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B&N a Bookseller No Longer?

Amazon’s first bookstore is opening at a curious time: when Barnes & Noble is getting out of the market.

Bloomberg published an interview yesterday of Ron Boire, B&N’s new CEO. Boire took over as the head of B&N this summer after leaving a similar position with Sears Canada, and he’s already begun to adapt his experience with that ailing retailer to save B&N. According to Bloomberg, Boire said he’ll continue predecessor Mike Huseby’s expansion of non-book items.

The biggest U.S. bookstore chain is counting on new do-it-yourself merchandise such as Raspberry Pi computer kits, art supplies, journals and even a Benedict Cumberbatch coloring book to lure shoppers at Christmas and beyond. Toys and other non-book items have been Barnes & Noble’s fastest-growing category, rising at a double-digit pace, Boire said.

Barnes & Noble is expanding exclusive or hard-to-find merchandise, including Gundam anime kits that can cost as much as $150. A large swath of the second floor at the Union Square store is devoted to toys, which the retailer has grouped by age, category and brand.

To lure young adults, the store has doubled its selection of manga comic books from last year and expanded its array of graphic novels and anime figures. It also has added a large selection of vinyl records, which executives expect to be a top seller this holiday as the old format becomes more popular with urban hipsters and indie music fans.

So not only is B&N closing stores while toying with the idea of opening smaller ones, they’ve also devoting less space to books and trying to find products that will attract younger consumers.

That’s why B&N stores look like this now:


This could also explain why my local B&N has kept its music dept, and now stocks LPs and USB record players.

At the same time, B&N is changing how it promotes books:

For the holiday this year, it’s cut featured titles highlighted in a display at the front of the store by almost half, to 55. Instead, there are more copies of each, and popular books are now presented in several categories. Stacy Schiff’s new book on the Salem witch trials, for example, pops up in history, best-sellers and a new section called “Popular Life Stories.” Overall, the company is promoting more titles than in past years.

B&N is transitioning from being a bookseller to something else. They’re replacing the unprofitable books with whatever is hot right now, including figurines. (If Amazon merchandized its new tv series with toys, would B&N refuse to carry them?)

They’re even selling pasta now:


At the same time, B&N isn’t removing the cafes that everyone used to think would make the perfect complement to a bookstore, they’re just surrounding them with different products.

Would you like a coffee with your crossword?


So what does this make B&N, the new mid-range Sharper Image? An alternative to Bed, bath, & Beyond (with an emphasis on the beyond)?

How about a plus-sized comic book store?

Seriously, folks, comic book stores have long carried merchandise that complemented the graphic novels and comic books and appealed to the same customer base.

Now B&N is selling whatever draws in the customers. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for B&N to look at the healthier comic book shops and see what they’re doing right.

images by Monica Arellano-OngpinHouse of Hallzcopley




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Mackay Bell November 7, 2015 um 5:49 pm

I think you’re missing the big picture here. Comic books are a niche market (and a fading one in print). Pasta is not a niche product. Neither are toys and art supplies. (I have no idea what they are thinking about Raspberry PI computers, other than they are cheap and maybe educationally oriented moms will buy them for kids who will ignore them).

They need to move a lot of merchandize to justify all that floor space and that means stuff that sells. In the past, the big publishers subsidized them by paying them to provide shelf space for books that didn’t sell. The big publishers did this to control the market and support literary darlings, losing money on many books, but making enough on best sellers to be able to afford it. The big congloms that own publishers now won’t put up with such foolishness (paying to move around books that don’t sell) and it was never really a profitable way to do business.

To survive without subsidies for storing literary junk, B&N has to move product, and it can’t just be niche stuff (which is easier to get online). So only the rather small number of best selling books that appeal to a broad audience and… pasta!

Nate Hoffelder November 8, 2015 um 2:57 pm

@ Mackay

Am I?

My point was that comic book stores serve related niche markets, while B&N is throwing stuff on the shelf and seeing what sells. The former approach strikes me as the better one because it lets the retailer develop an unique identity. Right now B&N is just selling whatever they can, so it’s difficult to say what you will find in a B&N store or (more importantly) why you would want to go there.

Scott Lewis November 7, 2015 um 11:22 pm

It’s smart. I was away on business last week and swung by a BN store to get gifts for my kids. My nine year old reads on a Kindle. I read on a Kindle. My five year old is starting to read on a Kindle Fire. When I browse books, I buy on Kindle right in store. That’s my ecosystem. But even if I were a Nook user I would still buy eBooks not paperbacks or hardcovers. Hard to justify the retail space if that’s becoming more and more commonplace coupled with the sheer number of non-eBook readers who buy from home over Amazon.

Raspberry Pi was one of a very large, nice collection of educational toys – programmatic robotic spheres, Pi, etc. great board and card games too.

I spent a few bucks in the cafe too. I think what they are doing is smart. Doubling down on bucks is good for smaller mom and pops but with the size and locations they maintain Barnes and Noble really needs to be creative. Carrying lots of books wasn’t what got them in trouble.

Sturmund Drang November 8, 2015 um 12:06 pm

I know I’m in the 1% of 1% group, so what I’m about to say doesn’t really matter. But, I think it was always the 1% that helped make the "real" bookstores what they were. Anyway, what I think is easily dismissed but here goes:

It’s not just the retailers selling product, or the customers buying product that has changed. It’s also the producer. Everyone in the business anymore is only producing books that appeal to the "mass" market. No one (nearly) is producing the books for the book lover, the collector, the devotee. 50 years ago you could walk into almost any large bookstore and pick up a paperback Hamlet, or a library binding Hamlet, or a limited edition hardback, or even a beautiful red leather rice paper collectible to cherish. Twenty Five years ago you might have found a complete Dickens or a nice collection of Joseph Conrad but you had to search and search for it, or go to the specialty presses like the Folio Society or Easton Press. Today, NOBODY sells a Stevenson, or Conrad, or Dickens, or Hemingway collection of any worth.

I recently went to the market to buy a fifty dollar Thomas a' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. That book is second on the best seller list of the past couple of hundred years only next to the Bible and Mao’s Little Red Book. Could I find a nice copy? I found a $15 copy that was worth $5. Nobody, nobody is selling nice books anymore to the average collector who’s outside the pale of Rowlings, King & Grisham.

It’s like trying to find something to watch on TV.

Now to come to the point, I don’t believe this is going to change. I don’t think people are going to start caring about books like they did in past, I don’t think people are going to start producing books like they did in the past. So, it’s just not fair to expect B&N to sell books like they did…in the past.

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