Is the Internet Killing Barnes & Noble?

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Barnes & Noble is up for sale, and insiders say it’s going to go for bottom dollar.  The chain, with all their superstores, used to strike fear into the hearts of mom-and-pop booksellers.  Even their religious section often had greater depth and range than the average Christian bookstore.

Why Things Bad for  Barnes & Noble

Why did the big barn bookseller come to such an ignoble end? According to James B. Stewart at the Wall Street Journal, it was because they were behind the curve when it came to exploiting the Internet.  Barnes & Noble was in the position to be the market leader, but they gave that position away when they put the emphasis on brick-and-mortar rather than electronic sales. Barnes & Noble was slow to exploit the Internet with digital reading devices and e-books.  They did enter that market, but it was too little and too late.

While Stewart was quick to blame technology, and a management that was slow to seize opportunity, Barnes & Noble’s actually failed in the area of service.  You can buy books anywhere, but service is hard to find.  Amazon.com gave consumers what they wanted, and that was the speedy delivery of products.  Not only did they meet or exceed promised delivery book delivery dates, but they also developed an innovative product, the Kindle, which could instantaneously deliver e-books via free wireless. Yes, Barnes and Noble didn’t create the Nook reading device, but it proved to be an “also ran” product.  Barnes & Noble got into a rut of trying to play catch-up rather than being a market leader. Stewart says, “I know exactly when B&N lost me as a customer. Some years ago, to compete with Amazon, B&N began offering free same-day delivery in Manhattan if you placed your order over the Internet by 11 a.m. I did so several times—and not once did the books arrive when promised.”

A Lesson for Christian Booksellers

There is an important lesson here for Christian booksellers.  That lesson is, no matter how well stocked your store may be, your survival depends upon the service you provide.  Most Christian bookstores don’t provide much service to book buyers.  They have books available, but they are not really in the business of selling them.  If someone wanders in and sees a book they like, that’s great.  If not, that’s great with the bookseller too, because he or she can return books for credit.  It’s when Christian bookstores start actually selling books–advertising them and recommending books to customers–that they begin to offer the kind of service that people want and the kind of service that will keep them in business.

You can measure the kind of expert bookselling goes on in a Christian bookstore by the kind of inventory they have.  If the store is filled with books, that is a harbinger of good things; if it is filled with T-shirts, jewelry and plaques, you can bet that the bookseller does not have enough product knowledge about their books to sell them. Like a Barnes and Nobles, such Christian bookstores will cease to be relevant.  They will simply be gift shops with a few dusty tomes in a corner.

Lack of service killed Barnes & Noble. Only businesses that can deliver the kind of service that customers want can expect to be successful. Those who fail to deliver that kind if service can expect to find themselves in the same position as Barnes and Noble. Aggressive vertical marketing, in-store promotions and knowledgable, helpful staff are the only things that will save the day for brick and mortar Christian booksellers.

Published on: Aug 18, 2010

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