The New Yorker did a very provocative story dated October 21 about Barnes & Noble that included a great deal of information gained from a phone interview by writer David Sax with B&N significant shareholder and chairman Leonard Riggio. B&N is a subject of obsessive interest to book publishers and their friends, family, and ecosystem. About two months ago, I wrote a post trying to pinpoint the source of their biggest challenges (lots of titles in a bookstore isn’t the magnet for customers that it once was) and suggesting a way to attack it (put bookstores in places the customers already were, which are retailers of other things, not books).
Because I lived through a story I told in that piece, it hit me between the eyes when Riggio was quoted in the New Yorker saying he favored doing smaller stores in 2000! It was 2002 or 2003 when I saw clearly, from B&N data, that the big store magnet was already an outdated relic. I then suggested to a fairly highly placed executive there, “you guys have to use your fabulous supply chain to make the 25,000-title store work”. The response was that such an idea couldn’t even really be broached internally. “Mike,” my contact said, “we’re thinking about the MILLION title store!”
So if Riggio was thinking what he remembers thinking back at that time, the word never got to some of his most trusted executives.
The second thing that jumped out at me from the New Yorker piece was Riggio’s analysis of why people shop where they do. It’s very simple in his view. If you have a bookstore close to you, you buy your books there. If you don’t, you go to Amazon. Oh, the many things that analysis oversimplifies and elides!
The first is that it totally lets BN.com off the hook for 20 years of uninterrupted failure to deliver an acceptable online shopping solution. Since the late 1990s, when Amazon started discounting heavily to discourage indies from delivering a competitive online solution, “the problem” has been that Amazon was willing to discount their books aggressively and B&N, trying to “protect” their store business, was not. But while that may have given Amazon an early edge, it doesn’t explain why B&N has lagged Amazon in every functional way from the beginning. Their search isn’t as good. Their checkout isn’t as good. Their metadata is inferior by miles.
The woman of principle I’m married to would, for years, search and shop for her books on Amazon (where she could find what she wanted) and then go to BN.com to order them (so she kept her dollars in the book business). For the same reason she bought Nook instead of Kindle. That lasted for some years. She’s now a Prime customer. Staying loyal to B&N was just too hard; the stuff didn’t work.
As it happens, people who worked at B&N Publishing and Sterling, the formerly independent publisher B&N bought, did the same thing. I’ve been told by several people that they routinely used Amazon to gather the data they needed to support internal discussions about a book or a category. The internal alarm bells should have been deafening!
Riggio’s view of how customers choose their vendor ignores another important nuance. Those decisions depend both on the customer and what they’re shopping for. The key realization I had from B&N data in 2002-3 that led me to suggest smaller stores was that professors were clearly not buying their academic and professional books at B&N anymore. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.
Professors are smart people. They were well aware from years of experience that their local bookstores (B&N or any other) almost never had the most recent academic or professional book they heard about. When the Amazon alternative became available it was a clearly superior choice if your expectation was that you would just go to the store to special order and then have to go back to pick it up! Before there was an Amazon, the store with the most titles was the logical place to go look for something obscure. After Amazon was established, they gradually — quite logically — became the default for that use case.
What the professors had figured out by 2002, the whole world knows today. The savvy consumer will likely order any title s/he thinks is at all obscure from Amazon rather than expecting to find it in a local store.
Another nuance that segments how book purchasers make those decisions, besides obscurity, is the nature of what they’re shopping for. If you want to buy “The Girl on the Train”, you don’t need to see it or touch it. If you want to buy an art book for your best friend’s birthday, you might well want to look carefully at a few before you decide. Even with access to “Look Inside” capability (which is far more built out at Amazon than at BN) online, seeing the physical book in a store would be preferred for logical reasons by many people.
Then there’s the weight of the book which you might not want to carry around or the possibility that you want it just shipped directly to somebody else. Where you live in relation to a bookstore isn’t going to make much difference in those cases.
In fact, an industry veteran who started in book clubs reminds me that we knew all this decades ago. Outsiders thought mail order book clubs were for people who couldn’t easily get to bookstores. But, in fact, the people running book clubs knew that the zip codes where they had the most customers also had lots of bookstores in them.
I have one more conjecture from reading the New Yorker piece, which is that, as smart as Riggio is and as obsessed as he certainly was with the way his business ran, it is possible he doesn’t fully understand why B&N was so successful. You have to do a lot of things well to run a big bookstore chain.
It could have been because of the intelligence and care they put into selecting locations for the stores. It could have been their internal store design and layout. It could have been the the authority they gave their managers to customize their stock. (Despite the notion, true and emphasized in the the New Yorker piece, that the stores are necessarily standardized in many respects, it has always been B&N’s ethic that the store manager should buy what is needed locally that the New York buyers might miss.) It could have been the skill of the buyers in picking the books.
But I always thought the key to B&N, differentiating them from Borders and other chains and heavily advantaging them over independents, was their supply chain logistics. They built warehouses and systems that enabled them to replace many of the books they sold today by tomorrow or the day after. Stock turn is the most important metric contributing to bookstore profitability, far more impactful than discount (how much margin they get from the publishers). B&N’s supply chain was what gave them the edge.
After reading his quotes in this piece, it occurred to me that Len Riggio might not know that. He certainly said nothing to David Sax to indicate that he realized that was a critical lever for his company and exploring how he might use it. That was, of course, the foundation of my suggestion in the last B&N post I did suggesting they place B&N Book Departments in as many stores as they can.
And if Riggio does come around to that point of view, he might also revisit his concluding thought that, whatever happens, it will “play out over a long period of time”. The B&N supply chain capability, which has given it enormous leverage for decades, will also deleverage very quickly as volume and the number of stores being served goes down. It is the sales in the stores and on dotcom that pay for that supply chain. And even just reducing its size will be an expensive undertaking. That’s something for all of us to worry about.
A publishing veteran friend who recently pocketed beaucoup bucks from an “exit” speculated to me recently that Barnes & Noble would be a great company for somebody with fresh eyes and a fresh approach to do something with. He’d love to be part of a new owning group. That thought may be right, but the stock looks pretty expensive right now. I’m personally skeptical that the new “concept stores” with better food is a winning idea. Do you know anybody who picks their bookstore by the menu?
While this piece was being worked on, Barnes & Noble announced that they were closing their only store in New York’s borough of the Bronx.
And for those who can’t get enough on this subject, here are posts I wrote as long ago as 2009 (some of the linked speeches are much older than that!) and as recently as a year ago making the point that smaller bookstores were the future.