout the year.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the message of in-store experts resonate with the new consumer that trusts data-driven recommendations? Can Barnes & Noble attract and hire the kind of book enthusiasts that will deliver on the advertising’s promise?

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Braintrust
"That shared experience of passing on a great read from one person to another can’t be replicated by an algorithm (yet). This should be a strong selling point for the retailer."
"Ah yes, and THIS is the long awaited awakening of retail customers after the novelty of e-commerce convenience loses some of its shine."
"I recently ordered a book on William Burroughs...He was gay. Amazon’s algorithms, “based on my purchase,” recommended I purchase Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science”..."

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33 Comments on "Can Barnes & Noble’s in-store experts beat algorithms?"


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Bob Amster
BrainTrust

In the book category – as in some others – definitely! Book lovers, or those looking for recommendations for a special person or occasion, love to hear from those who know and share their passion. Machines will take a long time before they can become passionate, about anything.

Jeff Sward
Guest

The key question is posed. A very explicit brand promise is put forward. Can they deliver on that lofty promise? Or is it really that lofty? In any given retailer we have a right to expect the staff actually knows their stuff. Barnes & Noble is saying out loud what should be just a normal expectation of a retail salesperson, whether it’s a book store or hardware store. The “genius bar” is not limited to the tech store.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Agreed. Knowledgeable store associates have never scared away business. Finding them and training them is the ongoing challenge.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

It’s sad that retailers have to say out loud that they have knowledgeable store associates, but that’s where we are. There is not a retailer out there who doesn’t strive to employee smart people who know what they sell.

James Ray
Guest

One of my previous clients in the outdoor sporting goods business segment struggled to hire/retain retail associates with authentic experience. The desire for store personnel who actually used their products and engaged in one or more running, hiking, mountain climbing, skiing, bicycling, camping , hunting, you-name-it activities often conflicted with the reality that retail sales staff compensation doesn’t afford most an adequate income to be passionate aficionados of these various activities.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I love the investment in expertise roaming the stacks at Barnes & Noble stores. Experienced, knowledgeable and empowering interactions with sales associates will certainly lead to better engagement and hence better store experiences — I really don’t think there is any question of the value proposition. I do, however, question the ads. While they are whimsical and humorous, I think they fail to make the point that there are actual booksellers in the store, available and ready to help with personalized recommendations and advice. The ads feel very “glossy” and not very authentic. The YouTube spots, on the other hand, are much more authentic and hence impactful. Sadly, the whimsical and glossy ads will have far greater reach than the more effective YouTube spots …

Tom Dougherty
BrainTrust

The strategy might work if the staff is capable. I have my doubts. Advertising cannot fix indemic problems.

The enemy of Barnes & Noble is the convenience of online shopping. Possibly they could rethink the store layout to make it simpler to navigate. HAVING to ask an employee for help may be seen as an added complication.

The future of Barnes & Noble is not that of a mass retailer of books. They had that opportunity but squandered it to Amazon. They are destined to be a niche player. Smaller, tighter and more highly defined.

Let me put it to you this way — if my financial advisor suggested I buy Barnes & Noble stock, I would fire him.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

I was always amazed how my father and grandfather knew what products shoppers at their stores wanted, what promotions would work and how customers would react to marketing efforts. They didn’t have data analytics or predictive modeling. They had near-constant engagement with the customers and that feedback was what made them sell more to more people. The best outcome of the Barnes & Noble campaign shouldn’t be the selling of another book, but rather a feedback mechanism that will give the company insight into what to do next and how to do it.

Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

Books are perfect to emphasize store associate knowledge. Everybody loves a good book recommendation, and that shared experience of passing on a great read from one person to another can’t be replicated by an algorithm (yet). This should be a strong selling point for the retailer.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Interesting choice of articles on RetailWire today! Ellie the Elf at the Mall of America offers gift suggestions via AI versus Barnes & Noble showcasing store associates. Given the choice, I’ll take a human being over a hologram every time.

It’s about time retailers started selling employee expertise as a reason to choose one store over another. An associate who genuinely loves books — or apparel or toys or whatever else they sell — will always offer better suggestions because they have experience with the product. AI can’t compete with that.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Categorize this service offering to what could have been for Barnes & Noble. While enhancing the in-store experience with educated associates is a welcome development, this honestly represents a missed opportunity for Barnes & Noble. As Amazon began to dominate the book market and the shift to e-readers picked up momentum, this type of service offering should have been in place over 10 years ago.

The physical store for Barnes & Noble, and other retailers has to be the central location where relationships are built between the customer and store associates, where consumers connect with the brand beyond the product and transaction, and as a center of media for the company.

The Barnes & Noble in-store experience has been relatively unchanged for more than 20 years. Yes it’s nice to have a big box book store with every book under the sun, however when it came down to asking a store associate for advice, this is where the company disappointed.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

The role of store associates should become more and not less important in the sea of advanced technologies permeating our lives. Barnes & Noble’s in-store experts message will resonate with those already favorable to the brand and the traditional bookstore. It’s less certain that it will attract the growing segment that rely on data-driven recommendations.

What I see Barnes & Noble doing is first of all ensuring its current customer base remains loyal and does its book buying with them this holiday season. Subsequently, I expect to see the company integrate both data-driven recommendations with the power of in-store experts to truly deliver a differentiated experience for their shoppers. You can’t fight a battle using your opponent’s best weapons, but you can try to change the terrain so your own strengths shine. That means those in-store associates hold the key to the company’s future.

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust

I am sure this process works well in one or two markets, but finding and training knowledgeable staff is going to be a challenge. If this were as easy a process as the commercial makes it out, most problems in any retailer would be solved.

Finding and training talent that can sell to consumers in books is going to be the challenge. Book sales today are driven by credible review sites, ads on selling sites and PR. I don’t see store level people replicating that.

Michael Decker
BrainTrust

Ah yes, and THIS is the long awaited awakening of retail customers after the novelty of e-commerce convenience loses some of its shine. Human beings are social animals down to the very fiber of their existence — and the holidays are the one time of year where we take a breath and appreciate each other. So holiday shopping is becoming much less about “convenience” and much more about “connection.” Barnes & Noble is spot-on in sensing the shift back and differentiating their expert (warm-blooded) booksellers from the cold, digital “ghost in the machine” — it’s nice to have both, isn’t it?

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

This: “The long awaited awakening of retail customers after the novelty of e-commerce convenience loses some of its shine.” And this: “Holiday shopping is becoming much less about ‘convenience’ and much more about ‘connection’.” Brilliant Michael, I wholeheartedly agree. Can you hear me clapping in Chicago?

Michael Decker
BrainTrust

Ha ha! Truth, right, Georganne?

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Right!

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

It might — if the reality matched the promise. Data driven recommendations are all well and good, but they can go horribly wrong. Case in point. I recently ordered a book on William Burroughs, the Beat Generation novelist. He was gay. Amazon’s algorithms decided, “based on my purchase,” that I should be interested in LGBTQ books and recommended I purchase Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science,” — not actually a book on gayness BTW, but a philosophical study. So, could a person beat that? Probably. However, my experience with Barnes & Noble is that there are never enough staff on the floor — or at the registers — to help customers without questions, let alone those who need help. The real book folks? They are probably working for an indie bookstore.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Passionate readers are always looking for “good” book recommendations from friends, relatives and book clubs. When a recommendation is from a person, it is more personal and if they like the book they will remember how they found out about the book. If the recommendation comes from a computer algorithm, there is no personal connection and the customer may not even give credit to the retail brand for recommending it online. No algorithm exists that can impart the taste of lemon ricotta pancakes from the Ina Garten cookbook like a person can.

Personalized service is a great strategy for Barnes & Noble and it is probably the best way to compete with Amazon. It may be difficult to find the right employees to fill these roles but, when they do, these book enthusiasts will probably be very happy and loyal employees.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Why not do both? The better, more informed associate is a duh and something Barnes & Noble should’ve done a long, long time ago. Just ask some of the great indie book stores in Boston or NYC. I remember walking around those huge B&N stores (pre-Amazon) just looking for a PERSON, not even a book, and the store not being successful at that basic retail fundamental. So having someone to talk to about a book, then having them also say something like, “200 reviewers gave it a 4.5” would be a killer app in my book (sorry).

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Does this sound like B&N is going retro and trying to bring back the feeling of that local bookstore that we found in every town? While this doesn’t resonate with me, it certainly will with bibliophiles. And if the 80/20 rule is valid, this is a great strategy.

Lauren Goldberg
BrainTrust

Subject matter expertise is one area in which brick-and-mortar stores have an advantage over online players. I’m surprised it took so long for them to roll out this campaign! An algorithm cannot replicate the information exchanged in a human conversation. People like to feel as if they have been heard and be shown something truly relevant. It’s unrealistic to think that every employee will be a fan/expert on each genre — it would be critical to have some coverage in key areas (kids, best sellers). For B&N to make this promise, they need to have the right labor model and ensure their staff are truly book-lovers.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

The “new” consumer is also a human. Daily, including today, we humans learn of how our individual personal information has been used/abused for profit by large tech companies. Data-driven recommendations are just a form of segmentation having no knowledge of the individual person. Barnes and Noble have it right. B&N ads brilliantly demonstrate the power of human interaction-based recommendations! Book enthusiasts and all enthusiasts for that matter are driven by the love of their passions, not algorithms. Back to the future, a reach too far, now we’re shifting back to human to human experiences. Replacing the machine.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

I think as long as what the ads portray matches up with the reality of the in-store experience then who can complain about this? I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t want to be served by someone who knows what they’re talking about… The challenge for Barnes & Noble is to actually find and train staff that can deliver this. Data is definitely very helpful as a tool for recommendations, but most of us also listen to our friends when they tell us something is great — I think both approaches have something to offer. I absolutely believe that enthusiasts and experts make for the best staff. A number of brands have even recruited new staff members from their biggest brand fans. It makes sense as a strategy as who better to authentically engage with customers and enthuse about a shared love than someone who already loves and understands your product?

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

I don’t believe the wage and unit economics are in Barnes & Noble’s favor here in the slightest.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
2 months 17 hours ago

In-store experts are absolutely a competitive advantage that a good bookstore when compared with Amazon or anyone online. That said, can they deliver?

The ad is a bit too trite. Reflecting a more real situation — where the shopper is intrigued but not sold would have helped the ad connect better.

And, the really big question: Can Barnes & Noble deliver on the promise? Yes. This IS what consumers want and IF they deliver it then it’s effective competition for Amazon. But I haven’t had too many good experiences at Barnes & Noble. I’ve written more extensively about the lackluster experiences I’ve had there in this post about how “Experiential Retail is Overhyped and Misunderstood”.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Bluntly, I don’t see this as making much difference to B&N. Its associates have always been knowledgeable about books and customer service is reasonable. It needs to focus on basics (like making sure its cafes are clean are merchandising are up to scratch) and identify stronger points of differentiation to succeed.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

“If I tell you what’s hot, will you buy it … from me?” One of the recurrent themes of the online age that we talk about here on RW — additionally to BOPIS — is what can be called AISBO (Ask In Store Buy Online … usually from some other company). While I wish B&N well with this (I’m sure we all do) I have to think it exasperates the AISBO problem … unless they can develop a guilt app to keep subsequent purchases in-house.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Yes, books as a category can stand to gain greatly from experienced associates delivering powerful recommendations to customers. But why should this be newsworthy? Of course, knowledgeable associates can make a difference in sales! For some time retailers have been underinvesting in their associates and this shows the result.

Can B&N pull this off and make a dent in their holiday sales? We shall see, but I do believe this is an area most retailers should pay close attention to — not just for books! Associates are the front line, the face of the brand and need to be trained and equipped with the knowledge customers crave.

James Ray
Guest

In spite of many physical store-based retailers’ desire to survive by providing superior customer services and an excellent shopping experience, I fear commodity products like the book are ultimately doomed as a mass market retail business. There will be instances, for example Barnes & Noble can survive in selected geographic areas serving large populations. A small slice of a big pie is still satisfactory dessert for some retail operators, but the hand writing is still on the wall! If you don’t believe me, type in “camera store near me” or “office supplies near me” and see if you can find any recognizable chain store brands nearby. If you’re successful, my guess there are over a million people living in your local geography.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Promises made well in the advertisement, but can the stores deliver? Independent book stores have been able to do that because the store owners and staff are often knowledgeable and have a genuine love of books. Can B&N hire and retain book lovers at the store who can make credible recommendations?

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

Barnes & Noble’s always had nice employees, but like with my business, convenience and price matters to the majority of shoppers. What’s worse, even if they matched or dropped the prices below Amazon, they would still struggle, as the perception of value has been lost to Amazon.

There is a small niche of consumers that appreciate a talented baker, butcher, or a scratch deli, with knowledgeable associates, and if they are in high income locations, they can do well.

Retail has changed so much in the last five years, many good retailers are downsizing, restructuring from bankruptcy, or closing shop, as the consolidation of power has accelerated into mega multi-channel retailers that dominate, leaving a trail of shuttered businesses in their wake. There are always opportunities for fresh new startups everywhere, but it is uniqueness, with the ability to attract consumers, that want something trendy, with exceptional service.

Happy Holidays to my friends in the retail business, and I hope we will be here next year discussing our adventures for 2019.

Jeffrey P. McNulty
Guest

We have entered a New Retail Ethos. Providing an experiential environment for your guests is paramount. Having knowledgeable staff is the new “silver bullet” methodology that customers are craving. AI is going to revolutionize the retail industry however, good old fashion customer service will never go out of style. It harkens back to a personalized era of retailing that encompassed an environment that stimulated all five senses, which provided the customer with an enjoyable and memorable shopping excursion.

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Braintrust
"That shared experience of passing on a great read from one person to another can’t be replicated by an algorithm (yet). This should be a strong selling point for the retailer."
"Ah yes, and THIS is the long awaited awakening of retail customers after the novelty of e-commerce convenience loses some of its shine."
"I recently ordered a book on William Burroughs...He was gay. Amazon’s algorithms, “based on my purchase,” recommended I purchase Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science”..."

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