The problem isn’t browsing
I guess it’s inevitable that Barnes & Noble seems to be dominating much of the publishing industry-related news of late. First, they fired yet another chief executive. Now the company is being run by a group of three, with Leonard Riggio looking over their shoulders. Then the company reported lower in-store sales–again. Now comes a story from Business Insider about what they think is wrong with the stores. There’s nothing unexpected there but it leaves a few things out, in my opinion.
So, what does BI say is wrong?
Basically, they lay the problem at the feet of customers coming in to browse but not buy. Except that’s not the only problem. It isn’t even the real problem, at least not in my opinion. It is merely a symptom of what’s wrong with the corporate mindset of the company and how it designs its stores.
For the article, Jessica Tyler visited visited the Union Square B&N in Manhattan. The first floor had newly released books to the right of the entrance. To the left were NY-themed books. Okay, so far so good. The first thing you see when you enter a bookstore is, well, books. But let’s continue our journey through the store to see what we find.
Nearby, at least I assume they were nearby were “blind date” books, books covered in brown paper with only a brief description written on then paper. There was also a display of collectible editions of the “classics”. Still, all good. we’re seeing books.
Then we get to what has me scratching my head. We are on the ground floor of the store. The floor where I assume most customers make entry. Is the floor dedicated mainly–or completely–to books? Nope. There is a large area things like desk accessories, water bottles, umbrellas and “other seemingly random merchandise”. Oops. That “seemingly random” bit should be of concern. Why oh why is the first floor, the main floor, showcasing anything that doesn’t promote books or other reading material?
Our journey continues on to the greeting cards, wrapping paper and other gift accessories. Okay, I can almost see that. After all, people give books for gifts and need a way to wrap them.
Now we get to the next real cause of concern. The back of the first floor was dedicated to CDs, DVDs and vinyl records. There was a register but it was closed and no one was shopping in the area. Well, I don’t know about you, but I tend to stream all my music these days or buy digital versions. I do the same with videos. Most folks don’t have anything to play vinyl on. So why is prime real estate being used for these items?
And how much of the first floor is actually dedicated to books?
Next to this section was the Nook section. You remember the Nook, don’t you? BN’s answer to the Kindle that never caught on because it came in too late, had too many restrictions, etc. But, damn it, they will continue to promote it and try to sell accessories. Except it’s hard to do when you have a section dedicated to it but no one working the area to answer questions, demonstrate how the Nook works, etc.
Let’s move on to the second floor. Yes, yes, there’s more to go and more problems to reveal.
This is where you’ll find the kid’s section. According to Tyler, the floor was bustling with kids and parents. There you could find toys and books and games. And no one buying anything.
Well, could it be the price of the toys and games? Could it be because the kids were more interested in playing with what was out than they were in finding a book to read? Note one other thing. Parents were there with their kids. This is good. But it is bad from a retail point of view because it means the parents aren’t shopping elsewhere in the store. But have they altered the store layout to allow parents to leave their children temporarily in the kids section on the same floor as the adult books? Nope. Because they want to have all this space for games and puzzles and toys and not focus on what they are known for–books.
Up one more floor and we find the in-store Starbucks. Oooh, there are magazines nearby. According to Tyler, the coffee shop was the busiest part of the store. Duh. So where are the books?
Finally, we get to the fourth floor and–gasp–books. The floor was, according to Tyler, “almost entirely books”. People were browsing and reading, taking advantage of the chairs and benches. But they weren’t buying. Oh those awful browsers.
Tyler notes that only the registers on the ground floor had customers. Of those, only two out of ten registers were open. She notes the price differential between BN and Amazon, although she doesn’t take a hard swipe at Amazon. For that I give her kudos. What she doesn’t discuss is the level of customer service in the store or whether or not the employees knew their stock and could do something as fundamental as make book recommendations. I don’t know about you, but that’s important to me. I want to be able to go into a bookstore, say I love reading Dave Freer and not only be pointed to where his books are stocked but shown others who write similarly to him.
The fact BN is getting people through the doors is good. But the company has to figure out what the company’s identity is. If it is a merchandise store, it needs to give up on the Nook and quit trying to be a bookseller. If it is a bookstore, it needs to feature books on the main floors where it has traffic–the first floor and the floor where the coffee shop is located. It needs to recognize that parents don’t want to leave their children, especially young children, on a different floor from where they want to shop. If presented with that as an option, most parents will let the kids have fun and then move on. Time is valuable.
But you don’t expect your customers to go from the first floor to the fourth just to look at books. Front to back, sure. That’s in eyesight. Maybe even up one floor, especially if they can see the books from the ground floor to the next. But not up three or four frigging floors.
BN is in trouble. Is it going to die? Maybe. It does need to get someone into a leadership role who can stand up to Riggio and who can lead the company in a direction that will begin to turn a real profit. Otherwise, it may as well sell out. For the sake of the publishing industry, it needs to return to its roots and understand that bigger isn’t always better.