An American Editor

September 17, 2014

On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble

After this week’s news that Barnes & Noble has lost money yet again, I decided that perhaps I should begin thinking about writing B&N’s obituary. After all, I am a B&N member and I buy a lot of books from B&N and I will miss it when the last store and website is finally shuttered.

But I was told not to don my mourning clothes yet. B&N has a plan. Great, I thought, until I realized that the same people who have brought B&N to its knees are the ones with the plan to save it. Not very likely.

The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step’s worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from the precipice, but each would have to begin with a recognition that today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.

Start with customer service. How poor can customer service be? I don’t know but B&N is surely leading the way. Consider what happens when you call customer service. If you are lucky, you get someone who speaks English like a native and without a thick brogue that makes them incomprehensible. You know you are in trouble when the representative calls you “Mr. Richard.” The reason this is a problem is that the reps do not understand the problem you are trying to convey and so insist on a solution that is no solution.

For example, I recently ordered a book from Amazon Canada. I had to order it there because neither B&N nor Amazon US was showing the book except in their marketplace and the marketplace pricing for a clean copy was double or more the price Amazon Canada was asking. (The book cost over $100 to begin with, even at Amazon Canada.) When I received the book from Amazon, it was the right book but not the advertised book. The advertised book was for the correct print year and did not state that it was a print-on-demand reprint; in other words, I thought I was buying an original copy.

I realized that because of the book’s age, all that would be available would be like this, so I wrote Amazon Canada and told them I intended to keep the book but that they should note on their website that the edition they were selling was a POD reprint. Within a few hours I received a reply thanking me, telling me that the information had been passed on to the appropriate people, and because I planned to keep the book, Amazon was refunding 25% of the price.

The book from Amazon was the first volume in a nonfiction trilogy. Volumes 2 and 3 were available from B&N, and so I ordered them from B&N. Volume 3 was just released, so it was not a problem. Volume 2 was released several years ago but not so long ago that I should expect a POD reprint — but that is what I got. So I called B&N customer service (sending an email is, I have found, an utter waste of time). I got one of the “Mr. Richard” representatives. I tried to explain the problem and explicitly said I planned to keep the book and that my only purpose in calling was so that they could adjust their website to indicate that it is a POD reprint. After all, this was another very expensive book and the website implies you are getting an original.

I might as well have been talking in a hurricane for all that the representative either understood or cared. The rep “resolved” the problem by ordering another copy be sent to me because he agreed that website did indicate it was not a POD reprint that was being offered. I tried to prevent this, but after a few minutes, I gave up. I received the second copy of the POD reprint and sent it back with a detailed note indicating what was wrong and what I thought they should do. And so the tale ends.

There was no follow-up from B&N and the rep didn’t understand the problem or the solution I was suggesting. (He did say that there was nothing he could do about the website. Apparently that includes notifying anyone of an error at the site.) Bottom line is that B&N customer service continues to be an example of what not to do and Amazon continues to be an example of what to do. This same complaint about customer service was made several years ago on AAE and elsewhere and the same management team continues to do nothing.

The second place for B&N to go is to improve the interaction between buyers and B&N. B&N needs to be innovative, especially when it comes to its members. How difficult, for example, would it be to let members create a list of authors in which they are interested and for B&N to send a monthly email saying that a new book by one of my listed authors has been announced; click this link to preorder.

Along with that, B&N should guarantee that the preorder price is the highest price I would have to pay (which it B&N already does do without saying so) but that should at anytime before shipment the price be less, B&N guarantees that the lower price will be the price I will pay. As it is now, because I preorder books months in advance, I need to constantly recheck and if a price is lower, I need to cancel my existing preorder and re-preorder. Can B&N make it any more inconvenient for the customer?

In addition, B&N should be sending me monthly emails telling me of upcoming or newly released (since the last email) books that are similar to books I have previously bought. I know they have the information because both online customer service and the local store management are able to peruse books I have bought. To entice me to buy from this list (or even to preorder), B&N should offer me an additional 10% discount on the listed titles, which discount is good until the release of the next email and the next list of books.

Members of B&N are the prize for B&N. Members are likely to be those who buy exclusively or primarily from B&N and not Amazon and are the people who are more than casual readers. If you buy 1 or 2 books a year, you wouldn’t pay for a membership; it is people who buy a large number of books who pay for membership (e.g., just before writing this essay, I preordered 1 hardcover and ordered 2 others). So why not reward members based on their buying? For example, buy 15 books and beginning with the book 16, you will get overnight shipping or an additional 5% discount or something. Buy 20 books and get a gift certificate. Think up rewards that encourage more buying and offer those rewards to members. Make membership valuable. It isn’t rocket science.

Much (but not all) of B&N’s problems are from a mismanaged ebook division. Even though ebooks aren’t the bulk of sales, B&N should not be conceding the market. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to improve sales or get more Nook loyalty. A simple way is to make it so that when a person buys the hardcover they can get the ebook for $2 more if they would like both options. Buy the first ebook in a trilogy and if you buy books 2 and 3 at the same time, you get book 2 for 50% off and book 3 for free. Maybe these won’t work but they are worth exploring and cutting special deals with publishers to make them happen.

The publishers have an interest in B&N remaining afloat. Should B&N shutter its brick-and-mortar stores, publishers will lose showrooms as well as major sales outlets. Publishers should create special editions available only at B&N. They should make shopping at B&N and at brick-and-mortar stores worthwhile. Make these deals available only through physical stores.

There are a lot of things that B&N — and publishers — can and should do to rejuvenate B&N. Unfortunately, these things require imagination, something B&N has in very short supply. Consequently, because I do not expect any miracles at B&N, I will continue to prepare its obituary. Maybe I’ll be fooled and my masterpiece will never see the light of the Internet; if so, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But until B&N calls me and asks me for my ideas and calls other members and asks for their ideas, I won’t get my hopes up.

What would you do if given the opportunity to turn B&N around?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

17 Comments »

  1. Richard, a great (and simple) analysis of B&N’s vital signs. I get the feeling the dinosaur, as of old, has already suffered mortal damage but the nerve signals have yet to reach that ancient, disordered brain. How stupid that a business still can’t get its customer service right.

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    Comment by michael dale — September 17, 2014 @ 6:53 am | Reply

  2. On a related topic, I’m always amazed when I go to a large B&N store that is stocked with an incredible inventory (they used to stock two or three copies of my book) and I see almost no customers in the store. The few I see are lounging on the couches provided, reading (and dog earing) stock and then probably going home and ordering from Amazon. Almost no one at the checkout. Maybe I just go at slack times, but I wonder how they can make any money at all.

    Maybe someone needs to come up with a totally new business model.

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    Comment by Gretchen — September 17, 2014 @ 7:09 am | Reply

  3. I hope B&N figures it all out, because it’s the only new-book bookstore convenient to me, and I still prefer going to a bookstore and buying books on paper. The one I use is always busy, so I’m hopeful it won’t go anywhere.

    Two of the local universities here have B&N bookstores on campus (well, one already has and another is about to), which I think is a great way to keep the business alive.

    I’ve never had to deal with customer service for the online version of B&N, but if I had Rich’s experience, I’d never call again and probably wouldn’t go to the website unless I absolutely had to.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 17, 2014 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  4. Maybe one way to get B&N’s attention is to start one of those online petitions (such as on Change.org) that contains some of the points in your blog post and requests that management take specific action to address these issues. If management received a petition with thousands (even tens or hundreds of thousands) of online signatures, they might get the message as to what their customers want.

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    Comment by Kerrie Schurr — September 17, 2014 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  5. […] reposted with permission from An American Editor […]

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    Pingback by On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble - The Digital Reader — September 17, 2014 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  6. I’d go with your management plan, Richard! I used to be a B&N member. Still buy an occasional book there, but most of the time buy on Amazon. Bad customer service the last time I was at B&N. Surprised me that the clerk was a long time employee. I thought she was a new trainee and said so in an understanding way. Look of shock on the clerk face was priceless. Wonder if she learned anything? Not!

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    Comment by C. E. Robinson — September 17, 2014 @ 12:47 pm | Reply

  7. You certainly have had your share of troubles with BN.com. I do sympathize with your complaint. None here, however, but then I have not looked for very old or pricey books. (Well, I should except my $100.00 classic work on the evolution of US Navy destroyers, but that is a special interest group very clearly defined; a sub-group of its own: Books about USN warships.) On the other hand, I have had nothing but excellent in-store service, including prompt response when I needed to order a book that I thought BN might have on the shelve, but stocked out. What I also do is to call the local (or nearest) Barnes & Noble and ask if a certain book is in stock. When it is not, I place an order. I have never had a problem with ordering and receiving books. Your suggestions about notifications and updates are good, and I would welcome them myself. I console myself with memories of Apple Computer in 1998: on the ropes and going down. BN is not dead yet.

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    Comment by George Cowie — September 17, 2014 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  8. I’m a B&N member and I buy from them whenever I can. But I can see that Amazon does much more to earn my business: I get regular emails from them, and I love their “Recommendations” service, where they show me books similar to ones I’ve bought in the past but might not know about. Usually I research a book on Amazon, then try to buy it from B&N (if they carry it). Amazon might have hundreds of reviews of a book when B&N has few or none. As it is, I buy from B&N now not because they are better in any way—they’re not—but simply to try to support diversity in the marketplace. I don’t want Amazon to be the ONLY place I can buy a book from. Thanks for the reminder… maybe I’ll go to the store down the street this week and pick something up…

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    Comment by Christina — September 17, 2014 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  9. […] The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step's worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from…  […]

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    Pingback by On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble |... — September 17, 2014 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  10. What it sounds like they need is to understand that online business is business, and ebooks are books. This is not a sideline, and it needs to be taken as seriously as any other part of their business, or they simply won’t have any.

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    Comment by anansii — September 17, 2014 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  11. Oops, left out “service is service and regardless of where you’re doing business.”

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    Comment by anansii — September 17, 2014 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  12. Excellent article, and your suggestions for an improved business plan are masterful. I hope B&N management reads them. Your comments on Customer Service, however, scare me. You see, I frequent the local B&N and have always had excellent service. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and customer-focused. The store is always full of buyers. And the store management recently announced that it was closing at the end of the year. Its customers can either order online, or drive to another B&N. The closest one is 40 miles from here. I think not. I’m really at a loss here. Like Ruth, I love going to the store, wandering among the shelves, respectfully flipping through books that catch my eye, and buying my new treasures.

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    Comment by Dee H-W — September 18, 2014 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  13. I hope all the critics here are communicating directly with Barnes & Noble. I cannot imagine for an instant that BN management’s team are scouring the internet for critics; critics are surely hammering at the door, if customer response is anything like the comments posted here. Here’s the quotation “today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.” How will getting rid of (“gone yesterday’) present management fix the problem? Finding or creating a new, responsive and progressive management team is a more focused solution.
    Let me assert that I, too, want a newer, better Barnes and Noble. Having worked there as a bookseller one winter recently, I know how hard the store staff work, restocking books left lying about wherever we choose to leave them, cleaning the bathrooms, ringing up sales for people who switch book jackets, handling requests like “It’s about a woman in distress, it has a pink cover, and it came out last year, and the author is really popular. And I couldn’t find it on Amazon. We were, and are, focused on the work. I loved the job. I got to sell to people who were shopping because they wanted a book, not because they were out of toilet paper.
    I believe that BN is trying to translate the in-store method to the online experience, and it’s a hard change-over to make. Most in-store book profits are in the remainder market, with the pretty new books in the back of the store, so you pass by all the remainders on the way there. It’s just a retail method, tailored to books.
    That’s why Crown Books was so phenomenally successful its first decades in the business. Barnes and Noble even tried to imitate their small-store chain model. Remember Bookstar? B&N’s small store version. Crown Books died because it went into large stores and had not even planned for internet sales. Wrong for their business model.
    Amazon started out with online book selling, which is why they are so successful right now. I’m sure BN is doing all it can to jump from their old model to one that adds online selling. Even so, B&N is still hiring locally, with stores dying in slow markets, but new ones springing up where the market indicates there is a need. Bricks and mortar bookstores are not dead yet. Comments here indicate that no one wants them gone.

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    Comment by George Cowie — September 18, 2014 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

    • George, a couple of points. First, my criticism of customer service and of B&N is not directed at the physical stores. My experience with the local store is overall good, but I have pretty much stopped going to it because it carries fewer books and more nonbook items. I have become an online B&N customer because I can find the odd books that I am looking for online but not in the store. And, yes, I know the store can order it for me and have it delivered to my home, but in that scenario why waste the time and gas to go to the store to have a store employee do what I can do myself from at home.

      Second, have you ever tried to contact B&N’s online customer service or its management? It is as easy as getting Jeff Bezos to come by for a BBQ. The online reps don’t understand the problem if it isn’t in their script and generally refuse to forward you to a supervisor. And if you do get to a supervisor, you usually aren’t doing any better than you were with the initial rep. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the supervisor is just another rep play-acting. Plus there is nowhere to go after you have been passed to the “supervisor.”

      So what are your options? Really, the only option is to send an email. My experience is that it accomplishes nothing and based on the “replies” I have received, no one is reading them or if they are being read, they are outside the script and so ignored.

      B&N needs a customer advocate who solicits suggestions on how to improve B&N from its customers and actually has some power. That won’t happen under the current management. Look at how the current management blew the Nook. Now they have signed a deal with Samsung to provide cobranded tablets. Why? The specs are lackluster and anyone who wants a tablet and access to B&N books can buy a much better tablet or a lesser but cheaper tablet and install the Nook app. There is something wrong with the thinking at the management level and there is really no good way to penetrate the hierarchy.

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      Comment by americaneditor — September 19, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

    • George, a second reply🙂.

      I just read and confirmed that B&N has removed the download button from my (and everyone else’s) ebook account/library. Previously, if you bought an ebook, you could choose to download it to your computer to be read in the device/app of your choice. No longer. Now it goes to your Nook device or app and nowhere else.

      I wanted to notify B&N that this type of action will drive people like me into the arms of Amazon, which still permits downloading. As a large buyer of books and ebooks via B&N, I am the type of customer that B&N will need to keep if it is to survive. So I went to the customer service page of the B&N website and guess what — there is no email option; the only options are live chat and telephone. How dumb can one be in this era.

      Another B&N faux pas — actually two — and the death march gets louder.

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      Comment by americaneditor — September 19, 2014 @ 4:29 am | Reply

  14. I thought about this post today when my husband handed me a copy of Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Sense of Style.” He had decided to stop by our local B&N on his way home from work to buy the book as a surprise for me. But he confessed that had had been unpleasantly surprised to discover that the in-store version of the book cost $10 more than the version being sold on the B&N website! And his B&N membership discount didn’t come close to making up the difference. I’m not sure why a chain that is struggling to stay alive would undermine its own physical stores–unless they are really hoping to ditch the physical stores soon.

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    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — October 2, 2014 @ 11:03 am | Reply

    • I’m waiting for my copy to be delivered today. It has been a long time since I last entered a B&N store. The book selection gets slimmer as toys take over and where they used to give me a 20% discount with my membership, now it is 10% but only on certain books. Much better financially to buy at B&N online, especially if you buy a lot of books, as I do (I just preordered 4 more books today).

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      Comment by americaneditor — October 2, 2014 @ 12:03 pm | Reply


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