The most recent chapter in the story of American bookstores has taken a surprising twist. Barnes & Noble, one of the main players in the wave of market consolidation that once threatened the future of indie bookstores, is now losing share to mom-and-pops.
Barnes & Noble is eliminating store positions and changing its labor model in an effort to cut costs, according to MarketWatch. And Amazon.com isn’t the sole reason for the big box bookseller’s continuing slide. Dan Cullen, a representative for the independent bookseller trade group, American Booksellers Association, said that independent bookstores are undergoing a resurgence and experiencing consistent growth. In 2017, sales at indie bookstores were up 2.6 percent year-over-year. Barnes & Nobles’ sales, meanwhile, dropped 6.4 percent over the holidays and online sales dropped 4.5 percent.
“Community and lifestyle affinity are really a big thing today,” said RetailWire BrainTrust member Paula Rosenblum in an online discussion last week. “Barnes & Noble may succeed online, but I think the era of the big box category killer is winding down.”
Throughout the 1990s, big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders came to be seen as the scourge of independents, offering assortment and price that mom-and-pops couldn’t compete with. Then came Amazon with ultra-low prices and unprecedented product variety to undercut the big boxes.
The mid-2000s saw the advent of e-readers, which had tech buffs speculating that both physical books and the bookstores that sold them were going the way of the dodo. But sales of e-books have plateaued if not declined, a trend that at least one major global publisher, Hachette Livre, has said shows no sign of turning around, as The Guardianrecently reported.
In a post-big box retail environment, mom-and-pop bookstores are demonstrating big advantages that a chain like Barnes & Noble has trouble matching.
Indie bookstores can cultivate a sense of community and, in turn, a type of loyalty that customers don’t feel for chains. And in terms of operations, indie bookstores can move more dynamically, partnering with other businesses in the local retail community for promotions, running events that cater to the specific interests of their customers and tailoring their assortments based on what their customers want.
The RetailWire BrainTrust offered thoughts on how Barnes & Noble might find itself again amid the indie revival.
“It’s not enough to sell books, just like it’s not enough to simply sell anything,” said Phil Chang, retail influencer, speaker and consultant. “They need to give the consumer a reason to go to their stores. The sad part is, Barnes & Noble has the space to make these moments experiential — they’ve just got to stop trying to be ordinary.”
“My recent customer service interactions at big box bookstores would indicate that retraining associates to look up from their screens and engage with shoppers would be a critical first step in changing the experience for the better,” said Anne Howe of Anne Howe Associates. “A second step might be to declutter the store of all the gifts and souvenirs in order to gain some space for shoppers to explore the books without being on top of one another.”
Ian Percy, an organizational psychologist, saw room for Barnes & Noble to move farther back in the channel and let the indies handle the customers.
“What if Barnes & Noble became the champion of mom-and-pop bookstores?” said Mr. Percy. “What if they provided the whole range of backroom services to thousands of independent bookstores and we never saw the Barnes & Noble name again?”
But some aren’t ready to say goodbye to the Barnes & Noble brand.
“Barnes & Noble is not doomed as long as it uses data in support of a localization strategy (or ramps it up), and weeds out dying categories (music and movies) at a faster clip,” said Dick Seesel, principal at Retailing in Focus.
“I’m happy to see mom-and-pop stores on the uptick, but don’t believe a Barnes & Noble closure is around the corner,” said Jennifer McDermott, consumer advocate at finder.com. “At least not judging by the lines at my local one.”