Sometimes it takes a decade or more for an insight to be validated, but it is always nice when it happens.
Around the turn of the century, I was developing a business called “Supply Chain Tracker”, which had a nice client base for a few years. What we did was take the data feeds — Excel spreadsheets — provided by publishers’ major accounts and find the nuggets of insight within them that enabled better inventory decisions.
This followed the logic of one of Shatzkin’s Laws, which in this case is “every spreadsheet is one calculation short of useful”. We added some calculations to make meaningful metrics out of raw data. For B&N’s spreadsheets reporting inventory and sales activity to publishers, two of these were calculating the “percentage of store inventory sold” from the “on hand” and “sales this week” columns and “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” derived from “on-hand in the stores” and “on-hand in the warehouse”.
My first client for this work was Sterling in the final year that they were independently owned before they were bought by B&N, which still owns them. When we showed our first prototype of a Supply Chain Tracker report to Sterling, we sorted by “the percentage of total stock in the warehouse” and two books popped to the top: 5000 copies with 100 percent in the warehouse! When Sterling’s then-Sales VP (later CEO) Charles Nurnberg saw that he said, “those books have been there since October!” This analysis was taking place the following February.
It turns out that B&N at the time had no systematic check of this metric in their workflow. If a B&N buyer bought five thousand copies and didn’t order a “store distribution”, the books would go into the warehouse and just sit there. It was a hole in their system. And since publishers tended to eyeball the spreadsheets in order of “sales”, looking for books that needed to be replenished, they just never caught this.
When Sterling showed the problem to the responsible execs at B&N, it bolstered the view of one of them that having the publishers intelligently reviewing inventory was useful support for the chain’s buying activity. They became supporters of our Supply Chain Tracker reporting (which we then extended to other accounts: Borders, Books-A-Million, Amazon, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor). But Barnes & Noble was everybody’s biggest account at the time and they offered the most robust reporting, so they were the primary focus of our work.
Let’s recall that the early years of this century were still the years of superstore expansion. B&N and Borders were proudly featuring stores that had 120,000 titles or more. It was precisely because they stocked so many titles and that the great majority of them turned very slowly that they wanted the additional publisher help in inventory tracking, particularly further down the sales ranks. And no publishers seemed more logical candidates for that help than university presses. B&N wanted to stock them more heavily, but their books were predominantly in the slow-turning majority. Distinguishing the books that would sell a copy or two in a store versus the ones that wouldn’t demanded the deep title knowledge of the publisher combined with the insight of well-structured reporting. Our work seemed to fit, so B&N subsidized our relatively expensive engagements providing our reports and tutorials on how to use them to university presses.
What we found as we started analyzing, though, was disappointing and initially surprising to all of us. But, as we thought about it, it was intuitively logical.
The university press titles had effectively stopped selling, even in B&N stores that were near university campuses. Why? Those sales had all moved to Amazon, which, at the time, was barely more than five years old. This first struck us all as disappointing and surprising. But, then, think about it…
The university professor would hear about a book. S/he’d go down to the local bookshop — could be a B&N or another store, didn’t matter — and look for the book. It would almost always not be there. So s/he’d “special order” it and wait for it. It didn’t take long for this to become an expectation, so ordering online became a very sensible default behavior. By 2002 and 2003, when we were doing this work, the battle to sell the obscure book to an audience that knew it was there and wanted it through a brick-and-mortar store was already lost. When you thought about this, it was intuitive, even though none of us anticipated it when we started doing the work.
Cambridge University Press at the time had a sales representative (since deceased) named Steve Clark. He was one of my most engaged B&N-subsidized clients. As we were doing this work and analysis, Clark told me that Amazon was already a bigger account for CUP than all other US retail outlets combined! That was a “wow”. But it underscored the degree to which Amazon had captured market share from the stores on hard-to-find books.
B&N still operated smaller stores that had been in the B. Dalton chain and Borders had a similar chain called Waldenbooks. While B&N and Borders were building out the 100,000-plus title stores, their mostly-mall chains were 20,000 and 30,000 title stores. They were in the process of shutting them down as leases expired.
With full knowledge of the strategy that governed their activity in those days, I said to my principal contact at B&N, “you guys should be figuring out how to use your infrastructure to make the twenty-thousand title store work”. He said to me, “Mike, we’re thinking about the million title store!” In other words, there was no appetite to take on board what we had all just learned to make a big change to the overall strategy. They had fully absorbed and couldn’t rapidly unlearn the lesson first discovered by my father, Leonard Shatzkin, when he was running Brentano’s in the 1960s: a big selection of books is a huge magnet for customers.
Unfortunately, Amazon had already changed that reality in a few short years after their inception. The huge selection was not as powerful a magnet as the online marketplace when the customer knew exactly what they wanted, particularly if it wasn’t a bestseller.
Now, flash forward to the present day. I’ve been fishing for lessons from retailers around the world that might constitute useful insight for the Digital Book World audience. My friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners suggested I talk to Anna Borne Minberger, the CEO of the Pocket Shop chain of stores, owned by the Swedish publisher, Bonniers. I got to meet Minberger for a conversation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the last fortnight.
And, lo and behold, Pocket Shop has taken the suggestion I made to Barnes & Noble well over a decade ago and made it work at an extreme I didn’t imagine. Their tiny bookstores stock only about TWO thousand titles, but they are a thriving chain in Sweden and Finland now expanding into Germany. Their formula is a very small title selection placed in very-high-traffic locations (of particular interest here in New York City where both our main railroad stations are losing somewhat larger bookstores) with highly knowledgeable and helpful staff. I didn’t get into the details of buying, inventory management, and centralized infrastructure support in our Frankfurt conversation.
But, near as I can tell, Barnes & Noble still needs a solution to grow their book business; the strategy today only seems to be about how to profitably manage shrinking it. Particularly if it continues to work in Germany, a market (unlike Sweden and Finland) where online buying is strong and Amazon is a real presence in the market, one would think that the Pocket Shop formula would be even more effective if supported by the B&N infrastructure and branding in the United States. Of course, making a strategic shift of this nature is probably a heavier lift for B&N now than it would have been when I first suggested it many years ago.
But I don’t discern any other strategy that leads to growth in what B&N is doing now. If they don’t try copying Pocket Shops strategy in the US, maybe somebody else will. One could execute on this leaning on Ingram’s infrastructure rather than creating one’s own supply chain. Who knows? Maybe even Pocket Shops themselves would like to give it a try.