Barnes & Noble continues to flail about in search of some reason to keep its stores in operation. For starters, The Digital Reader reports on B&N CEO Ron Boire’s plans to create some kind of experimental “digital” store. But Boire is maddeningly vague on exactly how it will be “digital, talking about “the digital experience” and “providing the full experience” through being “fully connected—mobile, desktop, and store.” He wouldn’t say where or when it will open, apart from sometime “in calendar 2016,” and he wouldn’t even say if it’s intending to take inspiration from Amazon’s own brick-and-mortar store.

He’s also vague on whether B&N is doing anything to try to deal with its declining online sales through its portal, which were down $23.7 million from the same period the previous year in the first six months of 2016.

When asked what he’s doing to reverse online declines, Boire demurred.

“Our growth is around things that can help you learn and grow and be better as a person,” he said. “That is fundamental to the book business. Our toys and games business has been very strong. We are bringing new customers into our stores and online with things like our vinyl business,” he said. The Vinyl Store section of its website features vinyl record albums and turntables.

Whereas Amazon is “the everything store,” Barnes & Noble seems to be trying to get by on everything it can cram into a store. The latest such foray seems to be a plan to hold casual gaming events on Thursday nights in March at selected stores. 57 of B&N’s 640 locations will be participating, hosting demonstrations for a few board and card games including King of Tokyo, Sheriff of Nottingham, Splendor, Codenames, and Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. Most of the game demonstrations will include free promotional items for players who take part.

There’s nothing new about this kind of event, of course. A lot of game stores hold demonstrations. And for that matter, a lot of bookstores hold their own kinds of events, such as author readings and signings. But it’s interesting to see B&N continue to focus on other retail sectors than its core business.

As for the new “digital” store, I haven’t seen “digital” used as such an obvious buzzword with less actual meaning behind it since C.W. McCall put out a digitally-mastered album, The Real McCall, incorporating the word “digital” into their new song on the album, “Comin’ Back for More”. It feels like Barnes & Noble is flailing, which is about all they’ve done for the last ten years or so.

Perhaps the surest sign of B&N’s irrelevance is that here comes Amazon with a single brick-and-mortar location (and another planned) and suddenly the whole bookstore sector is reacting in shock. You really would think that Barnes & Noble should have been able to do something with the synergy between its brick-and-mortar locations and its website by now, wouldn’t you? It’s had ten years or so since the e-reader craze kicked off, and over six hundred stores to Amazon’s one-so-far that only opened a couple of months ago. But B&N simply hasn’t done much to capitalize on it apart from putting Nook e-ink readers and tablets in every store.

It seems as though the days that B&N was itself capable of shocking people—inspiring a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie about how the big bad chain-bookstore wolf was huffing and puffing and blowing down all the independent bookstores—are long gone. While it was resting on its laurels, Amazon started in a garage and then became a giant in e-commerce and e-books thanks to Jeff Bezos’s inspired leadership and relentless emphasis on customer satisfaction above all else. Now even one of the actors from You’ve Got Mail wonders if they did Barnes & Noble a disservice:

But the rise of online retailers has complicated [actress Heather] Burns’ aversion to the “Fox Books” stores of the city. “So now that Barnes & Noble is getting put out of business by Amazon, I don’t know,” said Burns, who wished there could be any bookstore vs. the person-less and algorithm-optimized Amazon. “Maybe I should have been more supportive of Barnes & Noble.”

We’ll see if B&N’s latest flail can bring it back toward any relevance, but I have my doubts. It doesn’t seem like B&N has had an actual entrepreneur at the helm in years, whereas Amazon is still able to bring out one new innovation after another.


  1. B&N’s stores and website are separate entities. One does not speak to the other, and because of that a whole raft of customers have been enraged when they ordered a book online, for pickup, and found themselves paying the store price for their pickup rather than the online price that the customer saw. Making the two work together seems like a pretty low-hanging fruit if they really do want to fix things.

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