“’What I mean by that is you can be the best ice salesman in America until the refrigerator comes out,’ Edwards said. ‘You can be driving your taxi one day and Uber knocks you out the next day. You can be in the hotel business and then Airbnb can surround you with 20 properties with a great size at a lower cost. I think you have to face the digital impact head on and not go through denial and don’t rely on past tactics to change the trajectory of the company because it doesn’t work anymore.’”

Mike Edwards was the CEO who had to take the Borders bookstore chain into liquidation. I’m not sure what exactly he means by facing “the digital impact head on” and maybe he doesn’t either. It’s a bit like the tsunami that hit Fukushima: TEPCO may or may not have “faced it head on” but facing up to some things isn’t going to make any difference to the outcome. It’s hard for a company to turn and run for the hills. Changing the trajectory of a corporation sounds like a reasonable aim, but what really does it mean? Selling clothing instead of books, or as well as books, or clothing with extracts from books printed on it. If you are in books, and what your staff knows about is books, what really are your options? Sell a bit of other stuff — B&N’s now almost the only place you can go to buy a CD. But that’s not really enough is it? Still I guess these guys get the big bucks to come up with the big ideas. The Edwards story comes from Retail Dive via The Passive Voice.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.








Barnes & Noble has outlasted Borders, but rumblings keep on surfacing. Here’s Mike Shatzkin’s take on the recent New Yorker article which has garnered a lot of attention. Like Mr Shatkin I am doubtful that smaller stores with better food and coffee is the real answer*. Mr Riggio may have a point that people will tend to go to the bookstore that’s nearest to them, but that surely doesn’t mean that you can succeed à la Starbucks by setting up a cute little store on every corner. The most important points that come across in this discussion are the strength of B & N’s distribution network, and the fact that bookstores which are set up to cater to their local audience are the sorts of independent bookstores which are prospering nowadays. Maybe a giant conglomerate can mimic a collection of small, quirky, independent-minded store managers — but I doubt it. The share price won’t tolerate the right to fail (or even to fail to prosper quickly). As soon as stores of one stripe start underperforming, they’ll be told to do it the right, the corporate way. I suspect that independent thinking and public ownership are just mutually incompatible. Parenthetically, dare I point out that the corporate aesthetic strikes me as pretty dire.

It doesn’t matter how many books a shop stocks. What matters, obviously, is that they stock the right books, and that they care about them. Staff who are excited about the books on their shelves will be able to talk them up. Staff who are receiving scaled-out inventory allocations may be interested in some titles, but won’t have the same enthusiasm. Plus, if you have a gigantic store it’s not too surprising that customers will often find it hard to locate a sales person even if there is one there behind the ranks of shelves — and if you have a question you need to ask, this can be infuriating enough to make you swear never to darken their door again. In Three Lives you can’t ever be out of the sight of an employee: there’s just no room for that. (Good news: Three Lives’ lease is being renewed. They will not have to move. Seems not all real estate interests are utterly conscienceless.)

I am most struck by the observation that professors don’t go to B & N for their specialized monographs any longer. This makes perfect sense: if you know the book won’t be there, why would you waste your time trekking into your nearby B & N so that they can special order the book for you and make you came back and get it a week later. You might do this at your local indie bookstore, letting them get the book for you as a gesture of support. In the past these were your only options of course. Now you’d most likely get the book from Amazon. If B & N really has such an efficient network of warehouses, could they not promise two-day delivery to the customer’s door?

Leaving aside institutional purchasing for a library or school system, buying a book is a thoughtful choice made by an individual. It’s a small-scale one-to-one transaction. The idea that a mass audience can be drawn in to a massive, well-stocked store has been tried and while it may have worked in the past now seems to have passed its sell-by date. Time to move on. I hope Mr Riggio can come up with a cunning plan. As far as I can see I think the best strategy would be to become an alternative to Amazon, and focus on barnesandnoble.com, leveraging those distribution warehouses. I have no idea whether this can generate sales sufficient to keep a big organization going (or even succeed at all).


* I’ve never thought about what it’d be appropriate to eat while reading this or that book. Quirk Books makes a small stab at this important subject.