Where Is the Future for Bookstores?

Where Is the Future for Bookstores?

I was at a wedding over the weekend, and I tried making small talk with the gentleman seated next to me. As it turned out, he was from Chicago; we started chatting about the last time I was there for a work conference, which was held above a Barnes and Noble. He laughed and told me the Barnes and Noble is closed. In fact, between B&N tightening stores and Borders going bankrupt, Chicago is down to just two Barnes and Nobles to serve the large-scale bookstore needs for the city. This was quite a disappointment to my new buddy, as he vehemently hated eBooks and really loved the experience of shopping for physical books.

The conversation has been bouncing around in my head for a few days, and coincidentally Joe Wikert weighed in today with his editorial on Teleread about the future of B&N. In it, he argues that B&N needs to be a technology company, not a bookstore, and he lists several issues with the NOOK platform. What’s most damning is this comment:

B&N CEO William Lynch needs to focus on answering this one important question: Why would someone want to buy a Nook over a Kindle? If their answer is “because we have GlowLight” he might as well just fold up his tent and go home now.

IMHO, that question is best answered by a technology-focused company, not one with deep roots in the brick-and-mortar world. Innovation opportunities are out there and they’re not dependent on eInk devices. Companies like ReadSocial, BookShout andInkling come to mind, to name a few.

It is certainly a compelling argument. After all, the leader in the ebook space is Amazon, and they are steeped in technology. eBooks are the growth area for publishers and retailers, so honing the hardware and software experience is key.

But then you come back to the conversation over the weekend. Chicago only has two Barnes and Nobles, and yet they have five Best Buys, two Apple Stores, and 35 Radio Shacks. Apparently selling technology means you need MORE stores! All joking aside, there is a difference between the brick and mortar experience of a bookstore and that of a Best Buy. I know, I have worked in both!

Customers have an emotional connection to books that they don’t have to the place selling them a USB cable, and that’s where B&N can answer the question of “why buy a NOOK over a Kindle?”

It won’t be easy, but I firmly believe that if B&N doesn’t figure this out, some smaller chain or independent store will. There are a few ways I think B&N can succeed, still, integrate technology, but keep those emotional roots that make bookstores something special. For starters, they can partner more tightly with well known social media options like Goodreads and Foursquare. Offer a free cup of coffee for a Foursquare check-in. Give 10% off book two in a series if you show your Goodreads review of book one. Make the B&N membership program more social, with the opportunity to tweet or share on Facebook your latest purchases, and, of course, broadcast a plug for the membership discount, ie: “I just saved 10% on XYZ title at my local B&N!”.

Those are the super easy ways. The more interesting parts would be if B&N worked with Goodreads or a similar site to promote titles, help run book clubs, etc. There are always practical ways to compete as well, such as improving free shipping times, focusing more closely on local interest titles and impulse buys, and of course author meet-ups and other events.

And honestly, none of this requires selling someone the physical book.

If B&N can find a way to open their membership up to eBook customers and make their stores destinations instead of just shopping locations, then they wouldn’t need to sell someone the book to get them in the door. They would just need to give someone a reason to enter, and the sales would come if the environment was right.

Think about the last time you walked by or entered an Apple Store. It isn’t like wandering into Best Buy, it is an experience. Now think about going to book club at your local bookstore, heading to the midnight release of a Harry Potter title, or taking your kids to children’s story hour. That, too, is an experience.

Amazon can sell you a book cheaply, and they can beam it to every Kindle device you own, but they can’t give you the physical and emotional trappings that come with a bookstore, or reading an old book. Barnes and Noble has all the pieces to bring that together, and that’s where they can strike for success. They can play off the nostalgia of eBook readers who love the book experience, and they still benefit from the non-eBook holdouts like the wedding guest I met.

But straying too far from being a bookstore, in my opinion, pushes them too close to “monkey see/monkey do”. That’s not innovation, that’s a slow march to oblivion.

What would you like to see change in the bookstore world? Do you miss bookstores in your area that have closed, or are you so immersed in your Kindle or NOOK that you hadn’t even noticed? Let us know in the comments!


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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

4 Comments on "Where Is the Future for Bookstores?"

  1. Actually I miss the mall book stores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton more than B&N. B&N is like the Walmart of books or at least they used to be. Waldenbooks was convenient because they were usually already in a place that was an experience: the local mall.

    When I was a kid, we hung out at the mall. We’d eat in the food court, go clothes shopping, maybe pick up a tool at Sears and as a treat we’d either top at Waldenbooks or Kaybee and get a toy. Those are my memories and that is what B&N should try to build.

    When I go to the big B&N at Easton, it feels like….well…a Walmart of books.

    B&N should close the big stores, make smaller ones but make them experiences. Carry some real books, but have wifi for purchasing eBooks and of course have Nooks on hand as well. Plus they should include Starbucks as well. Actually, maybe even work a deal with Starbucks to put a micro store in Starbucks with the best sellers, wifi and Nooks. Imagine popping into a nice comfy Starbucks, getting a book on your Nook and getting a latte.

    Becoming Tech oriented is not a bad idea either. Imagine a smaller B&N with no books just Nooks, iPads and other tablets and a cafe, comfy couches and good eats.

    The social networking ideas are good too but I also think they should do something similar to the Amazon lending Library. I have read a book a month most months lately thanks to this and I am more likely to stay on my Kindle because of it.

    When all is said and done, the age of a Big Box Style book store is coming to a close and if B&N doesn’t do something they are going to become an also ran.

    • Ironically, B. Dalton is a B&N property. Waldenbooks was Borders and they spent a crap ton on rebranding it “Borders Express” right before the company started to sink. If you want to hear from a bitter bookseller, ask a Waldenbooks employee what it was like when Borders swallowed them. It got ugly.
      I love love love the mini B&N in Starbucks idea! It is brilliant! It would be a great way to combat the lack of a bookstore presence in big cities (and even malls!)

      • I remember B. Dalton BEFORE it was a B&N property – when it was the king of the retail booksellers. And the thing I used to love was that department stores like Hudson’s (now part of Macy’s) used to have decent book sections. Back then the department store was the destination – that was the whole point – everything under one roof. That is long since gone, of course, and department stores really don’t have that many “departments” anymore.
        In general, though, I suspect that the era of the big box store is starting to wind down a bit. Many of the players have already disappeared with only a few left. Even Best Buy generally doesn’t report very favorable numbers (the pressure of constantly pushing the prices down, I suspect). Maybe it’s time for a small shop resurgence. We’re already well into the migration from megamalls to smaller lifestyle centers, fake downtowns, and strip malls. Hmmm.

  2. I have to agree with a lot of what you are saying. They started making the stores “destinations” by including Starbucks in many locations, but I think they should do more too. I worry as they devote more and more floor space to Nooks and non-book items since neither one really brings more people in. (Nooks will bring people in regardless of the amount of floor space given). Many of your suggestions are good ones, but they really have to figure out how to make the e-experiance more enriched and how to tie that to a destination (the physical store) otherwise I think we might see the total collapse of their brick and mortar operations and that isn’t good for anyone!

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