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.