Taking a page from a booksellers’ playbook

While many brick-and-mortar retailers are shuttering locations or going out of business entirely, Barnes & Noble is opening new stores at a rapid clip and doing major makeovers of others.

You remember Barnes & Noble, right? It’s that category killing bookstore that helped drive a lot of small independents out of business and then got its own comeuppance when people started buying books online and turning to e-readers for e-books.

Around 2008, the bookseller had more than 725 stores, but during a decade-long period of decline, turmoil and turnover, it closed more than 150 locations.

The retailer is still shuttering some underperforming stores but in 2022, it says, it “opened more new bookstores in a single year than it had in the whole decade from 2009 to 2019.”

And Barnes & Noble is on pace to open about 30 new stores this year. It’s rebound contains lessons for home furnishings retailers.

Another new store — and another

You get a sense of Barnes & Noble’s stride when you check the News section of its website: There are news releases about its monthly book club selections and holiday gifts, but most of the items are about store openings: in Brandon, Florida; in West Lebanon, New Hampshire; in Cary, North Carolina; in Portland, Oregon, and so on and so on and so on. (The company has actually opened two new stores in Portland, notable because the city is home to Powell’s, which claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore. Powell’s is a destination not just for Portlanders but also tourists. I once spent the better part of a day wandering around its enormous flagship store. I could barely cram my haul into my suitcase for the trip home. What I’m saying is that there’s stiff bookselling competition in Portland, and Barnes & Noble is confident it can compete.)

As an avid reader and someone worried about the decline of brick-and-mortar retail in general, Barnes & Noble’s upswing is heartening. And I think it has some lessons for furniture and home decor retailers, many of whom are struggling to attract and retain customers in the face of e-commerce competition and an overall slump in home furnishings sales.

Lessons from B&N

·       Keep it local. Barnes & Noble is a national chain, now with about 600 stores, but under the leadership of CEO James Daunt, the bookseller is curating its stores to serve the interests and needs of local shoppers. In reopening a closed Barnes & Noble location in a new spot in Mason, Ohio, last year, store manager Jordan Walls noted that the bookselling team focused on stocking “a robust selection of lifestyle books, including cookbooks and self-care, as well as a fantastic children’s section. There are also large book rooms devoted to mystery and thriller books, young adult titles and manga.” The idea is to make the chain feel more like part of the community.

·       Smaller may be better. Some of Barnes & Noble’s new locations are significantly smaller than previous locations. In a Fast Company article about the retailer, writer Rob Walker points out that a new store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is 7,000 square feet — quite the downsizing from a now-closed nearby location that was some 50,000 square feet. Smaller stores address the reality of costly commercial rents. But tighter footprints also speak to the idea of curated selections: A store doesn’t have to offer everything within its walls. Retail sales associates can help customers order items that aren’t in-store and have them shipped directly to customers’ homes or have them sent to the store for a customer to pick up on a return visit.

·       Focus on people. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are great: They can make life more efficient, but we are human beings, with unique quirks, needs and preferences — sometimes quirks, needs and preferences that we haven’t even discovered yet. Wandering through an attractive, well-merchandised store that’s staffed with a team of educated, helpful sales associates can inspire new ideas among shoppers. As Daunt puts it, each Barnes & Noble team sets “out to show how much better than an algorithm an experienced bookselling team is when curating their shelves with local readers in mind.”

See Also

·       Rethink the retail space. Barnes & Nobles has been reinventing its stores, both through the new openings and through renovations of existing locations. The new design groups books into thematic rooms and spaces, rather than the long rows of a traditional big box bookseller — or library, for that matter. The idea is to create cozy, welcoming spaces that invite exploring and browsing. The new stores are lighter, with paler woods for shelving and flooring, and inviting furniture. LED fixtures brighten the spaces.

·       Focus on what you do best — and what you love. By all accounts, CEO Daunt loves books. He believes in the value of hardcovers and softcovers and e-books, too. (Barnes & Noble’s version of an e-reader is called the Nook.) After a career in investment banking, Daunt opened his own bookstore in London in 1990. Daunt Books now has nine locations, mostly in the London area, and Daunt still owns that small chain. One of the changes he made when he took his leadership role at Barnes & Noble was to pare down the slew of products only tangentially related to reading that were taking up retail space. There are still puzzles and some gifty items but the stores’ focus is on the books themselves.

With the advent of e-books and the growing number of distractions awaiting people every time they pick up their smartphones, the market for physical books is smaller than it once was. And Barnes & Noble isn’t the retail juggernaut it once was.

But it’s reinventing itself in a new marketplace, for customers old and new.

Home furnishings retailers face a similarly changed landscape. High interest rates are tamping down home sales, and consumers who splurged on furniture during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic may feel that their home won’t need a refresh anytime soon. That means retailers need to focus on core customers, merchandise stores in ways that encourage exploration and lingering, and, for national and regional chains, give store managers more freedom to cater to local tastes. It’s all part of the Barnes & Noble playbook — one worth studying.

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