Has Barnes & Noble turned the page?

Photo: Facebook/@BarnesandNoble
Apr 20, 2022

Barnes & Noble’s sales have recovered as the chain orchestrates a turnaround focused on empowering store managers and capitalizes on a revival of interest in reading.

Sales were up three percent in 2021 versus pre-pandemic 2019 levels, led by a 14 percent jump in book sales, according to The New York Times.

James Daunt, CEO since August 2019, employed a similar game plan to revive Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain.

Although the chain’s stores carry similar titles, in a shift away from centralized buying, individual managers determine where the books are placed and order quantities. The focus better aligns assortments with local tastes. Mr. Daunt told Publishers Weekly last year his goal is to provide managers with tools and then “get out of the way.”

Co-op title placement practices have also been ended because unpopular titles were receiving prominent placement and driving excessive return rates.

Other priorities include further narrowing the mix to books, educational games, puzzles and workbooks; store refurbishments that include an emphasis on smaller tables and wider aisles; expanding online (only 10 percent of sales); and reducing out-of-stocks. B&N’s city stores are still underperforming due to the continuing scarcity of office workers and tourists.

B&N may still be benefiting from customers who discovered or rediscovered reading while cocooning during the pandemic. Also boosting readership is a TikTok phenomenon wherein users are posting about books using the hashtag #BookTok and Millennials becoming nostalgic about the big-box bookstores where they discovered Harry Potter and other books.

According to the Times, book publishers and most independent booksellers in a turnabout are rooting for Barnes & Noble’s viability as Amazon.com now makes up more than half the physical book sales in the U.S.

B&N is seen helping publishers stay committed to supporting physical stores. Their well-stocked larger stores with comfy chairs are seen as critical to driving discovery that many believe isn’t possible with online book buying.

“Discovery is so, so important,” Daniel Simon, founder of Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher, told the Times. “The more Amazon’s market share grows, the less discovery there is overall and the less new voices are going to be heard.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does Barnes & Noble seem better positioned to prosper both due to its internal restructuring changes and external trends? Are there lessons for other retailers in its decentralized approach?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Gone are the days where every store within a national organization should look exactly the same and carry the same assortment. "
"James Daunt and his new team have combined some of what’s old with some of what’s new. The Barnes & Noble 'experience' can’t be duplicated by e-commerce."
"My vote resides in two words — “localization” and “discovery.” Oh, and comfy chairs."

Join the Discussion!

26 Comments on "Has Barnes & Noble turned the page?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

This category was forever changed when Amazon took it over. Barnes & Noble has managed to survive, but survival is not the same as thriving. It’s making progress, but its starting point was oblivion. For it to be a growth business, it needs to find new sources of revenue. For example, getting into self-publishing services? Continuing to be primarily only a “book reseller” is a limited business.

Neil Saunders

After years of neglect, B&N is finally going in the right direction. Improving stores to make them places where people enjoy coming to browse, relax and discover is key to success. This process has started but there is a still a long way to go as a lot of stores are still rather down-at-heel and lack things like a compelling cafe – a grotty Starbucks is not differentiating, how about partnering with some of the real great local coffee chains? To be fair, James Daunt said he was focusing on the easy fixes first and will then move to bigger models and bolder moves. Using staff to make decisions is a smart move, especially in a chain like B&N where most people who work there are knowledgeable and passionate about books.

Gene Detroyer

It sounds like they are making all the right moves. Most important is to play their own game and provide an environment of discovery. That is the one thing Amazon cannot do. As hard as Amazon tries, they cannot give that compelling feeling of taking a book off a shelf, opening it up, and seeing if it sings to you.

I am also a huge believer in driving decision-making as far down the management line as possible. Too many companies, retailers, and otherwise think the C-suite knows all. Any local store manager will make more actionable decisions than the generic decision made at HQs. The idea that the same inventory will service NYC and LA is ludicrous. In fact, any generic decision that assumes the suburbs will buy the same as cities is simply based in ego and has little to do with optimizing sales in a diverse landscape like the U.S.

Katie Thomas

Empowering employees is a game changer – his philosophy to decentralize and get out of the way is a great one, when I’m sure many managers at B&N are book lovers themselves. 73 percent of consumers, including Gen Z, still prefer to discover products in-store.

Gone are the days where every store within a national organization should look exactly the same and carry the same assortment – that’s part of the problem. Many companies got efficient to a fault and the pandemic blew that up. Mall retailers should take note.

Last but not least, I’m simply thrilled about #booktok and the power of younger consumers reading.

Dave Wendland

Great insights, Katie Thomas. I agree with your accolades toward the positive changes made across B&N. Are they entirely out of the woods and riding an unending wave? No. Continued changes will need to be made as shopper behavior evolves and demand grows. I’m excited to see my daughter’s favorite retailer back on track (she’s one of those 20-something readers worth celebrating!).

Brandon Rael
It truly is fascinating how the perception has changed about Barnes & Noble. Especially for those who remember the late-’90s, “You Got Mail” era, when the large chain bookstore was a harbinger of doom for community independent book shops. Barnes & Noble has evolved and is a vital part of the customer experience, introducing new authors and driving the art of discovery. For well-known authors, Barnes & Noble is essential for a different reason — its size. A necessary stop on any significant book tour, the chain’s 600 stores can place enormous orders and move a lot of copies. The chain also keeps publishers invested in distributing physical books around the country, which is a competitive advantage for booksellers of all sizes. Barnes & Noble is acting less like a centralized operation, with chain stores, and like more independent shops, with the freedom to tailor their offerings to local tastes. Assortment curation and optimization matters – as Barnes & Noble has also concentrated on selling books instead of the vast assortment of items that it… Read more »
Brian Delp

A decentralized buying structure as customers look for more personalization is a smart strategy. This allows B&N to offer a local bookshop curation with the support of the larger organization. It will be critical to ensure the right team is in place with proper training, but these decision makers will also be a stronger advocate for your brand once they feel more connected in the decision process as well.

Dick Seesel

B&N is making several smart moves, but I think it’s premature to declare victory. The company is benefiting from a comeback in brick-and-mortar retail (with few better pleasures than browsing a bookstore), especially because it was never a meaningful player in the e-reader category dominated by Amazon.

On the other hand, Netflix’s report of lost subscribers may add some caution: Are the 2021 numbers up vs. 2019 because consumers simply had more time at home to read or stream TV? Based on changes in consumer behavior — not all written yet — B&N needs more time to finish this story.

Bob Phibbs

I particularly liked their shifting focus away from other stuff to focus on books. Also to avoid the slotting fees at the front for books people don’t want to read. It’s smart to know who you are and what gets customers.

Lee Peterson

B&N is a great case study for most physical retailers going forward in this age of e-commerce/Amazon, etc. They demonstrate the right approach: find your niche and your true customer, right-size the store count, boost your e-commerce to at least compete, improve associate quality, add amenities (coffee shop, etc.) and realize the “new” company you have and drive that idea home. This isn’t the ’90s. Sure, you’re smaller, but hopefully you’re much better as a result.

Phil Rubin

B&N is employing a smart strategy and one that’s a clear differentiator, and a proven one for retail. Empowering store managers to be merchants, curating the right and relevant assortments for customers, and setting their stores without a centrally programmed planogram is how you grow a traditional retail business. Tell the right stories with how you set a store and you win. It’s a refreshing antidote to Amazon and the growing amount of mess that de-emphasizes the merchandising and has the potential to relegate it to nothing more than a fulfillment center.

Jeff Weidauer

While Barnes & Noble has managed to hold on against the Amazon juggernaut, there is much to be done before we can say it’s turned a corner to success. Local control was a great move – giving stores a “local” feel is certainly part of the formula. Now it’s time to integrate the coffee shop aspect into the whole store and make it a place to browse and decompress. As more are WFH, having a place to go outside the house will become more important and B&N could position itself as that place.

Gary Sankary

For the true book lovers (full disclosure: I am in that tribe) the experience of browsing shelves of books to find something new simply can not be created in the digital space. I think B&N is on the right track by allowing their store teams to have more discretion in their assortments. For book lovers, local authors are an important sales driver. This is sort of unique to books, I don’t think the assortment planning tools available work well in the book segment. I love that the store teams can take risks on a new book or author and I think help drive continued improvement for Barnes & Noble.

Zel Bianco

I love bookstores and am so glad that B&N is recovering nicely. My kids bought me a Kindle for my birthday and I love it but it does not replace the feel of holding a book and hopefully never will. The ability for managers to make their own decisions and that empower them to tailor their selections to local tastes makes total sense, just as it does for grocery and many other retailers. Publishers need to do more, however, to add the human touch to the experience in the way of author talks and other in-store experiences as was done before COVID-19. The time to take advantage of the pent-up demand is now!

Georganne Bender
The giant old school Barnes & Noble closed at our local mall in October and a few days later the chain’s new concept store opened at a town center three miles away. The difference in the two stores is striking. Gone are the low ceilings, tall racks that blocked the interior sight line, stacks of reduced price coffee table books, and other areas that made the store stuffy. The new store is slightly smaller, bright, and well fixtured and merchandised. I particularly like the concave wall fixtures that divide the books into sections and make you feel like you are getting a hug. The cafe is still there as are comfy chairs and plenty of non-book items that customers actually want to buy. And like an independent book store there are products geared to locals. The sales floor is peppered with signing recommendations by sales associates. This is a happy store. Barnes & Noble always did a good job with in-store events, like its complementary Harry Potter Yule Ball, and book readings for kids. I… Read more »
Ken Morris

The decentralized approach works. B. Dalton used a similar approach very successfully back in the day, before they lost out to Barnes & Noble and Borders. This book-buying and stocking approach is what makes independent bookstores survive. If there is one good thing about the pandemic, it’s the return of old-fashioned reading. I also believe the deal with Fanatics to run the college bookstore division of Barnes & Noble allows them to laser focus on their core business. 

They’re also smart to look at out-of-stocks as a solvable puzzle. Discovery is important, but some customers will always head into a bookstore looking for a particular title. Maybe a checkout question could be: “Which book inspired you to come see us today?”

Dave Bruno

I love empowering local stores to get involved – and I like the other moves they are making to help promote discovery. I might suggest they look for ways to invest in online discovery as well, and have always thought that Goodreads.com would be an intriguing acquisition target for B&N. Engaging readers in online discovery is critical to competing with Amazon, and Goodreads has hit on a great formula. Imagine if B&N added personalized promotions and offers to Goodread users, and encouraged Goodreads book clubs in local store neighborhoods, etc. The possibilities are endless!

Patricia Vekich Waldron

This is another example of the importance of associates and local management in planning and delivering experiences and offerings tailored to their own market. It’s easy for people to order books from Amazon, its a completely different experience to browse a book store and connect with other book-lovers.

Nicola Kinsella
Localized assortments are definitely a win. So many retailers have centralized buying that doesn’t allow enough flexibility for regional preferences. While tech can help with forecasting, there is an art to retail merchandising — especially in stores — and empowering store managers to maximize their revenue is essential. But it’s also concerning that only 10 percent of sales are online. This looks like an opportunity for future growth. While discovery in-store is great, a lot of discovery is happening online — through reviews, “frequently bought together” and “people who bought this also bought” or “people who like this also liked” type recommendations. But to do this well, B&N needs to launch campaigns (maybe through their stores) that drive more online reviews so they can enable enhanced digital discovery in a way that differentiates from Amazon. For example they could enable customers to: Sort search results or categories by number of reviews; Follow reviews of friends (like Spotify); Follow other reviewers that you like (make it easy to view or subscribe to notifications when they post… Read more »
Jeff Sward

Surely, at this point in Amazon’s conquest of the universe, if a bookstore can stage a comeback then there are lessons for retailers everywhere in this story. My vote resides in two words — “localization” and “discovery.” Oh, and comfy chairs.

Brent Biddulph

B&N has one distinction — they are a sole survivor retail chain (in brick and mortar books) of the “Amazon Effect” similar to Best Buy (in consumer electronics). Given that consumers still purchase 80% of retail goods from brick and mortar stores here in the US, they also have a responsibility to leverage data analytics to do better. Best Buy figured this out a decade ago. Kudos to B&N in leveraging data and analytics to empower local stores and teams to improve customer experience!

Kai Clarke

Barnes & Noble needs to focus on electronic titles and an omnichannel marketing strategy to compliment this as well. Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla and its business is growing by much more than a few percent. Imitation of Amazon’s model, within limits, is the shortest proven path to success in this industry. BKS needs to adapt or perish….

Craig Sundstrom

Recovered? Let’s see: if the (mid single digit) increase is in unit sales, fine; but if it’s in dollars, I’m less impressed as prices have risen by about twice that in the time period.

But let’s not fixate on a moment in time. Booksellers in general are challenged by long-term declines in reading — affecting not just books but (even more) declines in newsstand sales — so I’m having a hard time associating the term “prosper.” I think they’re position to do ok, which is no small thing as just a few years ago even survival seemed “iffy.” I wish them well.

David Biernbaum

James Daunt and his new team have combined some of what’s old with some of what’s new. The Barnes & Noble “experience” can’t be duplicated by e-commerce.

The stores provide readers with a well-lit walking library atmosphere, as well as a smell of freshly brewed lattes and books.

Millennials are now enjoying Barnes & Noble, perhaps for the first time, and Boomers and Gen Xers have returned. Although it’s a national retail chain, where assortment was once very standard, Barnes & Noble has transformed well into also being the local book store.

During the post-pandemic period, Barnes & Noble served as a relatively “safe place” to shop and spend some time out of the house.

Brad Halverson

Kudos to James Daunt and his team for implementing more controls towards store managers for merchandising and letting them take care of local products and more buying. A corporate may create efficiencies and deal making through the supply chain, but teams in local stores know their customers the best.

There should be room against Amazon for a healthy in person bookstore competitor to operate and differentiate itself. Will be fun to see what the next moves are to create some separation.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Browsing a bookstore is an insatiable feast for the mind. The time spent is self-indulging and fulfilling. Creating a warm environment to explore and (re)discover the joys of physical books with others is an emotionally comforting activity. Add the localization potential for each store, and you have created the antidote for the Amazon (or Netflix) effect of homogenizing demand and offering the same bestseller lists.

"Gone are the days where every store within a national organization should look exactly the same and carry the same assortment. "
"James Daunt and his new team have combined some of what’s old with some of what’s new. The Barnes & Noble 'experience' can’t be duplicated by e-commerce."
"My vote resides in two words — “localization” and “discovery.” Oh, and comfy chairs."

Take Our Instant Poll

Does Barnes & Noble have a brighter or dimmer future versus pre-pandemic times?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...