Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue

8400375039_bdb15d97c4_ba guest post by editor Richard Adin

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 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, dim-wittedness 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.

image by Hobbies on a Budget

27 Comments on Barnes & Noble: Years Later & Still No Clue

  1. I wonder if they stopped caring about prices because they think that they’ve already lost all the smart shoppers, the ones who check prices?

  2. They are bad at math overall and hope that people won’t notice. 30% off and 40% off if you are a member isn’t quite right. They take 30% off first, then 10% off the discounted price. In the end it is a 37% discount. The other practice that is annoying is putting theft prevention stickers in books that can’t be removed without tearing the page. So to discourage theft, they deface the book.

  3. Oh, but that is just the industry standard WhaleMath™ at work.

  4. One more nail in the B&N coffin. I purchased the Glowlight Plus, but returned it because for a number of reasons the reading experience on the GlowLight was worse than on the Simple Touch. One would hope that New would also be New-Improved instead of New-Worse.

    I recently made a purchase of an EPUB book. I had problems logging into my account on the B&N website, so I used Kobo instead. Perhaps because it was a Spanish language book that the Big Five didn’t carry, the price was a reasonable $10.

  5. I’ve spent the last two days dealing with B&N “customer service” as well. I’m a B&N member, which is supposed to mean free “expedited shipping” on all of my purchases. I placed an order in late February and, on March 2nd, received an email notifying me that the order had shipped. It included a UPS tracking number.

    For an entire week, the tracking number showed no progress. The package hadn’t been shipped. But my credit card was charged.

    When I called B&N the first time – 3/07 – the representative told me the package should be delivered that evening and, if it was not and the tracking still showed no information for the package, to let them know on 3/08 and an “immediate credit” would be issued. The package never arrived.

    I followed up on 3/08, told that rep what the previous rep had told me. This person also confirmed that the UPS tracking number showed nothing had been sent. But this time she informed me that I had to wait until 3/24 – a full 3 weeks after the ship date – before anything could be done. When I pointed out that this package was supposed to be sent by “expedited delivery,” which surely shouldn’t take 3 weeks (even USPS can do better than that), the response was basically just “sorry, I wish I could help but I can’t do anything until March 24th.”

    When I also pointed out that this would never happen at Amazon, B&N offered me a $5 credit to use on a future purchase. All I really wanted was to know where the hell my order was, and why I had been given a non-existent tracking number.

    Unbelievable.

    (I’ve also repeatedly had the pre-order pricing issue mentioned in this post. I recently pre-ordered a book at B&N, and the price has dropped 3 times since then. I’ve cancelled my existing order each time, and placed a new order for the same book. That shouldn’t be necessary. And if the price drops again, I’ll probably throw in the towel, cancel the B&N order entirely, and just order from Amazon, so I know the price will be automatically adjusted when it ships.)

  6. Barnes & Noble has repeatedly been dinged by enraged customers who find that the B&M stores will not price match BN.com. The excuse given is that the two are separate entities and have no financial connection – not to mention the logical (to them) argument that a physical store HAS to charge higher prices than a website. Customers don’t care, if you read customer complaint websites this is the most oft appearing complaint.

    Funny how the new Amazon store proudly proclaims that the price in the store is the same as the price on the website. It’s almost like they were paying attention to what people want…

    • Amazon’s b&m and online cost structures are apparently comparable; they expect to sell enough books at the stores to make the per-book “b&m tax” comparable to the online shipping cost.

  7. The problem with B/N has always been arrogance. Years ago, when they first introduced their ebook selling platform, in order to have them sell your digital book you were required to have 25 books published by traditional publishers. Their attitude has always been take it or leave it. That was their attitude when they started as a used textbook reseller in a grimy shop in Lower Manhattan. The attitude never changed.

  8. B&N over has proved time and again that they have no interest in my business.
    The last time I attempted to use their web site it had so many trackers and spyware/malware that it was unusable–when ghostery had over 60 hits, I just closed the tab.
    They sent me coupons and discounts which all say “Not for Nook books and/or Must be used in store”. The closest B&N store is a three hour round trip form me.
    They have no supported way for me to download ebooks to my PC. So even if the ebooks are not infested with drm I can not download and read on a app/device of my choosing.

  9. I have no doubt that someday B&N will close up it’s ebook section and Amazon will buy them out of it which will be a shame.

    • Why would Amazon buy the ebook section?

      Buying the B & N ebook section would also put Amazon in the Epub business, which it clearly doesn’t want to be in.

      The only real reason for Amazon to buy the ebook section is to keep it out of Kobo’s hands, so the move would be defensive.

      • …and a waste of money.
        The transfer of accounts would probably cost more in customer support that the remaining Nook customers could bring in. They’ll let Kobo take the hit.

  10. I used to buy books from B&N for one reason. To support Amazon competitors. I did worry that if Amazon was too big they would lower their standards. Having strong competitors would ensure that Amazon would stay honest. However, when I regularly got annoyed with dealing with B&N I made the switch to Amazon. My reasoning there was, in a era when people who succeed in business need to work hard and provide a good product to the customer, why am I supporting a company that is inferior, and why, when I only live once, should I suffer when there is a better option?

    The days of me supporting B&N and Kobo are long gone. I don’t need the hassle

  11. They had the worst customer policies you could imagine. Very few times are customer service reps allowed to make exceptions and Rich’s one time courtesy means they documented they helped you that one time, next time you call, forget it.

    Customer service to them is telling you guys they are sorry, repeatedly. I dare anyone to call and tell me they weren’t apologized to. It doesn’t even matter if its not the Reps fault. If there is any problem, either side, apologize, even if you can’t help.

    Waiting on a refund. Have fun waiting 3 weeks because that is what it usually takes. With Amazon, I’ve gotten refunds as soon as there was a tracking showing I sent it. They didn’t even wait until it hit their warehouse. Little things like that really add up. My internet was wonky one night and I had trouble streaming a movie. Next day, I get an email from Amazon saying they noticed I had trouble streaming it and were refunding me my rental fee. What? Who does that?

    I always felt this is the real reason everyone hates Amazon. Amazon does a great job of making the customer feel first, like their business matters more than their actual business. Everyone else has shown Customers do not come first, they say they do but its more lip service. And that is slowly killing their business.

    Its to bad really. I like B&N store but I don’t shop their anymore.

    And all the authors ganging up on Amazon. Is it really their fault everyone sucks so bad? I think its a matter of time before B&N follows Borders.

  12. B&N is in a spiral downwards partly because of their industry, partly because they’ve got really crappy hardware & software offerings, but mostly because they’ve alienated their customers with completely absurd practices.

    It is time for them to go and when this latest reboot fails — and it will — they will be gone. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  13. Something I just realized: is it misguided to think of B&N as a competitor to Amazon? They’re both retailers, but how they retail is very different. If you want a physical book from a physical store, you go to Barnes & Noble. If you want to buy without leaving your couch, you go to Amazon. And yes, you can argue they both sell books, but retail isn’t about the sale or good so much as the experience the retailer creates for the customer.

    I think that’s why Barnes & Noble is failing. It has failed to differentiate the retail experience it offers from any other one.

    • Well, yes.
      B&M bookselling in general and B&N in particular operate on a “stock it and they will come” basis. The mostly sit around for customers to walk in, notice the books on the payola tables and like Pavlov’s dogs, instantly open their wallets.
      Passive selling requires more effort (and expense) from customers. If you think of each store having a maximum draw distance the defines how far customers are willing to go to buy books and customer density as the number of willing customers within that distance it is easy to see where there problems come from: their operating costs are fixed, they are almost totally dependent on traditional publishers whose revenues are strongly dependent on bestsellers (which aren’t selling in the volumes they used to and are available pretty much everywhere), and their reduction in the floor space devoted to books makes the pilgrimage to their stores a lot less compelling than it used to be. Factor in high gas prices which are still higher than in the heyday of the big box stores, increasing pbook prices (and the ongoing phase-out of mass market paperbacks), the rise of online, the rise of ebooks, and the mainstreaming of Indies.
      All the ongoing trends for the past twenty years are reducing their stores’ attractiveness to book buyers and they aren’t doing anything to change that. The move to “lifestyle” merchandise is geared towards extracting more money from customers *after* they walk in but are doing nothing to draw in more customers in the first place.
      (Note that WalMart has been reducing its book sections; bestsellers aren’t the traffic draws they used to be.)

      Until B&N comes up with a way to bring more people into the stores they will continue to spiral ever lower and continue closing stores as their profitability slowly evaporates.

  14. Amazon sells to the whole world. I live in Argentina and have been buying books (p and e) from Amazon at least since 1998.
    Four years ago I tried to buy an ebook from Barnes & Noble. It failed. I got this email:
    “If you received this email regarding your order for a Barnes & Noble NOOK Book or NOOK App, please be advised that these purchases are limited to those customers physically located in the United States and Canada”
    I kept buying from Amazon.

  15. 3 weeks for a refund? Why is anyone playing that old game in today’s world? Amazon gives credit with no questions asked, immediately. You got a book at a different price? No problem, they credited the entire book price. I stopped going to Barnes & Nobles years ago. It is frivolous to pay full price when I can get it cheaper. Their business model has failed and they deserve to die off. Sooner over later. They have absolutely nothing that I cannot find elsewhere at a far better price and with guarantees that I don’t have to pretend it is 1970 and call anyone about a product.

  16. Hi Richard. I appreciate you bringing your issues with B&N to light, however, after reading the posts that you linked to in the above article, it seems you have had the identical issues with B&N for several years.

    My questions to you are why do you still deal with B&N? You are obvioulsy displeased with them, they frustrate you, they waste your time, they overcahge you, why do you stick with them?

    You are obviously a great customer of them, but it seems to make no different to B&N. Everyone has their own threshhold of loyalty to a business, surely yours must be coming to an end.

    Its not like B&N is making the product, they just provide the service of getting the product to you. You can still support the makers of all the books you buy. However, for the delivery, you could support someone who treats you with a bit more respect.

    • I can’t speak for Rich, but I get the sense he believes in buying local (case in point, he buys his work computers from a local shop). He also has ethical objections to buying from/through Amazon.

    • Good morning, Fred.

      Nate has mostly summed up my view. The one additional point is that there is no serious major online competition to Amazon in the U.S. is B&N disappears, and if B&N disappears, I believe Amazon will raise prices and take such other anticonsumer steps as it thinks it can get away with.

      Jeff Bezos is a very smart businessperson. But at some point he will have to change his business model (I have no doubt that Felix disagrees with me on this). After all, once you have no competition and have complete control of the market, there needs to be a shift in philosophy from gaining market share to increasing profit and shareholder dividend. Right now Amazon can focus on market share rather than profit because there is still market share to grab; with B&N gone, that changes. Amazon has already demonstrated this with changes it has made such as the failure to really put up a fight over agency pricing this last time.

      It is true that problems with B&N are ongoing. I keep hoping that someone at B&N will have a sudden epiphany. In the mean time, as frustrated as I am with B&N, I see no alternative. Fortunately, most of the things that frustrate me with B&N I can get around, such as this problem with pricing.

      Perhaps someday someone with some authority at B&N will stumble across one of my blog posts and think it worthwhile to check out my history with B&N and then contact me, listen to my suggestions, and actually change course. Then, again, maybe Santa Claus will stop by for a pre-Christmas chat.

      • The problem with the theory that “Amazon will raise prices once B&N is gone” is that books aren’t the only thing Amazon sells and B&N isn’t their only competition. Amazon’s quest for a bigger share of the market isn’t solely about books, which is a trickle compared to the global retail market, but about the trillions deep potential for online shopping.
        Amazon isn’t going to pivot away from their strategy until they decide there is no more room for growth in the bigger market and there is no chance of new competitors rising up. That is not happening soon.
        It might help to once in a while look beyond the small pond to the giant ocean just beyond. US consumer book retail is not a business important enough to sacrifice the company’s brand loyalty just to squeeze a few extra pennies out of customers. After 20-plus years, Amazon has shown no sign of being that shortsighted.
        That is the BPH way, though, so it is understandable that people in publishing would, after 30 years under the Manhattan Mafia, tend to project their behavior unto other big companies. (Witness the tech company hate Nate reported on at DBW earlier this week.)
        There are other ways to operate, though.
        The fear of Amazon someday, somehow, possibly raising prices seems to me a like a poor rationale to continue doing business with a company that does not value your continued support.
        Me, I weigh current real injury and insult much more heavily than some hypothetical future damage that is years or decades away.
        But to each their own: I have enough trouble figuring out how to waste my money to spend time telling others how to spend theirs.
        All I know is I have little tolerance for vendors (and publishers) who show such outright disdain for me as the BPHs and B&N.

      • “The one additional point is that there is no serious major online competition to Amazon in the U.S. is B&N disappears, and if B&N disappears, I believe Amazon will raise prices and take such other anticonsumer steps as it thinks it can get away with.”

        Like, what? There is no major online competition to Amazon, period. In fact, when it comes to good and successful retail models, it seems like there are two right now: Apple for brick&mortar and Amazon for everything else. I think you believe Bezos will have to change his business model because you don’t understand the model he has, not because there’s a bottom-line reason to do so. And I think you confuse Amazon’s quietude and focus on contract negotiation with “failing to really put up a fight over agency” — not having been privy to those conversations it’s impossible to really speak to them.

        All we can really see, in fact, is what has been reported as happening; the corporate publishers got their way and moved to agency, ebook prices rose, and ebook sales declines, across all board except the indie ones.

  17. Maybe Amazon didn’t put up a fight over agency because it’s good for the indie market.

  18. You’re also overlooking what happened with diapers.com (in that they turned Amazon down at first, which led to a price war with Amazon and the company having to sell itself to either Walmart or Amazon, I can’t remember which, at a lot less of a price).

    Amazon doesn’t have to raise prices on everything if B&N goes out of business, just on books remember.

  19. Hi Richard,

    I can see where you are coming from. Most people will believe that if only one major player was left in the market, then they would probably leverage that position into higher margins. However, Bezos has always said something along the lines that ‘your margin is my opportunity’. It seems he knows that if raises his margins too much, then Amazon would not be as competitive and would allow other players into the market.

    However, now that the publishers have agreed to go with Agency pricing, there really is no price difference. Amazon cannot compete on price now. They rely on customers using them as a one stop shop (expecting their pricing to be fair) and by maintaing great service levels.

    Agency pricing will probably also allow for independent bookstores to compete in the market. These independent bookstores will have to provide excellent service levels to survive but if they run their business well, they can thrive with a steady stream of loyal customers like yourself who want to encourage competition.

    B&N seems to be taking most of their customers for granted (including you)and while these customers continue shopping with them, they have no incentive to change their practices. If you don’t want to give your business to Amazon, that is fine, perhaps you could look into moving some of your business to a local bookstore if there is one.

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