In what has to be considered a bit of a coup, BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary scored a lengthy interview with B&N head James Daunt as the feature of BISG’s annual meeting which took place on September 11. Daunt had a lot to say about his plans for change at B&N, including more diversity in what the stores stock which will be a by-product of more power for individual store managers.
What publishers undoubtedly took note of were Daunt’s announced notion to lighten up on initial buys and depend more on rapid replenishment to keep books that move in stock. He seemed to expect the rapid resupply that requires to continue to come from B&N’s own warehouse infrastructure, a system of support built during a more expansionist time. So you can scratch (at least temporarily) one idea I had for restoring their financial health, which would have been to dismantle that costly infrastructure and accept a bit of a margin cut (but probably better service, I’d reckon) by depending on Ingram for resupply.
What presents publishers with a bit of a conundrum, though, was Daunt’s firm position against publishers calling on the B&N stores to inform store managers about offerings that the central office might have skipped for them that they might want to consider. In fact, this “all the information has to go through the home office, but the store managers can do some stocking as they see fit” is both a logical and logistical oxymoron in the plan. If the central office doesn’t like a title enough to buy it, why and how would they pass along information to a store sufficient for them to make a different decision? And if the titles not bought are never presented to the stores, how would they know what to buy from what was skipped?
Left undiscussed was the whole automated replenishment system — “model stock” — which keeps enduring backlist in stock without human initiative for every reorder. Will stores be able to model books themselves? Will they be able to turn off central office models?
Although Daunt answered every question put to him, he also clearly had his own checklist of things to say and emphasize. The most glaring omission from Daunt’s presentation was the fate and role of BN.com. This is particularly ironic because competition with Amazon (always, and disconcertingly for me, pronounced “AmaZIN”) was a frequently-arising topic. Daunt was acutely aware that much of what had been his chain’s business is flowing to them. But, curiously, he had absolutely nothing to say about his own dot com competition with them. Not one word.
And if Barnes & Noble sees any inherent advantage in having an online complement to their store presence, such as a “buy online, pick up in store” or “buy in store, have delivered by post” capability offer, Daunt did not to choose to mention them in this conversation (although the store pick up capability has been talked about him in the past and curbside pick-up has been featured during the pandemic). If B&N sees any threat from Amazon expanding its physical store footprint with much smaller stores, that also wasn’t mentioned.
In fact, Daunt’s hopes (you couldn’t call them “plans”) for the Nook got a lot more airtime than the zero allocated to dot com sales. This despite the fact that dedicated reading systems started out in service to dedicated devices. Dedicated devices have been superseded by multi-function devices. There is no real discernible point or competitive advantage to the Nook reading system. These realities were not acknowledged in the dialogue.
The movement of book sales from shops to clicks is now a much bigger story than Amazon and B&N alone. Big retailing brands like Walmart and Costco are selling books online as well as in their stores. Bookshop.org is a new indie-friendly online sales capability that is starting to get real traction, although it is still tiny compared to Amazon or BN.com. But customers who want to buy online and don’t want to support Amazon have a robust new alternative that is not named Barnes & Noble.
The inexorable shift of book sales to clicks is a bigger question than the merchants and the pricing. Temporarily accelerated by the pandemic, the movement of consumers to buy more and more online for home delivery — of just about anything but especially those things that don’t have to be tried on or tasted — is a trend that shows no sign of abating. It would seem to me that acknowledging that reality would be front and center thinking for any retail operation with a big physical footprint and a significant digital infrastructure.
It is curious to me that none of this came up in an hour of Daunt explaining his view of B&N’s future. I would not be dashing out to buy shares if they were still available. The movement of book sales from stores to clicks will continue and, near as I can tell, B&N has no plan in place based on an understanding of that inevitability.
One thing that has been keeping me busy, about which there will be a much longer post soon, is www.climatechangeresources.org, my partnership with Lena Tabori that is now up and operating. Also been working on a history of Ingram, about which more to come shortly as well. I even have a couple of new publishing clients. Keeping busy and staying healthy during the pandemic. I hope all of you are doing the same.