Barnes & Noble likes books again

Ted Gioia on the remarkable rebound of Barnes & Noble:

[CEO James Daunt] used the pandemic as an opportunity to “weed out the rubbish” in the stores. He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing. 

As this example makes clear, Daunt started giving more power to the stores. But publishers complained bitterly. They now had to make more sales calls, and convince local bookbuyers—and that’s hard work. Even worse, when a new book doesn’t live up to expectations, the local workers see this immediately. Books are expected to appeal to readers—and just convincing a head buyer at headquarters was no longer enough.

Daunt also refused to dumb-down the store offerings. The key challenge, he claimed was to “create an environment that’s intellectually satisfying—and not in a snobbish way, but in the sense of feeding your mind.”

His crucial move was refusing to take promotional money from publishers in exchange for purchase commitments and prominent placement of only certain books:

[Daunt] refused to play this game. He wanted to put the best books in the window. He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door. Even more amazing, he let the people working in the stores make these decisions.

This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books. 

“Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”

This cheered me to read, not only because of my interest in the success of bookstores but also because I worked at Barnes & Noble for about six months back in 2011.

Freshly stateside after months abroad, I was nearly broke and working at a grocery store when my friend Brian let me know he’d be leaving his job in the Music & Movies section at our local B&N store and would put in a good word for me if I applied. I did so immediately and got the job, which boosted my pay (from “enough to avoid destitution” to “meager”) along with my spirits.

It turned out to be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, despite lasting only about six months before I got full-time work elsewhere.

Since whoever was working in the Music & Movies section couldn’t leave it unsupervised, I would be stationed there during my shifts no matter how busy it got elsewhere in the store. Some might have found that suffocating, but as a movie lover I relished being sequestered with thousands of Blu-rays, DVDs, and CDs to browse through and organize when I wasn’t helping customers.

Another big factor of my enjoyment of that job was the manager of the Music & Movies section, Joe. He was the most laidback of the store managers but also probably the most effective because, as my friend Brian said after I sent him the above article:

This strategy reminds me of how Joe would run the music section. He gave us a lot of power over the music that was on the shelves and it allowed us to sell CDs when the industry was in decline. Well done, Barnes.

I guess that’s the takeaway for Barnes and for all purveyors of the fine arts: Be like Joe.

One response to “Barnes & Noble likes books again”

  1. I think it is about time for these changes. B&N needed to stand out from the competition (Amazon) and what better way than to make the stores more personalized?