An American Editor

March 9, 2016

Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue

As long-time readers of An American Editor know, I prefer to purchase my books at Barnes & Noble (B&N), largely so as to keep a competitor to Amazon alive. But I have to admit, even after years of struggling against Amazon, B&N still doesn’t have a clue and seems to not care that it is following a path of self-destruction.

Consider these past essays on AAE about B&N: On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble (2014), B&N in a Fantasy World (2014), Can Barnes & Noble Be Saved? (2013), and And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service (2012). You would think that by now, especially with all the troubles that B&N has had, a light bulb would come on and B&N management would have an epiphany: “We need to greatly improve our customer service, because our poor customer service is what keeps us down!” Alas, dimwittedness continues to prevail.

I preorder a lot of hardcovers. At the beginning of last week I had 17 hardcovers on preorder and another dozen I have been thinking about. Last week I received four of those 17 hardcovers, in addition to two hardcovers in addition to two hardcovers that I read about or saw an ad for that I ordered. Six hardcovers purchased and received last week alone. In addition, I added 11 more hardcovers to my list of books that I want to preorder but have not.

And therein begins my tale, with one of the preorders I received last week: “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion” by Susan Jacoby.

I preordered the book many months ago. At the time of the preorder, the price was an undiscounted $30.00. Because it was an early preorder, I didn’t worry about the price, because I (wrongly) assumed that if the book was discounted, B&N would bill me the discounted price. I wanted the book and if it wasn’t discounted, well, I’d pay the $30.00.

When the book arrived, I looked at the invoice and saw it was for $30.00. So I decided to check B&N’s website to see if that was the correct price. It wasn’t. B&N was selling the book for $20.63 — a $9.37 discount. Had the difference in price been a few cents, I would have let it go, but the difference was too much to not call B&N customer service.

I called B&N and the representative told me that “as a one-time courtesy” they would refund the difference but that it is B&N’s policy “not to match prices.” Match prices? I was not asking B&N to match a competitor’s price; I was asking it to sell me the book for the price B&N itself was selling the book, not the inflated preorder price. I thought perhaps I was not getting through because the representative was clearly not a native American English speaker, so I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Even the customer service supervisor seemed to have no clue. She began repeating the excuses the original representative gave — none of which were pertinent, such as “the preorder price depends on inventory, depends on number of preorders, and depends on the publisher” — and then repeated the words, “as a one-time courtesy.”

Unbelievable. I stopped the supervisor and asked, “If this is B&N’s policy, why would I ever preorder a book from you? You do know, do you not, that your biggest competitor, Amazon, offers a preorder price guarantee; that is, if I preorder a book I will be charged the lowest price that Amazon advertised the book for between the time of preorder and the time of delivery?” A waste of breath because she started to repeat the excuses, beginning with “Barnes & Noble doesn’t match prices.”

I decided to give it one more try. I said: “Does it make sense that I can return this book to you at your cost and get a full refund and then reorder the book at the discounted price, which you will ship to me at no charge? If I do that, you will have paid the cost of shipping three times rather than once, and thus lose even more money.” The supervisor’s response was that it is B&N’s policy not to match prices.

I gave up.

I know that contrary to what our Supreme Court has declared, corporations are not human; they are inanimate objects that cannot think. Consequently, they rely on human beings to do their thinking. And that appears to be the difference between corporations: some have smart humans doing their thinking and others not-so-smart, bordering on ill-informed, humans doing their thinking. Sadly, B&N continues to flail in the not-so-smart category.

It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to recognize that if you have a successful competitor who does X, you should be looking at X and figuring out how to make X yours. It doesn’t take much of a light bulb to see that good, credible, noteworthy customer-centric service is the one thing Amazon has going for it, the one thing that Amazon is really well-known in the marketplace for, the most important thing Amazon has that B&N does not have — customer-centric service.

It is not that Amazon never fails at customer service. I stopped buying from its subsidiary Woot a couple of years ago because of exceedingly poor customer service. But the Amazon that B&N competes with has a stellar reputation for customer service. Amazon has consistently said that it may not have the lowest price but it has the best customer service, and I know people who will vouch for that and have said they’d rather pay a bit more to Amazon and know they’ll get great customer service than save a few cents and risk poor customer service.

Is this a difficult concept? Not really. I would think any businessperson would know this, but then B&N management is the exception that proves the rule.

B&N is a struggling company that with a little bit of effort wouldn’t need to struggle so much. All it needs to do is change its culture by putting customers first. This was pointed out to B&N years ago, but even with changes in management it refuses to learn the lesson.

I am the customer that B&N needs and wants. I buy a book because I want it, not because of the price, and I buy hardcovers. I also preorder books, which tells B&N that it has a sure sale. B&N knows this (or should); all it has to do is look at my purchases in its databases. It’s computers must recognize me as a desirable customer because my membership has been renewed at no charge to me. The problem is getting B&N’s human staff to recognize what the computers recognize.

But B&N is driving me away. The customer service supervisor didn’t seem to care when I suggested that perhaps I should cancel all my B&N preorders and instead preorder the books at Amazon. I suspect she would have given me Amazon’s URL, thinking she was passing a problem customer to Amazon.

Years ago I said that B&N’s problem was very poor management. Even though there has been some management change, its poor quality seems to continue. If I were a shareholder, I’d be complaining loudly about how poor management is killing my investment by failing to invest in great customer relations. But I’m not a shareholder; I am just a customer who is thinking of jumping ship because I have had enough poor customer service and I am sure I can find some other bookseller who would like a customer who buys dozens of hardcovers every year.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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