Barnes & Noble

How Barnes & Noble has focused on CX to turn around its fortunes


Amazon and the digital revolution nearly killed book retailer Barnes & Noble. Yet five years after posting a loss of $18 million, it's opening 30+ new stores - while Amazon is shedding jobs. Customer experience management holds the secret to its success.

19th Jan 2023

If there's one area of retail that was particuarly disrupted by the digital revolution 20 years ago, it was bookselling. Given the ecommerce behemoth that it has become, it's easy to forget that Amazon was first-and-foremost an online bookseller when it emerged. And it forever changed book retailing. 

But in a fascinating about-turn, as 2023 begins we are seeing many digital platforms struggling - while a 137-year-old book retailer is flourishing once more. 

Indeed, while the likes of Facebook, Netflix and Twitter are in turmoil, and even Amazon itself is shedding jobs, Barnes & Noble is profitable and growing - recently announcing plans to open 30 new stores. So what's going on?

The Barnes & Noble horror story

A brilliant article by critic and historian Ted Gioia has examined how Barnes & Noble has turned around its fortunes, concluding that a renewed focus on the customer and the products have been the reinvigorating factors. 

And it really has been a spectacular turnaround in fortunes. The company was paralysed by the digital age, and even as fellow bricks-and-mortar rivals such as Borders collapsed, Barnes & Noble was still unable to regain momentum and find a strategy that could keep it competitive as ecommerce asserted its dominance.

Amongst its many attempts to revive its fortunes was the introduction of areas in-store dedicated to selling toys, cards and calendars. ("Do people really go toy shopping at a bookstore?" ponders Gioia. "Toys R Us also filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and if they couldn’t compete with Amazon, how could B&N hope to do any better?")

B&N also started installing cafes inside stores and then, in a particularly desperate roll of the dice, decided to launch freestanding restaurants, branded as Barnes & Noble Kitchen. This, too, failed to gain any traction amongst consumers, with company chairman Leonard Riggio conceding: “I have no experience in the hospitality area... Things like controlling food costs and payroll costs are not in our DNA. So [it’s] a lot harder than you think it is."  

Even its apparently sensible attempts to capitalise on digital consumer preferences were caught in the company's downward spiral - with its Nook ebook reader seeing a 90% decline in sales. 

In 2018, Barnes & Noble made a loss of $18 million, resulting in a drop in share price of over 80% and around 1,800 redundancies. 

Breaking the rules of book retailing

At this point, if Barnes & Noble was a book, it would be a horror story. But incredibly, there is a twist in the tale. And it is heralded by the hiring of a new boss - John Daunt. 

Daunt had successfully turned around the fortunes of British book retail chain Waterstones, and had garnered reputation for breaking the rules of bookselling. 

For a start, he refused to discount his books, despite the fierce price competition in the market. As Gioia notes: "If you asked him why, he had a simple answer: 'I don’t think books are overpriced.'"

But the most revolutionary thing that Daunt did at Waterstones was to refuse to take promotional money from publishers. For those unacquainted with the dark arts of the publishing / book retail game, publishers give retailers promotional money in exchange for purchase commitments and prominent placement in stores and shop windows. Often books will be aggressively pushed in a bid to drive a book onto the best-seller lists, regardless of its quality. 

"Everybody wins. Except maybe the reader," says Gioia. But Daunt refused to play this game.

"He wanted to put the best books in the window. He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door. Even more amazing, he let the people working in the stores make these decisions."

As Daunt told the Evening Standard in 2014: “Staff are now in control of their own shops. Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”

This strategy proved enormously successful. Returns fell to almost zero and 97% of the books placed on the shelves were purchased by customers - a remakable statistic for a book retail chain. 

How Barnes & Noble put customers first

Hired by Barnes & Noble in August 2019, Daunt used the pandemic as an opportunity to overhaul its stores. 

Gioia explains: "He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing."

In short, Daunt was "giving more power to the stores" - even if it did infuriate the publishers.  

Gioia continues: "Daunt also refused to dumb-down the store offerings. The key challenge, he claimed was to 'create an environment that’s intellectually satisfying - and not in a snobbish way, but in the sense of feeding your mind.'"

Remarkably, book sales at Barnes & Noble began to rise once more. Sales quickly rebounded after the pandemic, and soon B&N was announcing the opening of new stores - 16 in 2022, and double that planned for 2023. Not bad for print media in the digital age. 

"Readers regained trust in the company," says Gioia. "The workers at the stores were more motivated and started genuinely acting like booksellers."

Gioia believes there is a lesson here - and it's a lesson that could be applied to music, films, newspapers... and beyond. And it's a simple lesson. 

"If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema," he notes. 

"Frankly, I could draw many other lessons from the Barnes & Noble turnaround. I praise its decentralisation, and its willingness to empower booksellers at the local stores. I like the way the stores look nowadays, and the improved selection on the shelves. But the key element uniting all of this is putting books and readers first, and everything else second. That’s a strategy that others could learn from." 

I encourage you to read Ted's full article, as this summary doesn't do justice to his thoughtful and insightful piece.


Replies (6)

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By Daveworked@BN
23rd Jan 2023 04:56

B@N represents a pervasive communism in the bookselling industry. Everything they sell to the public is a work of fiction to sustain a gross adaptation of free thought. To regale a company that has had mass layoffs, taken publisher bribes, destroyed main street American competition is appalling. You can never be righteous, if you had to do everything wrong, to get there.

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Replying to Daveworked@BN:
By Neil Davey
23rd Jan 2023 09:54

Thanks for your comment, Dave. My understanding is that not everything they sell to the public is a work of fiction - they also sell non-fiction as well.

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By Angel524
24th Jan 2023 05:20

You should really interview actual employees of Barnes & Noble. You'll find it's vastly different than you think. Employees are overworked and miserable. Corporate makes stupid cuts and decisions constantly. Sure, the company as a whole is doing great, but individual stores are suffering. And the whole "giving more power to the stores" was a bald faced lie. Corporate run the stores how they want. Most stores are exactly the same. They actually have very little say in what they want to do. Also, discounted books are everywhere. Buy 1, Get 1 50% off books are on nearly every table. And it's nearly impossible for booksellers to find any book due to inadequate, untrained, and skeleton staff. There are no breakouts in sections anymore, so knowing where 1 section ends and another begins, is literally impossible. Any non-fiction book is basically thrown somewhere on a shelf. God help you if you want to find it. But yea sure, focus on the sales. Don't focus on the inability to find a Bookseller in store because most stores on a given weekday are probably operating with less than 5 people.

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Replying to Angel524:
By Neil Davey
24th Jan 2023 09:06

Thanks for your comment. That's sad to hear, and a short-sighted approach by management if it's the case as a rotten culture and unhappy staff will ultimately end up costing the company in the longer-term.

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By direct2-
24th Jan 2023 16:04

I was a book seller at Barnes and Noble. All of the book sellers always made customer service a priority. The 'new' approach was nothing more than making everyone scamper farther to accomplish what we already did but now one wears more electronics. We carry auto check-out machines and answer stock queries with tablets and phones all which may or may not have been charges so as to function.

Previously BN stores had customer service desks In short, there were no meaningful changes except that we shelve fewer titles.

I fully agree with one of the previous gentlemen who noted that BN employees are stressed and unhappy.

The smaller stock makes sense from an economic standpoint. But to not stock standard classic titles in adequate numbers is stupid. For example: when school terms begin you don't want to be out of "Catcher in the Rye"... we were as we only stocked two copies...This meant scampering off to yet another location to place a special order, only to have the customer tell you they found it cheaper on Amazon. You then cancel the order if possible. That isn't terribly efficient.

And the 'improved' stores initially featured no signage on the selves...brilliant. This way an employee could stumble about searching for the end of the WWI section so as to locate a WWII title for an instore customer while speaking to someone on your store phone about a problem with their NOOK reader which the employee can't solve nor can they easily transfer the call to the NOOK help line.

I have noticed that a few stores have started using a service desk again, that makes sense.

I am glad that BN is thriving. I suspect that is because they are smaller stores now so less rent is paid for the location and because there is less warehoused stock. Warehousing is costly.

To say it is because of customer service improvements is absurd. BN employees are book people. They care and always did.

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Replying to direct2-:
By Neil Davey
24th Jan 2023 17:21

Thanks for your thoughtful comment - much appreciated.

There's certainly a common theme emerging from all of these comments, and it's a shame that appears to be a festering resentment towards the brand from employees.

One wonders how long it's current financial turnaround will last, given the discontent. Perhaps there will be another article in 18 months exploring where it all went wrong!

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