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Is it the end for Barnes & Noble?
Maybe not for the bookish megastore, but for its digital operations, it’s certainly a moment of transition. B. & N.’s Nook division lost nearly five hundred million dollars last year; and several weeks ago, the company’s CEO, William Lynch, resigned: What’s next for the last great bastion of Starbucks, periodicals, CDs, and…books?
The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki weighs in, in an article titled “E-Book VS. P-Book”:
When Barnes & Noble announced, a couple of weeks ago, that its Nook division lost almost five hundred million dollars last year and that its C.E.O. was resigning, there was one obvious conclusion: the company was doomed. After all, the Nook was how B. & N. was going to compete with Apple and Amazon, and thrive in a future dominated by e-books. With the Nook’s failure, B. & N. looked like just another business anachronism, a chain of cavernous barns selling piles of outdated merchandise. Who went to a store anymore to buy a physical book?
But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…
There are plenty of things B. & N. could do better, of course. Its Web site could be sportier. Its stores, publishing people gripe, are too cluttered, often with non-book merchandise, and don’t do a good enough job of showcasing its key product. (The demise of the Nook should help in this regard, since those giant Nook display booths took up a lot of floor space.) It might also be time for the firm to embrace more innovative ways of pricing and selling books; Peter Olson, the former C.E.O. of Random House, has suggested that B. & N. could bundle e-books and print copies, or offer volume discounts. Motivated, personalized customer service would also make a difference. The obvious model here is the experience at Apple’s retail stores. But B. & N. could also look closer to home. Independent bookstores are now thriving, thanks in large part to their close ties to both publishers and customers. “Stores that can help you not just find what you’re looking for but also help you discover books you haven’t heard of are still very valuable to readers,” says Daniel Raff, a management professor at Wharton who’s written an in-depth study of Borders and B. & N. This suggests that, instead of succumbing to the temptation to reinvent itself, B. & N. should focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore. . . .
Read the rest of Surowiecki’s assessment (not on your Nook!) at The New Yorker.