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



  1. […] a guest post by editor Richard Adin […]


    Pingback by Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue | The Digital Reader — March 9, 2016 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  2. Quite sad that B&N is your alternative. I use a local independent. She is at least as fast as Amazon, and the service is much, much better than what would be available from a large organisation. I now only order online if searching for secondhand — and never from Amazon.


    Comment by L. McPhee — March 9, 2016 @ 7:46 am | Reply

  3. I order from B&N for similar reasons and have had the same problem. Another issue if you preorder a book is that they stick to their original ship date. Even if they start shipping books to everyone else, your preorder will be held until the original ship date–at the higher price of course. It’s frustrating to try to do business with a company you want to see succeed and have them do everything possible to fail.


    Comment by Rhonda — March 9, 2016 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  4. 1. Ship dates for unreleased media are “Strict On Sale” dates. If other booksellers sell before the “SOS” date, they are subject to penalties by the publisher, whether books, music, or digital media. “Original ship date” has no meaning in this context.
    2. You will find that Barnes and Noble salespeople, the ones in the bricks and mortar stores, that is, like your independent bookseller noted above, will go out of their way to honor price changes, even beyond correcting mis-labeled items. Your online assistant does not have that privilege, and must follow the script for each situation. Try using a store, if you can. Or at least call a local store for assistance in placing the order. In that way, you will at least have the opportunity to speak to someone with a name, a local telephone number, and a better ability to make an exception where there is a real misunderstanding.
    3. It is clear from the dialogue with the supervisor that there was a nearly impossible misunderstanding about the nature of the price change. Rising tempers or increasing frustration on either end cannot allay the effect of the misunderstanding. The supervisor clearly believed that the cause was a misunderstanding about the matter of the price difference, no matter how clearly the issue appeared to be to the original poster.
    4. Had the matter been one of membership discount, there would have been no error as the discount would have been automatically applied. The problem with an online pre-order is that the price at the time of sale, not at the time of shipment, is the price to be charged when the item ships, before any further discounting is considered (anticipated better sales from reviews, and so on, such as larger bulk purchases, figure in display and promotional discount ting).That is part of the sales agreement with Barnes and Noble, as I understand it. I could be wrong. A review of the terms and conditions might help.
    5. Barnes and Noble is a billion dollar corporation, not a struggling seller, despite the hype one hears about the death of books and mortar sellers. I note that Amazon has now opened its second storefront, this one in San Diego, so we have yet to see how that plays out. I know that there are problems with B&N’s online booksellers, as I have had two lost gift cards that were never sent but that I was billed for. Online assistance is, I feel, the biggest problem that Barnes and Noble has. Good help is hard to find, as the saying goes.
    Sorry for your unhappy experience.


    Comment by georgebeach — March 9, 2016 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  5. I just saw this story about the e-book side of customer unhappiness with B&N:


    Comment by Carolyn — March 10, 2016 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

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