Why Bother Saving Barnes and Noble?
This month we have been discussing how Amazon’s unethical business practices harm the publishing industry and the strong likelihood that Barnes and Noble will close. I expected that readers would rejoin with arguments that they enjoy the low prices and customer service aspects of Amazon, while they do not always enjoy the experience of shopping in a Barnes and Noble. Fewer available titles and unpleasant interactions with employees are obvious critiques of the U.S.’s largest brick-and-mortar book retailer. And, indeed, plenty of comments reflected similar views.
So why save Barnes and Noble if many customers believe the chain does not deserve to be saved, based on how the company has been run? The short answer is two-fold. First of all, Barnes and Noble is one of the last physical bookstores around for many people. Decreased access to books is a problem because it makes equal access to knowledge and learning materials more difficult. Secondly, if Amazon gains a monopoly on the bookselling business, publishers will have even more difficulty negotiating prices with them. Amazon already has a history of offering to pay prices so low that publishers would lose money selling to the company. But, with Barnes and Noble gone, what other choice would they have? Although publishers do typically sell directly from their websites, few consumers seem to use this option. And why should they if Amazon is selling books below cost and thus offering a greater deal to readers?
So what can Barnes and Noble do to turn their company around and encourage people to shop there? Below I offer some ideas.
What Can Barnes and Noble Do to Improve Their Bookselling Experience?
Reduce the Gift Items
I recognize that gift items sell well and that they are often the reason book stores stay afloat. (We can even look at Amazon, who sells books at a loss because non-book items help make up the deficit.) However since the gift section was expanded, shelf room for books has been lost. Barnes and Noble seems to specialize now in trendy items and bestsellers, meaning people looking for more obscure books often end up online. I think Barnes and Noble should keep their book- and fandom-related merchandise, but they can downsize the candles, soaps, and random electronics to start. The company already announced it plans to downsize this section, so that seems promising.
Expand the Children’s Section
People love buying books for children, whether this is teachers buying for their classroom, parents buying for school projects, or relatives hoping to send an educational present. If the store makes room for more books, I think the children’s section makes the most sense for expansion. I would also like to see some reorganization for a more pleasant browsing experience. The current organization never makes complete sense to me and I feel like I walk around a lot trying to get an idea of what each section is meant to be. It’s sort of by age, sort of by genre/type of book, and sort of by hardcover/softcover? Presumably the layout makes things easy for employees to locate itemse, but the layout should really be focused on how easy it is for customers to browse.
More programs could get more people in the door to make impulse purchases. Barnes and Noble’s new book club is a step in the right direction as it encourages people to both buy a book from the store and to show up again to maybe buy some more books. I would like to see more programs like this, especially for children, where the program is tied directly back into merchandise the attendees will find relevant and helpful. I’m thinking writing workshops where writing books are highlighted, children’s storytimes with thematic books on a special display, etc. But the key is to impress customers with the idea that the books being suggested for them are ones that they will actually find useful and not just books that are being pushed on them.
Edward Helmore for The Guardian notes that Barnes and Noble stores tend to be located in malls. This means consumers have to make a conscious effort to get in their cars and drive there. Moving locations to areas where stores would get spontaneous foot traffic could help the company increase revenue.
Hire Knowledgeable, Friendly Employees
Like plenty of other commenters I have seen, my experiences with the staff at Barnes and Noble have often been unpleasant. Barnes and Noble may have to rethink their hiring practices or their training practices. But their recent layoffs, many of full-time employees, do not bode well for the company. Part-time employees often have less of an incentive to invest in their job if there are no full-time positions they can aim for. And part-time employees who leave for full-time jobs at other companies means Barnes and Noble will have to spend more time hiring and retraining employees. Fewer stable employees means fewer experienced employees. Plus the recent layoffs mean that the employees left will likely be struggling to do the same amount of work with fewer people–at least in the short term. Stressed employees are unlikely to give customers a shopping experience they will enjoy.
Indie bookstores are treasures because they typically stock local-interest books and local authors. Chain stores, meanwhile, tend to give the same planograms to all their stores, regardless of what their customers actually want or buy. Barnes and Noble could sell more if they stocked their stores with regional differences in mind.
In 2016, Barnes and Noble announced that some locations would serve alcohol. While my own anecdotal observations lead me to believe that serving alcohol does attract more people to a place or an event, I have to question whether the alcohol drinkers intend to buy books when they leave. Probably not, so I’m going to have to give this idea a pass, creative as it is.
Discourage People from Using the Store as a Library
This idea will probably be controversial. And I have no idea how to implement it without making customers feel unwelcome. However, isn’t it odd that people go to Barnes and Noble to read an entire book or magazine while they sip on their coffee–and then they do not buy it? People typically don’t go to other stores and use their products for hours without purchasing them. Would you go to the home goods store, use their tools on your DIY project, and leave without paying? Would you go to an ice cream shop, eat a sundae, proclaim it mediocre, and then announce you don’t want to pay after having consumed it? Probably not, so why do people do this with books? Do we not value them enough to pay for our consumption of them? I think Barnes and Noble needs to remind people that they sell things and that they are not a library.