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Barnes & Noble was Almost Bought by WHSmith – Wait, What?

When ex-CEO Demos Parneros filed suit against Barnes & Noble in August, he mentioned that another  bookseller nearly bought B&N earlier this year.

Now the WSJ is reporting that the mystery retailer was WHSmith,

For months, people in the publishing industry wondered about the identity of the mystery would-be buyer.

People familiar with the situation say it was WH Smith PLC, a U.K. retailer that sells books, stationery and other products.

A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble declined to comment. The company said last month that it is evaluating a possible sale and noted it had received interest from multiple parties, including executive chairman, Leonard Riggio.

Representatives for W.H. Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment.

I don’t think WHSmith was really that interested – not after it got a look at B&N’s books, anyway – but this story is quite plausible. After walking away from the B&N deal, WHSmith announced it was paying $148 million for InMotion, an airport retailer with 114 stores in 43 airports.

With annual revenues around $1.6 billion, it’s not hard to guess why WHSmith  passed on buying B&N.  Not only is B&N significantly larger, it is also financially unhealthy and is run by a management team that is given to turning what should be well-kept secrets into embarrassing public spectacles.

If B&N interacted with WHSmith with the same nasty infighting as B&N is now conducting itself in public, no wonder WHSmith backed out of the deal.

image by Shardayyy via Flickr

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davemich November 6, 2018 um 3:58 pm

They have 250 airport stores already. This is probably a much better fit. Not to mention that I haven’t heard of Hudson’s having any financial problems. Airports are probably a smarter move overall, especially considering that WHSmith is closing some of their "high street" stores in the UK.

Eric November 6, 2018 um 7:37 pm

Why isn’t Rakuten all over this? What better way to establish Kobo in the US than by buying out B&N?

Nate Hoffelder November 8, 2018 um 7:26 am

Rakuten prefers to buy healthy companies when they expand (Kobo was the exception).

Disgusting Dude November 8, 2018 um 1:09 pm

They also prefer business-to-business operations over business-to-consumer.
Kobo sticks out like a sore thumb while Overdrive fits like a glove.
First thing they did with BUY.COM after renaming it was cut way back on direct consumer sales and turn it into a marketplace for third party merchants.

Nate Hoffelder November 8, 2018 um 1:28 pm

Yes, Rakuten does prefer B2B. (I do wonder if Kobo was pitched as B2B based on how many local partners it has.) Speaking of B2B in ebooks, there’s also Aquafadas.

Darryl November 7, 2018 um 3:05 am

Buying B&N is likely a fast route to Bankruptcy. There are many stores and liabilities that a Purchaser would simply not want. I’m sure there are many vultures waiting to peck at the carcass and fly away with the most juicy morsels. However, I also suspect some of the existing insiders may themselves be contriving a situation where they get first peck.

Buying B&N would indeed be worth looking at for the right company seeking a prominent position in the US market. This is no doubt what tempted W.H. Smith. My best guess is that they were looking at some very particular issues in their due diligence, and things simply did not stack up.

So far as Rakuten is concerned, B&N is not a good fit. Last I looked Kobo professed no expertise in retailing physical books. Perhaps they will be interested in buying the name. Though I expect at least one of the present insiders to come away with that.

Chris November 7, 2018 um 9:48 am

UK readers might recall that WHSmith had a long term deal with Kobo and sold Kobo hardware in their stores in special Kobo-branded areas.

For whatever reason, that deal ended last year. I wonder if that was related to them looking at the B&N trainwreck?

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