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!