An American Editor

January 3, 2011

Call for Barnes & Noble! Call for Barnes & Noble!

I suspect most readers are too young to remember the heady days of tobacco company commercials, especially radio commercials, or even the cigarette brand Philip Morris. Its print (1940s) and early TV commercials featured a hotel bellhop carrying a tray with a pack of Philip Morris cigarettes on it and bellowing “Call for Philip Morris!” The radio version (also 1940s), popularly heard on programs like The Jack Benny Show, really was well done.

The commercial came to mind as I digested the recent news about Borders Group’s continuing quarterly losses. It was only a week or two ago that Borders wanted to buy Barnes & Noble. But now — if Leonard Riggio is doing any real thinking about the future — might be the opportune time for B&N to buy Borders.

OK, I hear the naysayers screaming that the last thing that B&N needs is Borders’ bricks-and-mortar stores. True, but that is narrow thinking. By buying Borders, which should be available for almost nothing, B&N can accomplish some important things, such as the following:

  • First, it can immediately close all the b&m stores that currently compete with its own brand. This would increase traffic to its own brand for those of us who like to shop at real bookstores rather than virtual bookstores. And it could convert Borders members to B&N members; there is a lot to be said for loyalty programs.
  • Second, it can replace Borders as a partner in Kobo. This strikes me as a good move for B&N because it would rapidly expand B&N’s ebook reach.
  • Third, B&N could become the partner with ebookstores like the Sony ebookstore, which is currently partnered with Borders. Where else could Sony turn? Perhaps to Kobo but if B&N was a significant partner in Kobo, it would still benefit. If you start adding Sony’s and other “independent” ebookstores that are really run by Borders, B&N could suddenly see a significant rise in its share of the ebook marketplace.
  • Fourth, by replacing Borders as a partner with these other “independent’ ebookstores, B&N would be in a position to incentivize these independents to upgrade to the B&N DRM version of ePub, which would expand its marketplace. (Yes, I know it is relatively easy to strip the B&N DRM, but most people don’t/won’t/can’t do it.)
  • Fifth, it would give B&N a further leg up against both the Amazon and Google juggernauts, something it is going to desperately need it the not-too-distant future.
  • Sixth, if B&N were smart, it could cut a deal with Sony to offer the Sony readers as premium readers — for those people who are willing to pay more for higher quality — and have Sony include perks, perhaps such as wireless access to the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, that are not currently available on other devices. This would be a boost to both B&N and to Sony.

Unfortunately, no deal involving Borders is a problem-free deal. There are the debt problems and leases, but the easy way out would be to run Borders through bankruptcy. Inventory debt could be reduced by returning all of Borders’ inventory.

The real issue, I think, is who will be faster on its feet — Google or B&N. An unknown possible player would be Kobo or some of its partners like Chapters, but I don’t see any advantage to them in taking over Borders.

I suppose that someone could pump more capital into Borders but its management team certainly inspires no confidence. Consequently, I think that is a long shot. B&N should strike while Borders is crippled. The question is: Will B&N hear the call?

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