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A B&N Bookseller LiveJournal Community Shows us That B&N Has Forgotten What it Used to Know About Bookselling

December 20th, 2013 by · 23 Comments · Barnes & Noble

If you barnes noble logohave some time this weekend and are looking for a reason to drink excessively, you might want to go visit a certain discussion thread over on LiveJournal.

That thread, which was first uncovered by The Passive Voice, is filled with anonymous B&N staffers griping about the problems they face at work – everything from not having enough hours/staff to unreasonable demands from district managers who are depicted as not being entirely connected with reality.

It’s a depressing read, but I don’t want to catalog all of the gripes (Chris Meadows beat me to it, anyway). Instead I want to make a more specific point by highlighting just a few gripes.

For example, here’s one commenter who works in a store that didn’t hire holiday help until the second week of December:

The store where I currently work suffered mass exodus of long term employees and they just this week hired holiday help so the few of us remaining are trying to train the herd of newbies. There have been multiple visits from district manager and other big wigs, resulting in orders to reset promos which take forever to accomplish because our store is thankfully busy at all times. Also seeing plenty of customer/external theft. Now we finally have enough cashiers but pulling product from receiving is hopelessly backed up. We are seeing plenty of sales but in 10 years I have never seen such massive pressure to push gift cards and memberships.

And another whose hours were cut in mid-December (they later quit and got a job at McDonald’s):

I just received a call from one of my ASMs. He said the SM just got off a regional call and was told to cut hours for the rest of the year in order to make payroll budget. I was told not to come in tonight, and given my adjusted schedule that cuts my hours in half from the prior posted schedules. I don’t know what I am going to do now. I was counting on the $ from my schedule to pay for my kids Christmas presents. With my cut in hours, I won’t earn enough to get the kids their gifts.

My point here is that there is a certain frightening parallel between what B&N corporate is doing to the store staff and how they are running the entire chain. Remember that disastrous interview that Mitchell Klipper gave back in January? He told the WSJ that Barnes & Noble planned to shrink for the next decade:

“In 10 years we’ll have 450 to 500 stores,” said Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, in an interview last week. The company operated 689 retail stores as of Jan. 23, along with a separate chain of 674 college stores.

Mr. Klipper said his forecast assumes that the company will close about 20 stores a year over the period.

Barnes & Noble’s plan to rescue the company could best be summed up as cutting costs in the hopes that at some point revenues will exceed costs and the company will be profitable again. This is an accepted business theory which would work in most industries, and even in most retail industries, but not bookselling.

Why not bookselling?

For one thing, indies are thriving while using a completely inverted approach. For another, we know that Borders adopted a similar plan shortly before the end, and look where they ended up. Carly Zekter used to work at Borders, and she left this comment over on Teleread:

I used to work for Borders in management, and left a few years before the final implosion because I saw the writing on the wall.

You could replace all of these B&N references with Borders and it would still fit. This is eerily similar to what Borders was like when I left.

For example, I was ordered to write up our best cafe employee for not making her Borders Rewards signups. When I pushed back, pointing out that as the only quick service option in the mall the cafe didn’t get many people interested in books and instead got lots of mall employee traffic looking for coffee, I was told either I wrote her up or my boss would write both of us up.

At my exit interview with my DM, he asked how the store could improve. I told him we needed more workers, and he responded “Well, you’re over payroll for the year, so what else?” Didn’t matter to him that our issue was that customers were walking out because no one was free to help them.

Barnes & Noble has forgotten that bookselling isn’t like any other retail industry. The book part adds a community aspect that for example Walmart lacks, and that is part of the reason that Borders failed. Or so says Matt Blind, an ex-B&N Manager:

Books Are Not Retail.

Big Box Bookstores are social spaces, have been since 1992 or so, and it is at least as important — more important — to consider community, demographics, sociology, psychology, and the whole grand tradition of books and Civilization Itself, as to rely on old models of retail and business.

Borders’ bankruptcy is not a failure of the business. Borders was run as a business, quite professionally, and using standard retail models.

The eventual collapse of Borders came because those in control of Borders forgot (or failed to ever realize) that Borders sells books.

And bookselling *is not* retail.

I know that might sound like hokum, but before you write it off I would like you to consider something:

Why are indie bookstores thriving at a time when BArnes & Noble is busy committing auto-asphyxiation?

Could it be perhaps that indies are operating as much from the heart as the ledger book?

A few months ago I pointed out that indies were thriving because they are offering all sorts of community activities and personal interaction with their customers that Amazon cannot provide. This may have run counter to the ongoing book industry paradigm of Amazon the bookstore slayer, but that doesn’t make it any less true:

To survive in the age of Amazon, many bookstores are emphasizing what e-commerce has a tougher time delivering: community and a personal touch. It’s not exactly a new strategy. But it has gotten far more attention in recent years.

Indeed, many bookstore owners are trying to create a sort of community center amid their shelves. They’ve filled their store calendars with events like author lectures, writing workshops, and children’s camps. Adding cafes also helps to create a scene while also diversifying revenue beyond just selling the latest bestsellers.

Based on what I read in that LiveJournal discussion, I don’t think B&N is focusing on the community aspects either. Instead they first threw vast sums of money into the Nook, and now they are pinning their hopes on cutting their way to profitability.

And that could be their undoing.

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23 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul

    Sadly, there might be something to this. While Politics and Prose has staff that read books to the kids, Barnes and Noble has a video screen playing a pre-recorded tape. It is not the same.

  • fjtorres

    To survive in an age of online shopping, B&M needs to offer up a justification for the consumer leaving the house, an experience or product (preferably both) that online cannot offer.
    The better-performing indies (and not all are prospering) fall into three broad categories: specialty destination stores, community-builders, and void-fillers stepping into areas left unserved by the Borders implosion and B&N downsizing.
    The last group are the lucky ones: they’re inheriting a customer base by default and have time to figure out how to join the other two groups.

    One thing most of the successful indies share is they run smaller, leaner operations than the chain stores and are getting very savvy about the tastes of their customer base, which allows them to tune their inventory to their community.

    The future of B&M bookselling is small and local, not big and national. (Which is to say: the BPHs’ worst nightmare. :))

    • Nate Hoffelder

      I wouldn’t say that the stores have to be small – just unique. Cookie cutter doesn’t work anymore because Amazon does it better.

      It is possible to have a chain of unique bookstores, but they would probably have to function semi-autonomously – closer to franchisees than the top-down structure B&N has now. And there already is at least one chain like that: Collins. This is one of Kobo’s retail partners in Australia.

      I haven’t heard of any similar franchise bookstore chain here in the US, but apparently Australia has several. Angus & Robertson was one, and Mary Ryan’s is another.

      • fjtorres

        Small = low rent/overhead.
        Borders’ management was the root cause of their demise but their palaces’ leases were the proximate cause.
        Bookstores will be better off carrying 5000 books their community wants than 30000 some apparatchik in NY who’s never set foot in town airdrops on them. We all know no B&M store can match online on catalog depth but they have a chance on immediacy, responsiveness, and loyalty. But that requires staff continuity and engagement and that means paying somewhat better than MacDonalds, even if Amazon entry level salaries prove too much.
        So, yes; I think small (stores) is better for bookselling.
        A franchise model? Possible.
        Another possibility is what indie pharmacies in some areas are doing to fend off the big chains: pooling purchasing power and regionalizing warehousing, maybe marketting.

        • flyingtoastr

          Amazon pays their pickers even less than B&N pays their booksellers.

          Your point is correct (B&N needs to pay for expertise and experience), but don’t use Amazon as an example of “good pay”. The general consensus is that anyone below VP at Amazon is being ripped off for the amount of work they do (and they have the second lowest tenure out of all the Fortune 500 companies as a result). By most accounts on Glassdoor it’s a pretty awful company to work for at pretty much any level – it’s either awful pay and conditions at the warehouse or verbal assault by Captain Baldy at the corporate office.

          A better example would be a company like Costco or Publix – retail that pays their employees well.

        • Nate Hoffelder

          Small is not always better. Some areas can support the super store, in which case there’s no reason not to put it in. For example, there used to be a borders store near me, but after it died the used media chain 2nd and Charles moved in.

          On a related note, I don’t think B&N could ever pull off the franchise idea. They’re too wedded to a top down structure. Also, it would deprive them of any chance of selling prime floor space to publishers.

          • fjtorres

            Sure, some areas can (probably) support massive specialty superstores.
            (At least ’round the holidays.)
            But we already know there aren’t 700 or even 600 that will support warehouse bookstores. Given the ongoing company-wide redeployment of floor space from bookselling to toys and trinkets, B&N is saying the same thing. Their bookstores *are* getting smaller.
            Problem is, their smaller bookstores are embedded in big buildings with hefty leases snd hefty utility bills. And, even if the toys and trinkets help defray costs in the gifting seasons, the result is still low revenue per foot during the rest of the year.
            Warehouse bookstores are becoming gift shops, electronics stores (word out of Canada is Indigo/Chapters is adding extensive electronics sections front and center; laptops and tablets, Apple most notably) with attached bookstores, and there is a price being paid in ambiance and customer experience, which is a key driver of book buying traffic if we can believe the traditionalist camp.

    • Fbone

      It also helps when their customer base is wealthy. After all, you are asking people to pay full retail.

      • fjtorres

        Not necessarily.
        That is one area where pooling purchasing power can help networked indies: volume discounts.

        • Fbone

          Maybe somewhere but I haven’t seen any discounting in the indies. Then again, why would they? If they are comfortably supported by their upper class clientele, there is no need to change.

  • William Ockham

    I think it is a bit of a mistake to say that bookselling isn’t retail. It isn’t general retail, but it certainly is specialty retail. Specialty retail can’t compete on price. It has have some edge, e.g. staff expertise, user experience, or exclusive selection.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      I see what you mean.

      As I was writing this post I was reminded of Circuit City. The first step in their downward spiral was to fire all of their commissioned salespersons as a cost cutting measure, a move that strongly reminded me of B&N.

  • flyingtoastr

    I’m willing to bet a lot of this has far more to do with the culture Lynch brought to B&N than the company as a whole forgetting their purpose.

    Lynch didn’t even bother to have an office at the B&N headquarters. He worked out of the BN.com offices. He for all intents and purposes ignored the stores – other than as a source of capital to dump into his pet NOOK division. It clearly shows.

    I’m not sure of where the management team stands now. On the one hand, you have Riggio in charge, the man who pretty much built the US bookselling industry and probably knows it better than most anyone. On the other hand, the company is resorting to the “cut to profitability” tactic, something that isn’t sustainable for a specialty retail company that doesn’t compete on price. I’m skeptical, but I’m not willing to

    Also: that LJ is full of people who don’t understand economics (when Lynch was forced out there were a slew of posts about how BN was going to kill NOOK and restore store payroll back to the way it was in the early ‘aughts so they could stand around doing nothing again – and lots of people who were sure that was the only way it could be). I wouldn’t take what they say seriously.

  • puzzled

    Rule # 1 in business: Make it easy for people to throw money at you.

    If you reduce the number of staff, then you give the customers, waiting in the queue to pay for their books, enough time to check out those books on Amazon (on their phone, or even using the free WiFi provided by B&N or someone in the mall). And see how much cheaper it is. And, if you then give them enough time to start wondering why they are waiting in the queue to pay for the books that they can get cheaper, don’t be surprised if you start finding piles of books near the registers needing to be re-shelved.

  • Greg Strandberg

    Boy, I feel for those workers. I know what they’re going through – I worked for EF China, a company that was poorly managed to say it in the best possible light. When companies adopt this attitude that quotas are more important than customers and target goals more important than the thoughts and feelings of employees then you know they have no long-term strategy.

    Why is management so incompetent? I see this in companies across the board and in many countries. The people we think are smart enough to make the tough decisions aren’t. I’ve talked to janitors that are smarter than the managers running day-to-day operations. Just that yes-man mentality that ensures there’ll be no questioning, just toeing-the-line. Stifles everything.

    It’s sad, and I feel so lucky I’m able to make a living from writing (for now) and don’t have to work in the dead-end indentured-servitude economy that sucks the souls from so many.

    • fjtorres

      Why?
      Managers focused on hurting competitors, on financials, on “managing their careers”, with no time left over for the basics. Managers who see staffing as a cost center instead of a productivity center. Managers who only see numbers, not customers or employees, who think their employees are interchangeable drones instead of partners in production.
      This is old, old, thinking.
      In manufacturing, Deming argued against it 60-plus years ago.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming

      Modern operations have evolved different industry-specific mechanisms to engage staff and maximize productivity to ensure survival. Blindly reducing costs is not one that generally ensures survival.

  • Daniel Vian

    Corporate managers are incompetent because they are mediocrities. Faced with innovation, they crumble. It’s instructive to consider how the horse and carriage business people at the end of the 19th century scoffed at the idea that automobiles and trucks would become the major form of ground transportation in the U.S. The big “thinkers” at IBM scoffed at the idea of desktop computers. Consider all those managers who scoffed at the idea of word processor software ever replacing electric typewriters in offices. Or for that matter authors who complained it wasn’t “art” if you wrote on a computer keyboard. But really B/N will go down because printed books will decline in use as the people raised on printed books die out and because B/N has never understood the digital book revolution. Printed books are almost already obsolete in nonfiction scholarly and textbook publishing. When B/N first opened to digital publishers, it required such publishers to have 25 print titles published before their digital work would be accepted. That was shortly before Amazon opened KDP. Maybe it does no good to look backwards at the mantras of retailing in the past, since what we have ahead of us is a future unknown and without standing guideposts.

  • Harlan

    I used to go to a B&N to do my writing. They had these very comfortable chairs that were far away from the noisy coffee shop and noisier children. They were near the adult topics section and, when kids would see me and other adults in the chairs, they would not try to sneak a peek in the “How To Have Sex The Right Way” type books. That should have been considered a plus for the store because a parent who caught their kid going through those books could give the store some grief. Another HUGE plus for the store was that, one day, I saw a guy loading a stack of books into a gym bag. He was stealing them. I ran up to the manager but the guy left before anything could be done. I saw him again a couple weeks later doing the same thing and was able to alert someone before he could leave. But that person didn’t act quickly enough and the thief took off again. The store’s solution was to get rid of the comfortable chairs. I was told that they did that because those chairs allowed people to steal books. Yeah. Right. Logic is obviously not a word the manager of that store understands. I am currently checking out which tablet I should buy so that, when B&N, and NOOK, fold, I’ll be able to read all types of eBooks without having to lug my laptop around.

  • Whateveragain

    B&N management suck. That’s why B&N is failing, not their DRM or the rise of e-books.

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