Loss of Focus or Re-Inventing Themselves?

I had this morning’s post all planned and then I read the business section for the Dallas Morning News. There, on the front page, was an article that had to be addressed. Barnes & Noble is opening a new store in Plano, TX (north of Dallas). That wouldn’t normally be news except for the type of store it is. This is one of their new Barnes & Noble Kitchen stores. Yes, you read that right — B&N “Kitchen”.

Here’s the basic premise. It is still a bookstore. Kind of. This 10,000 square foot store will still sell books. However, it will be stocking 17,000 titles as opposed to the 35,000 – 50,000 titles in its other stores. There will be no music in the new “kitchen” although you will still be able to buy art supplies and journals. (There is nothing in the story about whether you will find all the other non-book items you find at most B&N stores). The big change, however, is in the “kitchen” part of this store. There will be seating for 178 diners inside and on a patio. It will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they are considering doing a Sunday brunch as well. Let’s not forget the bar either. You will be able to order wine or locally brewed beer, among others.

All that sounds like a company in search of an identity. According to the DMN, this version of the “kitchen” is smaller than the three others B&N have opened. They are still trying to figure out the market, etc. This doesn’t fill me with a great deal of hope because B&N has been trying to figure out the market — and failing to — for the last decade or more. Since 2010, the company has closed 114 stores. It has opened 17 stores during that same time. If that isn’t telling enough, their sales % change has been on the positive sign only twice during that same time period and the highest positive change was 1.4%.

Now they think they have found the right way to move forward. However, their own comments about the new store show they still don’t have a clue. This new store will open less than 2 miles from a “traditional” B&N. Carl Hauch, vice president of stores, sees no problem having two stores that close together because he thinks they will be serving different demographics. Yet, just above that comment, it is clear they are stocking the store based on demand from the traditional bookstore down the road. Is this an instance of the right hand saying one thing while the left hand believes something else or is this yet more of B&N not understanding what’s happening in the industry?

If you haven’t already, click on the link in the first paragraph and visit the Kitchen site. The first thing you see is food with a quote from Tolkien. If you keep reading you will finally see books mentioned but nothing else, other than the B&N name, would lead a casual browser of the site to know books are available.

What amazes me is how the company is relying on the new store, with its wine and beer, to be a draw for customers and yet is brags about its large manga selection in the YA section. B&N, and Borders before it, used to be a destination for families. Parents felt safe bringing their children and letting them browse the kids section while the parents looked for a book or had a cup of coffee. How many parents will feel the same now, knowing that someone can have been in the “kitchen” drinking and now, wine or beer in hand, is wandering the store? Plano is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. This can blow up big time in B&N’s face if they aren’t careful.

As an author, the decrease in the footprint available for books is also worrisome. I welcome the news they will have more focus on local authors but they’ve said that before and it’s never really appeared. It is also another nail in the proverbial coffin for the store when it comes to indie and small press authors. It is already almost impossible to get our books on the shelves of B&N, not to mention having author events there. This means we need to let go of any hope they will work with us.

So here’s the question I have for B&N management — do you still consider yourself a bookseller or are you going to continue this transition to a restaurant that happens to also sell books? Or let’s make it easier. What do you see yourself as? I have a feeling that’s a question upper management hasn’t had a good answer to for years.

49 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, Book Stores

49 responses to “Loss of Focus or Re-Inventing Themselves?

  1. Are they mostly going to have cookbooks? That seems awfully niche.

    • Supposedly, they are carrying all the usual topics/subjects. Just not music. Except they are cutting the number of titles available in half.

    • Second attempt:

      This. The niche idea could work, but not with this kind of set up. If they want to go niche, they should be devoted to cookbooks and cooking wares that you won’t find at Walmart, Target, Lowes, or Home Depot. Any sort of restaurant should be a demonstrator utilizing cook books and wares sold by the store. Try to have guest cookbook authors do the cooking as they promote their books. Even better, make it something like those cooking shows that’s before an live audience, stream it, and serve the audience with the same dish that’s demonstrated on stage.

      Yes, that’s awfully close to an infomercial, so the last thing they want to do is to push the wares. But, if the studio and home audience sees, say, Alton Brown using such-and-such wares, and know that B&N Kitchen has the same wares for sale, guess what’s going to happen?

      To pull this off, they need a separate online store for the B&N Kitchen, with links from and to B&N’s main site.

      B&N could do this for more than kitchens. B&N Tech Central, with all sorts of computing books and special electronic hardware. B&N Handyman, with how-to books, tools, and something like the fictional Tool Time. B&N Laboratory, with science and math books and the sort of thing Edmund sold back in its heyday. And so forth and so on.

      The downside is this will favor non-fiction over fiction. That, and B&N management won’t do it. Trying to sell books and food? They’d have better luck opening for-pay toilets and selling reading material.

      • Zsuzsa

        So basically you’re thinking B&N Kitchen should try to be a new Williams Sonoma?

        Admittedly, that’s sort of what I assumed when I first heard the name.

      • mrsizer

        This could work, but doing it profitably would be very difficult. Creating high-quality video is easier now than ever, but “easier” is not “easy”. Centralizing the editing and putting it all on YouTube with a “click here to buy the book” link might help. That would leverage the stores as studios and make everything available to people too far from the actual stores.

  2. What do you want to bet not a single executive at B&N reads for pleasure?

  3. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Hey youze guys, hold my beer and watch this.

  4. paladin3001

    Sounding like the last gasp of desperation to stay relevant. I don’t see this working out for them at all.

  5. Third attempt, and I’m done with it:

    This. The niche idea could work, but not with this kind of set up. If they want to go niche, they should be devoted to cookbooks and cooking wares that you won’t find at Walmart, Target, Lowes, or Home Depot. Any sort of restaurant should be a demonstrator utilizing cook books and wares sold by the store. Try to have guest cookbook authors do the cooking as they promote their books. Even better, make it something like those cooking shows that’s before an live audience, stream it, and serve the audience with the same dish that’s demonstrated on stage.

    Yes, that’s awfully close to an infomercial, so the last thing they want to do is to push the wares. But, if the studio and home audience sees, say, Alton Brown using such-and-such wares, and know that B&N Kitchen has the same wares for sale, guess what’s going to happen?

    To pull this off, they need a separate online store for the B&N Kitchen, with links from and to B&N’s main site.

    B&N could do this for more than kitchens. B&N Tech Central, with all sorts of computing books and special electronic hardware. B&N Handyman, with how-to books, tools, and something like the fictional Tool Time. B&N Laboratory, with science and math books and the sort of thing Edmund sold back in its heyday. And so forth and so on.

    The downside is this will favor non-fiction over fiction. That, and B&N management won’t do it. Trying to sell books and food? They’d have better luck opening for-pay toilets and selling reading material.

    • That could work – the various specialty book, tool, and demo notion … but would require even more creative thinking on the part of B&N. Alas, they probably aren’t capable of thinking that far outside the box.
      A good number of our local HEB stores have a ‘cooking connection’ island in store, where the cooks demo dishes and give out samples of them, as well as having the bottled sauces, spices and specialty ingredients on hand.

  6. Fiction fricasée? Reference risotto? Biography baloney?

    Verily, the mind doth boggle . . .

  7. Mike Houst

    No e-readers in sight, no power plugs in sight, no sign of wifi, no smart tables, not even a book holder on the table for God’s sake! Looks more like a Panera. This is one concept idea that’s probably going to crash and burn.

    I would have conceptualized this as a way to monetize providing a wifi for customers to download e-books while there. Say, provide a comfortable place for kids or adults to kick back, have a drink or light snack while they read a hard copy or download and read whatever they like. The B&N Kitchen is NOT a comfy-cozy place for that.

    You know, seems like a Comic book and Gaming store, or maybe a combined hardware and electronics store would be a better place to expand SF and Fantasy books into than a restaurant.

    • Except Panera typically has a fair few outlets for people to bring their laptops to. (Or at least the ones I’ve been to have.) Plus free wifi.

      • Zsuzsa

        Precisely. Panera is one the popular spots around here for NaNoWriMo write-ins for precisely that reason.

      • Yep. I run up to the local Panera once or twice a week to work. Free WiFi, outlets if I need one and they know me so they don’t push for me to leave when I finish my coffee or muffin or whatever I buy when I first arrive.

  8. stuart

    Sounds to me like they are just missing a decent idea by a few – all important – inches.

    A groovy little restaurant / book store, with comfy chairs, and booths that are more akin to reading nooks. Where people can go relax and read while having a snack (something more than the tiny little menu at the coffee bar in existing B&N stores). Hell, I would take DATES there (if a woman doesn’t like books/reading, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a future there… just sayin).

  9. The problem with the niche idea for a company like BN is they don’t know how to think small — and you have to with a niche store. There have been some very successful niche bookstores over the years. But going that route means you limit the number of offerings you give to your clientele. That means you don’t have huge stores, even if you have the attached dining area. You simply can’t afford it. You also have to get the right “niche” in the right area. With Amazon, etc., available now, most folks aren’t going to drive an hour or more just to go to a mystery bookstore or a science fiction/fantasy store. The exception is for author events, something B&N has been limiting more and more with each year that passes.

    They also have to quit falling into the same mistake they’ve been making for years, and a mistake that helped kill Borders. You simply do NOT build a new bookstore five minutes from another one, a successful one. Adding a “kitchen” to it won’t be enough to maintain the store’s success after the initial “ooh, shiny” effect ends. Once again, B&N risks over saturating the market.

    But here’s the thing. They tried to reinvigorate their stores several years ago by expanding their coffee shops. At the same time, they removed many of the seating areas in the store. They tried to bring more customers in by adding games, video, music and other non-book related items (meaning they couldn’t stock as many books). They looked at becoming the Sears of bookstores at one point even. Now they are doing much the same thing. They are creating an atmosphere where you don’t know if they a re a restaurant/bar or a bookstore and, from past experience, neither will their employees.

    • “The Sears of bookstores”? I drove by my local Sears the other day. Or rather, I drove by the empty shell where Sears had been. It went away a couple of months back, and I can’t recall if I was ever in the store in the 5 years I’ve lived here. Of course, part of that was that I had worked at a Sears back in my 20s and vividly remember how they treated their employees, so I wasn’t inclined to spend money with them.

      • aacid14

        I think they’re succeeding. TBH I’m not even sure where nearest one is. Last one I used was in ATL and that was because my textbooks came from there. Amazon to the phone or direct from pub.

      • News mentioned that Sears is in trouble.

        My aunt use to do a rather busy business with their mail order– five or six people a day, until they killed it off because “nobody used it.” (Can’t remember the year.)

        I have gone through their stores a lot…. I think I bought a few pairs of post-holiday socks, that’s it. It’s all expensive, or bad quality, or both. And they seldom have what I want.

        • Late 1960s to early 1970s, Sears decided it wanted to go “upper middle class.” Remember seeing a suit of armor for sale in a catalog. Problem was, this was when discount stores were spreading. Worse, Sears commanded higher prices for the same quality products.

          As a case in point, back when there were clothing factories in the US, the same factory would turn out clothes for different labels, made from the same materials. Knew of a factory that turned out yard machinery the same way. Then you’d see them sold at different prices when the only difference was style, paint job, and label.

          People notice this. So why pay more when you can get practically the same thing for less?

          Sears never got it. They persisted in wanting to be “upper middle class” when they could have gone discount and cleaned up with their mail order. Then, when online sales happened, they missed a golden opportunity to leverage their existing infrastructure and name recognition to be the online sales powerhouse. Then they bought a struggling KMart to try to reclaim “lower middle class” sales, and still didn’t get it. The prices in KMart were higher than Walmart. It was so bad that at one KMart store closing sale, it took deep discounts to bring them to Walmart levels.

          So yeah, I’d say that B&N is the Sears of books. Both will probably be gone in just a few years.

    • mrsizer

      Sears destroyed three generations of brand loyalty. The year-long dishwasher saga with them was so bad that I still don’t have a dishwasher, a year later. I will never buy another thing from them, which is quite easy now because all the nearby Sears and KMarts have closed.

      • Aye, their used to be at least a Sears-ette in the local mall. And there was a K-Mart off by itself elsewhere in town. Used to be. Both are gone now. Shopko is still around, though seems to be struggling, and Wal-mart has at least figured out that lower-end isn’t evil, and this on-line thing might just be something. So many places tell me to “shop locally” and then fail to have anything I care to buy. And there are some things I prefer to examine (or try on) before purchase, but now it’s either risk “mail order” or burn 2+ hours of motor fuel.

  10. Allen

    Once again, I’m reminded of a quote from Buffy, Season Six: Anya, the ex-vengeance demon says…

    ” Remember that bookstore? Well, they became one of those books and coffee places, and now they’re just coffee. It’s like evolution, only without the ‘getting better’ part.”

  11. Luke

    A couple years ago, when Larry Correia released his Son of the Black Sword, I thought I’d support local jobs and popped by the B&N launch morning to buy it.
    It wasn’t on the shelves. Not in front with the new releases, not over in the fantasy/sc fi aisle.
    My first thought was that they’d already sold out of their stock. Larry has a huge fanbase in Twin Falls, Idaho. But I didn’t see any empty spots where it would have been.
    So I asked.

    They were still “in back”.
    They hadn’t even been taken out of the boxes yet.
    The clerk was happy to go back, open the box, and get me a copy. But he hadn’t known anything about it until I asked and he looked up the inventory status.

    Out of morbid curiosity,I went back a few times to see how long it would take for them to move the books into the front of the store.
    I first saw them about two weeks after the book launched.

    • scottsaxbury

      First few months of this year, I couldn’t find a single Baen release on the shelves in either of our Barnes and Nobles. Had every other publisher, just not those. And then they shrank every section again to make room for more greeting cards, figurines, and overpriced art supplies, so I stopped going at all. Went back last month because my internet was down and I couldn’t order anything, and they’d gotten rid of the new release sections completely, which made it impossible to find out if the non-baen authors I follow had a release at a glance, and used it as an excuse to shrink again. Not going back anymore, regardless of internet issues. Fortunately we do have one indie bookstore here in northern Colorado, unfortunately it’s very small.

    • Draven

      yep, if it doesnt have Big 5 push, it isnt a priority to get a new book on the shelves.

  12. I wonder how they are going to keep people from reading a book over dinner, deciding it isn’t their thing, and reshelving it with gravy stains and a greasy cover?

    • Good question, but probably the least of B&N’s problems – in general or with this concept.

    • Zsuzsa

      I think you would probably have to make a policy that you aren’t allowed to take unpurchased merchandise into the dining area. Whether that would give your alleged bookstore-restaurant any advantages over a Walden Books with a Ruby Tuesday’s next door, I couldn’t say.

      • You would think that but their so-called selling point for this new venture is that you can combine the two — or, after your meal, you can take your glass of wine and wander the bookstore. Think about how all the Southern Baptists down here in the Bible Belt will like that. NOT.

      • TRX

        There’s a pizza place we go to every now and then. At 25 miles deeper into the urbmonplex it’s not a direction we head very often. It’s right next door to a used book store. The bookstore’s owner says at least half of his customers are people who had originally come next door to buy a pizza, wander over while they were waiting, and buy something to read.

        Kind of a synergy there…

  13. TRX

    Sounds like… K-Mart. Back in the day, most K-Mart stores had a restaurant or deli with seating for shoppers, as well as play area for children.

    B&N’s new business model sounds a lot like a department store, except with the primary :”face” being books instead of low-quality imported clothing.

  14. Mike Houst

    You know, they’d probably have done better if they gone with a dinner-movie theater concept.

  15. One more nail in B&N’s coffin…

  16. “How many parents will feel the same now, knowing that someone can have been in the “kitchen” drinking and now, wine or beer in hand, is wandering the store? Plano is the belt buckle of the Bible Belt.”

    What’s this? A national chain, take regional differences into account? A national chain, acknowledge that there’s a difference between downtown Plano and downtown Seatle? Incroyable! C’est impossible!

    One must at some point accept that the management and leadership of the company are, in fact, idiots. These geniuses are branching out into the informal dining market at the precise time that McDonalds is losing share price and SWITCHING TO ROBOTS. That they are doing so in markets where they are doomed to failure, like Plano, that’s not even moving the needle on the “stupid” meter in comparison.

    This is the Hail Mary pass of a quarterback who is out of room, out of options, and out of time. He’s got his back against his own goal line, its the end of the fourth quarter, and a huge linesman just broke through and is charging at him.

    Throw that ball, baby.

  17. Ed Bear

    “the last act of desperate men”
    I don’t care if it’s the last act of Henry V. I haven’t been a B&N customer for years. If I go in, it’s to do either or both of two things: 1. Biobreak 2. Discovery of new books I can order as eBooks on Amazon.

  18. *blink* *blink* They’re bailing out the book store…with THE most prone to failure form of new business?

  19. Businesses operate with their own internal cultures. The culture of publishing and book retail is one that is not adapted to rapid change. Look at their primary product. Today’s printed books hardly differ in appearance from those printed two centuries and more ago. They’re like carriage makers trying to cope with the arrival of the automobile.

    Book retail has changed, but only slowly. Outside major cities and university towns, bookstores were rare in the fifties. When I was a kid and wanted to own a book I’d seen in our small-town library, my mother had its librarian order it for me. There was no other way we knew. Those who read a lot often joined book-of-the-month or Readers Digest clubs that did the selecting for them. Selection for that would make or break an author.

    In the seventies, I believe it was, bookstores started to appear in more locale. That’s the publishing and retailing in which most of today’s executives grew up. That’s the world they keep trying to recreate.

    As you note, in this case they are attempting to blend a cafe and a bookstore. Posting on Publishers Weekly, I’ve suggested they install bestseller-discounted-on-day-of-release bookstores inside large supermarkets. I don’t know if that’d work, but at least they’d be going where people still go to shop.

    How do you fix such a system? I don’t know. I know that, as a writer, I hate the idea of Amazon controlling book distribution. It might help if some publishers moved out of Manhattan and closer to their customers. Living in a monoculture does not help your thinking.

    Publishing is hardly alone. In my writing, I’m attempting to get medicine, particularly hospitalized care, to break out of its traditional ways, particularly to address a growing problem with doctor and nursing morale. I wrote _Senior Nurse Mentor_ to address nursing morale. I’m writing _Like a Navy SEAL_ to teach those in healthcare how to handle stress and burnout. All too many doctors and nurses are tossed into stress-filled work with a sink-or-swim attitude. They should be taught how to manage stress.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Embarrass Less: A Practical Guide for Doctors, Nurses, Students and Hospitals

    • I miss having a bookstore in my city. Of 170,000. I wish I were joking about those numbers. (Of course, it’s still fairly new as a city, and doesn’t have a live theatre, either.)

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  21. snelson134

    My wife and I live in Plano and this is the first we heard about it.

    • Which shows a fundamental issue with BN’s promotion machine. This is a new concept, only the 4th or 5th store of its kind in the nation, and they aren’t doing major promotion in the area about it. It could almost make one wonder if they aren’t already setting themselves up for failure.