In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort’s symbol appears above the houses of wizards who have been marked for death. Lately, it seems like Barnes and Noble’s stores have the Dark Mark over them. No matter what the company says or does, the news is always greeted with the same reaction: DOOM!
The latest round of “B&N WILL DIE” is due to comments from the company that they plan to downsize their stores from almost 700 to closer to 450 in about ten years. Is this the beginning of the end, or a natural and planned contraction? Will there be a Barnes and Noble in ten years?
First, let’s really consider if “closing excess stores” is cause for alarm. I don’t know precisely what B&N’s strategy is in choosing what stores close, and I don’t know their exact criteria. But what I do know is that Barnes and Noble expanded quite rapidly and has areas of significant overlap. I looked up my zip code, and found 10 stores in under 20 miles from where I am. Two of them are under 5 miles from me; four of them under 10 miles. The truth is, we probably don’t need that many bookstores all clumped together in the middle of central New Jersey.
Would it make it a bit more difficult for some people to shop at B&N if there wasn’t a store every 4 miles? Probably. On the other hand, it would make B&N more of a destination than a “hey, we just left dinner and don’t want to go home yet, let’s browse the bookstore” choice, which might mean less random foot traffic but more people entering with the full intention of purchasing books. If that’s the case, then closing stores over time makes complete sense. For comparison, I ran the same search near Newton, MA, where I used to work for Borders, and came up with the same results-ten stores, all less than 20 miles, and several within ten miles. Barnes and Noble had a tendency to expand in clusters, and as the business has changed, there’s nothing wrong with declustering a bit.
At the same time, the same red flags that I do think are cause for alarm are still there. Barnes and Noble does an awful job of promoting the NOOK business. They were slow to run ads, and they didn’t give people enough of a compelling reason why the NOOK HD was a better product than the Kindle Fire or the iPad Mini. If B&N wants to expand the NOOK business, they need to make it seem attractive not on its own merits but on the idea that it is superior to the more popular platform. I noticed when I went looking for stores on the store locator that many locations list “NOOK classes”. This is fantastic, and exactly what B&N should be doing! Train your customers on NOOKs, teach them not to be scared of ebooks, and get them to come into the store to do it. Perfect! But why I am only learning about it when I look for a location? Why isn’t being offered to me when I add a NOOK to my shopping cart? I even looked for a NOOK under the “pick up in store” option, and not a word about a NOOK 101 class. This would be the perfect time to take a customer who might buy online and get them to do in-store pickup. It feels like Barnes and Noble has all the puzzle pieces, but can’t seem to get the basics down. When you’re building a puzzle and can’t find the corner pieces, it makes it hard to believe you’ll get the rest of it filled in correctly.
Finally, there’s the issue of the rapidly disappearing bookstore customer. I love bookstores, and I usually wander into a bookstore if I’m walking past one. But a few weeks ago we were in Portland, Maine, and I opted not to duck into the local bookstore to look around because I had no desire to browse for books. I have more books on my Kindle than I have time to read, and there wasn’t anything that seemed to excite me from the windows of the store. Yes, I love eBooks, but I worked for a bookstore for three years. And if I want to find a new book, Amazon always has suggestions, and I’m slowly coming around to using Goodreads more often. And in a twist, more of my friends are reading now that everyone uses a Kindle or iPad than ever before…so I’m not hurting for books, or suggested books for the future. That, more than whether they have 10 stores or 15 or 5 in a 20 mile radius, is what’s really hurting Barnes and Noble, and I think is the real fear everyone has for them. Eventually they will either adjust or perish, but closing some of the stores has to happen no matter the outcome. Maybe B&N tightens their company, improves their marketing, gets more investments for NOOK Media, and surprises their critics by flourishing in a tough environment. Maybe B&N follows Borders to that great big bookstore in the sky. But both paths overlap at closing some of the stores-succeed or fail, there’s no denying that 700 stores is simply an untenable number for a struggling chain!