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Jeff Ward: Goodbye Barnes & Noble, We Hardly Knew Ye!

First it was Borders and now it's B&N's turn—for me to predict the store's demise.

It’s not that I’m fond of making these kind of forecasts, but since I’ve been in the business of predicting the downfall of shaky local businesses, here’s another one:

Goodbye Barnes & Noble, it was fun while it lasted! I’m giving 'em two years at the most.

Wouldn’t you think Barnes & Noble's brain trust might have learned something from Borders' demise? Wouldn’t you think, now that they’re the only game in town, they'd parlay that survival into some kind of reasonable success? Wouldn’t you think someone somewhere on that B&N management team would’ve read at least one of my columns on the book store subject?

But no! Apparently they’re bound and determined to make the very same mistakes that led to Borders’ swift departure.

“But Jeff! I haven’t seen anything in the news about B&N. Could you be imagining things?” That’s always a possibility—readers often say I’m delusional—but this time the book chain hopes their latest bad business decisions remain under the radar.

You see my wife, an aspiring novelist, is a member of the Windy City Romance Writers Association, and one of their members subscribes to a blog that quoted a July 10 message from a B&N employee.

“We were notified at our B&N location this week that in the next couple of weeks we will be receiving a ‘massive returns download.’ To coincide with this outflux of books we will be adding three more of the massive toys and games displays, as well as expanding gift and the digital presence.”

In other words, despite the fact that 70 percent of readers actually prefer a physical copy of the book, if they haven’t already shipped them back to the publishers, Barnes & Noble will be making “massive” inventory cuts. Then they’ll shift their focus to digital books and allocate more store space to games and toys.

Put even simpler, the Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar operation decided to go out of business on July 10, 2011. Who knows? Maybe they can survive as an Net only entity, but the net result for Geneva will be the same—no major book retailer until Anderson’s in Naperville.

So much for exploiting that instant-gratification advantage! As I’ve previously postulated, my 11-year-old would rather spend more of his hard-earned allowance (yeah right!) to have his prized item now, than buy it cheaper online and wait for it to ship. And he isn’t nearly the only one to ascribe to that philosophy.

Let’s talk about the space shift to games and toys. Does anyone within the sound of my voice really think, with a Wal-Mart or Target always within range, folks are suddenly going to start thinking B&N when it comes to toys? Not on your life! It’s called diluting your brand.

No one’s asked me, but with Borders gone, were I CEO, I’d be launching a marketing campaign along the lines of “We’re still books—and plenty of them!” Then I’d make every effort to remind customers of the thrill they get when they walk into a well-stocked bookstore.

But no! Their peculiar version of reality includes focusing on e-books and thus, teaching their customers to turn to the Internet for reading material. Go ahead and let B&N online grab their share of folks that prefer that, but do you really want to train your walk-in customers to go digital?

And foisting that kind of return on publishers isn’t exactly going to enamor them of the kind of books you have to sell in order for your stores to survive. That’s a brand of insanity that I can’t even begin to fathom.

I wouldn’t be counting on their online retailing, either. We don’t have time to go into detail, but my last B&N online attempt to order the Beatles Mono Box set was a nightmare because their purported inventory didn’t necessarily match up with orders. A two-week wait turned into two months and then it took multiple calls to get my money back. That doesn’t happen at Amazon!

I suppose the good news is, as my readers have so insightfully noted, when B&N inevitably goes belly up, the lack of a large book chain will once again open the door to the independents that went the way of the dinosaur when the superstores came on the scene.

And if they can avoid these kind of blatant bad business decisions borne of an entitlement mentality, they will be the wave of the future. Given a choice, I’ll choose the independent store all the time. There’s nothing quite like buying vinyl records at Kiss the Sky.

So Genevans! You might want to haul your kids on over to B&N while you still can. You can stand together in the middle of the store and gaze in awe as you explain this is what we called a book superstore at the turn of century. They used to rule the land.

Be sure and turn out the lights when you leave.

Tom Cadell August 03, 2011 at 11:50 AM
Talk about not learning...I'm sure the good nuns at St. Nick's explained to you that the past participle of the verb form "to lead" is led, not lead.
dwortz August 03, 2011 at 04:23 PM
I work for Barnes & Noble, and I need for you to understand one major point. Not one book is leaving Barnes & Noble stores to make room for these additions that has been sold within the last two years. So we, as a company, can sit on that product for another two or more years, or get it out of the store and expand an area that is doing very well for us. You talk about the company possibly closing its doors within a few years because we're making changes, when in reality it's these exact changes that is going to save this company. If Borders Booksellers had been a little quicker on the draw and realized that e-reader technology IS the future sooner than they had, they would still be alive and well.
Charley August 03, 2011 at 04:52 PM
I also work for Barnes & Noble and I agree with dwortz. Just because someone 'overheard' a conversation does not make it a true statement. Did they hear the entire conversation? B&N is moving in the direction of the future. Our customers want books in their hand and on their NOOK...done. We have been and will continue to meet our customers wants and needs.
Jeff Ward August 03, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Charley and Dwortz, This wasn't an "overheard conversation." This was a B&N employee willing to go on the record with the contents of a memo they'd received from on high. The link to the blog that generated the story is included in the piece. Could this information be erroneous? There's always that possibility, but it's I think it's too specific to be false. E-readers are the wave of the future for some folks. Granted, it will be a growing number, but I maintain it's a level insanity, when you can get ebooks online, for brick and mortar book stores to focus on anything other than physical books. If I have an e-reader, why do I need the store in the commons? Jeff I stand by my prediction.
Cynthia August 03, 2011 at 07:56 PM
the bn employee that spoke up in the article was probably a low level employee that hasn't been with the company for a long time. What you don't understand is that these type of changes happen all the time. This isn't anything new, bn sells what's popular, not obscure titles that have 1 in a million of selling. What happened to borders is that they actually expanded their stores and didnt try to expand their online business, they stopped carrying smaller publishers in the last couple years because they couldnt pay their bills. I think you need to do more research to understand the publishing business before you write something that is completely misinformed. All bookstore retailers especially the independents are going to suffer because of borders demise. Publishers are already changing how many books they publish accordding to recent trends and bn is doing what they can, succesfully, to make sure that people are still going to be employed. writing misinformed articles like these make it harder for the people that work at bn and you need to think about your actions and how that affects others.
Copyright1971 August 09, 2011 at 03:40 AM
This was not an overheard conversation, except in the sense that after reading the memo it was "overheard" in our meeting a half hour later. As to the idea that no book is being removed that has sold in the last two years, I can confirm that is a fallacy. Because full shelving bays have been removed to make way for several more large boat-sized games & toys fixtures, we've had to undergo a major shift and shrink. Backstock is taking a massive hit, and not just titles beyond 2 years old. I'm all for clearing out the dead weight in terms of space eaters and dust collectors, but the notion that all is hunky dory as the company seeks to shrink its book presence while turning into a low end Toys R Us is short sighted. Yes, bring on the digital age and the benefits it has, but this cull is not just a simple little tidying of the house. It's a wholesale focal shift and we're turning into the stores that need only to hire people who can say this phrase: "I'm sorry, we don't have that on the shelf but we could order that for you."
Copyright1971 August 09, 2011 at 03:47 AM
Management and double digit service years. Articles like this don't make it harder to work at B&N. Ignoring books for the sake of games and toys makes it harder to work at B&N. Constantly having to tell a customer that you don't carry the title they want, or that they can get it for a significant discount online, makes it harder to work at B&N. Insisting that employess focus their attention on member cards and kids club cards and e-mail captures instead of selling books makes it difficult to work at B&N. I do think the demise in 2 years is a bit hasty but there's nothing out there right now to indicate that B&N is on strong footing. Ignoring books and shifting focus to games and toys isn't going to save them. It's one thing to use toys and games as simple add ons to a purchase, it's quite another to devote 1/4 of your store space to the endeavor. Let's not fool anyone anymore (well, frankly, no one is being fooled anyway when they walk in the stores). You've lowered your interest in actual books, you've dropped "BOOKSELLERS" from your shipping boxes. Just rip it off of the masthead on the store front, too. We're not bookstores anymore. We're just stores. For stuff.
Jeff Ward August 09, 2011 at 12:02 PM
Dear Readers, Since this column ran, I've engaged in an email conversation with the B&N employee in question and I'm convinced their story is accurate. It's too logical, detailed and unemotional to be anything else. But then again, you can judge that for yourselves! Jeff
salem1970 August 10, 2011 at 08:33 PM
As a member of management, and a 9 year vet, copyright 1976 is exactly right. In the last two years we've removed almost half the books from the stores, removed bays and fronted entire sections. And yes they are converting a quarter of the store to toys and games (which don't fly out the door to begin with). I think we have three years, but keep pulling the books out of the stores and that timeline shrinks. The stores are the only part of the company that make money. The Nook and .com are why we're losing 60 million a quarter. The sad part is that even the e-reader sales are dropping, you can buy them all over; and without back-list there is no reason to come to the store. It's sad, but too many MBA's and not enough booksellers, and there you go.
Jeff Ward August 11, 2011 at 01:20 AM
Dear Salem, Though I appreciate your insider input, it does not make my happy in the least that you are confirming what I wrote. My fondest wish is for Barnes & Noble and all of their employees to have long and prosperous lives. My goal in writing about something like this isn't to hasten or revel in any businesses demise. It's to give that entity an opportunity to see the light and right the ship while they still have time. Thanks again! Jeff
Erica September 18, 2011 at 03:47 AM
I love B&N and the fact that's going out out of is disgusting. If they are more about the toys than books what does that say about as person or a parent? More and more kids are drooping out school and have a low level of reading. That's really bad, these celebrities that kids look up to should the a kid to read a book. They talk about the Money and girls they can get. They really bad role models and shame on the parents for letting these kids have these celebrities as role models. In my house we have a room full of books and I want to continue to have more books,just hope its on time before they close. I'm upset this is happening after I just renewed my expensive membership. Just so I can save a little on the books I buy, I should ask for my money back.
Erica September 18, 2011 at 03:53 AM
I'm going to do my best for my four year old and for my newborn that's coming soon to have all the books they can get. This year for Christmas it's going to be books and clothes. No more toys that's for sure.
shadowshere October 01, 2011 at 03:26 AM
Jeff, as someone who does work at B&N, I can confirm that the info you got was indeed accurate. And yea, beyond a couple years, I certainly would not bet B&N will be in business. Between the recession and the disruptive nature of the new e-book technology I completely understand why we are in this desperate place right now. Just wish it wasn't so and I don't believe selling games is going to help the brand in the long run.
Jeff Ward October 01, 2011 at 03:34 AM
Dear Shadow, This is one of the cases where I wish I wasn't right. I still say if B&N focused on creating a memorable book store shopping experience they would not only survive, but flourish. Jeff
J. Kendall November 22, 2011 at 07:09 AM
Jeff, thank you for voicing what I consider a high-probability result: namely B&N is scuttling its business. I've been watching with bewilderment as the book inventory is sharply reduced while non-literary items are brought in to "fill" the voids. This trend is insulting. In the past, I would visit once a week and usually walk out with a new book or two. Now all I usually see is a fraction of the same old choices they've had for months -- the result being I walk out empty-handed and disappointed. I've given up visiting as frequently. A measure I've considered taking is special ordering the books I find online into my local store. Maybe this would get the message across to them. Right now, B&N upper management clearly doesn't understand what a bookstore is about.
Patricia LeBlanc November 29, 2011 at 01:03 AM
Thank you Jeff, your article related everything I thought about when I first learned that BN was closing. I have a 10 year old grand son who would rather go to BN than the movies or the park. One of his Christmas gifts from me, grandma, is a $100 BN gift card. We spend on average 8-10 hours a month in BN. I truly understand your statement about going right out to purchase the book you want rather than waiting for the postman, the Fed-EX or UPS, not the same as same day gratification! At times not even the library has the books in stock and again there is a wait for a book on hold to arrive. My grandson is in the book club at his school and the librarian announced today that BN was closing the class was upset to say the least,some even cried. Book lovers may have a Nook or a Kindle but there is Nothing that an avid reader loves more than to feel the pages of a book in their hands, or falling to sleep with the book across your chest and no worry of it breaking if it fell on the floor.
Mike March 10, 2012 at 06:18 AM
I bought my wife a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I don't have an ereader of my own. I do get some books on my smart phone and read them there. I like being able to read in the dentist waiting room or where ever. Always having a book to read in nice. However, I still prefer the printed page. You can lend them, give them away and for me its easier to look something up in the printed book. On some books it seems I am always going back to the book, 'Now what did the author say about that again?' I love going into a book store and skimming this book or that. Even tho my wife has her kindle she still likes holding books in her hand. In her book club most of the women have ereaders, but most of the books they read are of paper and ink. Ebooks are maybe the future, but I think and hope there will always be books and a choice of the printed book on paper or ereader. We buy our grandson lots of books. One of the best gifts you can give a child is not just the love of reading but the love of books. Hang in there B&N. I love my small independent but really like the big box B&N book store. Kind of convoluted thoughts here seeing as I use Amazon regularly.

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