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Barnes & Noble's public relations agency must be on the case - there have been two positive stories about the bookstore chain in the last few days…

Fast Company has a piece about how Amazon, until recently a company beset by management missteps, tough competition from Amazon and cultural shifts that made its big box/category killer stores less essential to customers, now is opening new stores for the first time in years.

An excerpt:

"The chain’s new owners, Elliott Advisors, sought to turn the page by bringing in Daunt, the chief executive of U.K. book chain Waterstone (also owned by Elliott). Daunt, credited with pulling Waterstone back from bankruptcy’s brink, basically said he would use the same playbook, most notably giving more autonomy to individual stores to function more like local shops than cookie-cutter manifestations of a top-down corporate vision. The strategy, he said at the time, boiled down to 'running really nice bookshops.'

"And this, at least by some accounts, is exactly what Daunt has done, and exactly why Barnes & Noble is now a book-culture hero. The most full-throated endorsement yet came from Ted Goia, author of the popular culture newsletter 'The Honest Broker:'  'This is James Daunt’s super power,' Goia declared. 'He loves books.'

"Some other subplots have helped shape Barnes & Noble’s transformation. Daunt took over not long before the pandemic lockdowns kicked in, which obviously created profound challenges - but also opportunities. Autonomy notwithstanding, Daunt moved the entire chain away from its years of dabbling in a more gift-y and impulse-buy non-book product mix: more books, no more batteries. And it nixed deals with publishers to feature certain titles in exchange for a fee. The company also used the lockdown period to improve and update store designs. Daunt has been blunt about this, calling the stores 'boring,' 'a bit ugly,' and full of 'irrelevant' products."

Fast Company goes on:  "Goia is surely correct that Barnes & Noble’s redoubled focus on, you know, books, has been crucial to its nascent potential turnaround. And it’s hard to resist his 'simple lesson' that love is the key to culture businesses:  'Creative fields like music and writing live and die based on creativity, not financial statements and branding deals'."

And, from The Robin Report:

"There is absolutely no reason for anyone to go to a bookstore today unless they are assured a compelling experience. The only way Barnes & Noble can avoid a Borders-like implosion is by offering a Starbuck’s café, book signings, education of some sort (how about how to write a novel), or other experiences that will cause the consumer to make an effort to visit.

"Nobody can survive the disastrous fate that 'just selling stuff' assures, even on the internet. Because the exact same stuff, even new stuff, can be found and acquired instantaneously, anywhere, anytime, and for a lower price.Apple does not sell stuff, not even computers. They sell a highly experiential education first, and then it just so happens that they have the most innovative, beautifully designed, and cool digital devices in the world. And guess what, nobody even cares about the price. And guess what else, Apple is the fastest growing, most productive retailer in the entire history of global retailing."

The conclusion:  "The customer is in charge and all generations of consumers want a reason to go to a store. If you’re a big box, it’s to solve a problem, for the value and the bonus of finding something as a personal reward. If you’re off-price, it’s the thrill of discovering a find. If you’re a department store, it’s the promise of the predictable at affordable price points. If it’s fast fashion , it’s the confidence that you will look like you know what you are doing trend-wise. If it’s a digital native gone physical, it’s allegiance to a tribe. If it’s a specialty store, it’s for a trusted curation. And if you’re a bookstore, it’s the potential of getting smarter, educating your children, escaping into a great story, and meeting like-minded friends in an environment that makes you feel good.

"Whatever your model, if you just think of yourself as a retailer, and your place of business as a store or website, your offerings as transactions, and your pricing is only competitively valued, you will most certainly die."

KC's View:

So much applicable wisdom in here.

There is Barnes & Noble's embrace of book culture, which ought to be mirrored by food retailers, which ought to embrace food culture.  There's the elimination of "deals with publishers to feature certain titles in exchange for a fee."  Yikes! 

It is understand that all the action is on the front lines.

And I want to repeat that last passage from The Robin Report:

"Whatever your model, if you just think of yourself as a retailer, and your place of business as a store or website, your offerings as transactions, and your pricing is only competitively valued, you will most certainly die."

This ties into something I've been writing here for a long time - that retailers have to be more than a source of product, but rather have to evolve into being a resource for information, inspiration, aspiration.  It is about connecting not just to people's wallets, but also their hearts, minds and stomachs.