Barnes & Noble is a Success Again

In the late 90s and early aughts, it was thought that print was dead and the Internet would replace everything physical. That hasn't happened and one company has stuck around to this day: Barnes & Noble. The bookseller has outlasted Borders, Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton Booksellers to be the last chain store standing. In the past decade, B&N has felt like it's teetering on the edge, but recently something amazing has happened: Not only is Barnes & Noble profitable again but they actually plan to open new stores. Sounds crazy, right? Ted Gioia writes about it at The Honest Broker.

James Daunt was put in charge of Barnes & Noble in August 2019. The timing was awful. The COVID pandemic hurt all retailing, especially for discretionary items like books. Even worse, the Barnes & Noble stores were, in Daunt’s own words, “crucifyingly boring.”

But Daunt used the pandemic as an opportunity to “weed out the rubbish” in the stores. He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing. 

As this example makes clear, Daunt started giving more power to the stores. But publishers complained bitterly. They now had to make more sales calls, and convince local bookbuyers—and that’s hard work. Even worse, when a new book doesn’t live up to expectations, the local workers see this immediately. Books are expected to appeal to readers—and just convincing a head buyer at headquarters was no longer enough. 

Daunt also refused to dumb-down the store offerings. The key challenge, he claimed was to “create an environment that’s intellectually satisfying—and not in a snobbish way, but in the sense of feeding your mind.” 

The Honest Broker

One other factor that plays into this is "BookTok" where books can go viral on that platform and cause a book-buying frenzy. Many times I've been in a B&N or other stores that have dedicated BookTok tables for these offerings. In other instances, I've seen areas where covers are sorted by color to help people find a book they've seen somewhere but don't know the name.

I've also seen some reinvestment in their Nook eReader platform. However, I think Amazon has such a lion's share that unless they have the most epic of blunders, they'll never relinquish much of a lead (if any). Plus the Kobo readers are a nice 2nd place ecosystem of book readers as well.

The results on B&N's turnaround are amazing, especially when you see how much kitch is being sold. The stores feel a bit better (but not enough to me) to enjoy, but the results are there. Gioia notes that last year B&N opened 16 new stores and will look to add 32 more in 2023 alone.

An incredible comeback story for a company that has become a real ally to readers instead of a marketing machine to publishers. To me, that's a win-win.