The world’s largest retail bookseller and a leading retailer of content, digital media and educational products, the mission of Barnes & Noble is to operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America. Here, RLI sits down with company CEO James Daunt to discuss what changes the business has gone through and how it continues to have a positive outlook moving forward.
Barnes & Noble operates 613 stores in all 50 states across the USA and runs a premier e-commerce site, BN.com. Its Nook Digital business offers a line-up of tablets and e-Readers alongside an expansive collection of digital reading content through the NOOK store.
Owned by Elliot Advisors Limited, Barnes & Noble was founded in 1971 by bookseller Leonard Riggio when he acquired the Barnes & Noble trade name and bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Given the current market conditions because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the business has not altered its key objective of creating much better looking, much better stocked and much better run bookstores, but they have certainly re-evaluated how this can be achieved.
“Some adjustments have been positive, such as the example of using the period of enforced store closures to undertake the highly disruptive, complete relay of the store’s shelving furniture arrangement,” explains James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble. “Others have been constrained by a necessary focus on cost control and limited expenditure.”
They are also restructuring almost every part of the business to better support the stores. These changes were in motion before the onset of Covid-19 and they are continuing with a clear focus during these difficult times. Other alterations relate to better management of stock, either in how it is bought or the logistics of supplying the stores. The aim of the changes is to improve the quality of stock in its stores and to make the task associated with its management much more efficient.
“We kept employed within our stores a core of our most experienced booksellers even when they were closed. This has allowed us to re-open stores at the earliest opportunity and to do so smoothly which in turn has meant we have benefitted from a steady improvement in our sales as consumer confidence has returned,” explains Daunt.
In the last few months the company has concentrated on improving the basics, notably its online operation and its BOPIS (buy online pick up in store), with curb-side pick-up being maintained for all shops except the very few where this was not permitted. Daunt notes that online events, notably on its various social media platforms, particularly Instagram, were very successful and have proven very popular. He believes they will now become a permanent part of what they – and many other independent bookstores – will offer in the coming months and years.
The company has continued to open new stores, with three new locations launching recently in Sarasota, Florida, Schaumburg, Illinois and Rockville, Maryland. The new units are all around 18,000sq ft in size and therefore noticeably smaller than its traditional 25,000sq ft stores.
“The presentation is radically different to the conventional B&N store, using much lighter fixtures arranged into rooms in contrast to the library-style aisles of bookcases to which the business has traditionally adhered. Both customer and bookseller reception has been extremely positive, and we expect all new stores to follow a similar presentation,” says Daunt.
The company will prioritise new store openings in locations where they are closing stores, generally for the reason of store economics or to accommodate landlord initiatives. Moving forward, they will not limit their search for new stores in any particular market.
Looking forward, Daunt feels cautiously optimistic. This is because despite everything that has happened in the world in the last few months, books remain in strong demand. Reading has remained an important solace and the sale of books – while it has primarily and necessarily moved predominantly online – has remained strong.
“The worth of bookstores has been made clear as places of discovery and inspiration. Other retailers are not so lucky; the pandemic has simply served to demonstrate their redundancy, while for us it has been the opposite,” explains Daunt.
Moving forward Daunt hopes that the wider industry, notably publishers will stand by physical booksellers in the months to come.
“In short, if we all stand together, we will get through this stronger. Having been through tough times in the past – in the UK, the recession of 1990/91 and the 2008-2013 onslaught of Amazon, Kindle and the financial crisis were devastating for bookstores – the lesson was to exercise close financial discipline’ to communicate with all business stakeholders to avoid any surprises; and to remain relentless in improving the core quality of the bookstore,” concludes Daunt.