The Barnes and Noble Experience

The recent proposal to take Barnes and Noble private provides an occasion to consider what place a bookseller has in today’s marketplace. Any viable path forward must address the shift in book-buying from being the minimum possible effort to acquire knowledge and literature (essentially, a commodity) to a discretionary experience sought out when the urge for a particular aesthetic overcomes the expediency of digital media.

One of the case studies we looked at in my MBA program was Barnes and Noble, set at a point in time where Amazon was growing and traditional booksellers were in decline. The case study itself was from a time prior to Amazon opening physical stores, but we looked at the case shortly after news of the pilot Amazon stores broke.

While I do not recall the specific recommendations made by each classmate, I remember being struck by how many of them suggested that Barnes and Noble should get better at online sales. In essence, the consensus view was that Barnes and Noble should somehow out-compete Amazon in the area of Amazon’s greatest strength, after something like a decade of losing ground.

“Do what your competitors do, but do it better” strikes me as shortsighted advice than can only result in me-too, second place success. Customers, not competitors, should have our attention. It may at times be necessary to admit that a competitor made a good move; no company has a monopoly on good ideas. But imitation of a competitor should not be reflexive; it should be an outcome of re-examining our customer’s needs and our company’s strengths.

  • Is the competitor’s new offering a better way for your customers to achieve their goals?
  • What is the customer problem being solved?
  • Do you want to solve that problem?
  • Is there a different problem you are better able to solve?

In the case of Barnes and Noble, by the time of the case study Amazon’s e-commerce was well established. The possibility of Barnes and Noble surpassing Amazon’s breadth of selection or expeditious delivery was already remote. Competing on convenience or selection could only doom Barnes and Noble to falling further and further behind.

But a visit to Barnes and Noble has some pleasures that browsing Amazon can’t match. The library-like quiet and serenity, the physical experience of walking among rows of books, even the bookish smell; visiting a physical bookstore reminds you of everything an online store inherently lacks.

My last visit in person to a Barnes and Noble put me in mind of another store, a furniture store. It might have been Ethan Allen or Williams Sonoma – I don’t remember which. I remember the aesthetic sense of everything being clean, organized, and coordinated. I remember the implausible but alluring feeling that I could take that serenity home if I bought the furniture. And I remember Barnes and Noble feeling the same way.

Imagine a clean and well-lit living room where you can read for a few hours in peace. What if there were three or four rooms, in different styles for different moods? What if there were daycare on site, pay by the hour? What if you could meet there, once a month or once a quarter, for a white-tablecloth dinner, with some old friends and new acquaintances, knowing in advance some of the books you had in common?

What can you get, in person, that you will never get online?