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Long Read of the Day: What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Surprising Turnaround?

Barnes & Noble is no tech startup, and is about as un-cool as retailers get. It’s like The Gap, but for books. The company was founded in 1886, and it flourished during the 20th century. But the digital age caught the company by surprise.

For a while, Barnes & Noble tried to imitate Amazon. It ramped up online sales, and introduced its own eBook reader (the Nook), but with little success.

Even after its leading bricks-and-mortar competitor Borders shut down in 2011, B&N still couldn’t find a winning strategy. By 2018 the company was in total collapse. Barnes & Noble lost $18 million that year, and fired 1,800 full time employees—in essence shifting almost all store operations to part time staff. Around that same time, the company fired its CEO due to sexual harassment claims.

Every indicator was miserable. Same-store sales were down. Online sales were down. The share price was down more than 80%.. . . .

[THEN they fired the CEO and hired James Daunt]

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 crazy strategy proved so successful at Waterstones, that returns fell almost to zero—97% of the books placed on the shelves were purchased by customers. That’s an amazing figure in the book business.

On the basis of this success, Daunt was put in charge of Barnes & Noble in August 2019. But could he really bring that dinosaur, on the brink of extinction, back to life?. . . .

Of course, there’s a lesson here. And it’s not just for books. You could also apply it to music, newspapers, films, and a host of other media.

But I almost hate to say it, because the lesson is so simple.

If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema.

But this kind of love is rare nowadays. I often see record labels promote new artists for all sorts of gimmicky reasons—even labels I once trusted such as Deutsche Grammophon or Concord. I’ve come to doubt whether the people in charge really love the music.. . .

RTWT AT What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Surprising Turnaround?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Freddo December 28, 2022, 10:25 AM

    Not only love of the product, but also love the customer: by allowing the store employees to make decisions on purchasing and premium shelf allocation the store is more likely to represent the taste of the customer. But I hope Netflix and Disney keep ignoring that message until they are viewed with the same loathing that people reserve for their cable company.

  • John Venlet December 28, 2022, 10:48 AM

    Daunt’s turnaround of Barnes & Noble is worth applauding, and if one is in the market for a more recently released book, I might wander in, if it weren’t for the fact that here in GR, Michigan we have an independent brick and mortar bookstore called Schuler Books that I’d be more inclined to spend my dollars. I mostly, though, frequent used bookstores as I prefer to purchase used books, especially when I can find ones that are out of print. While chain stores do have their benefits, they do tend to eliminate existing independent bookstores.

  • julie December 28, 2022, 12:00 PM

    Interesting article. I hadn’t been in a Barnes & Noble in a couple years, so last time I was there it was definitely flagging. Few customers, and nothing at all I wanted to read.

    This past Monday we went to the local store and it was more packed than I’ve ever seen. We did notice some changes, particularly that the huge section of discount books was gone. Some sections that once held a big inventory (and probably didn’t sell much) were greatly reduced. The toy section appears to be bigger than ever, along with a sizable game department, but the music and movie section is harder to find. I wasn’t looking for something to read, but next time we go it might actually be worthwhile to see if there’s anything I want.

  • Reader of Books December 28, 2022, 1:11 PM

    You can count the number of booksellers in Spokane on one hand. You’ll even have fingers left over to turn the pages of your books. So, I never had a choice to dislike or avoid B&N because there isn’t much else. In Seattle, and it’s sister-formerly nice city, Portland, bookstores used to be plentiful. Of course I don’t know what they’re like now.

    I’m extra proud of my offspring because my wife & I have passed onto them a love of reading, and of books.

    On point, this article really is one about leadership. Of which there is precious little remaining in America. I mean: B&N restaurants without books? B&N was the poster child of how not to lead. Mr. James Daunt probably needs to not use his title of “CEO,” because it’s a pejorative nowadays. Well, I never thought 2shits for retail management, as a group. So, a guy who loves books, and that passion means he won’t compromise on the product. He loves the books, but you have to say that he also loves his customers and, apparently, his staff as well.

    Don’t be a congressman, governor, president, CEO…be a leader. The nation needs leaders painfully bad. If we don’t grow some soon, we’ll die on the vine.

    I read somewhere that army recruitment is down %25 for the year (leadership fail, Mr. Biden and Mr Austin. Fall on your respective swords because you aren’t doing us any good out here in the country). But, I read numbers that put t closer to %50 off goal. If the US Army were a business, the physical infrastructure would be boarded up and the entire leadership down to the Dining Room Orderlies would be massacred, and new talent brought in. Keep in mind that LEADERSHIP is the product the army produces. Elect a weak president: fuck around, and find out.

    • Casey Klahn December 28, 2022, 1:12 PM


      • Jim Lundquist December 29, 2022, 11:50 AM

        Mr. Klahn: A motto that I learned and adopted while employed as a manager at CitiBank Bankcards applies to all leadership positions: “The unexamined process deteriorates.” Success or failure always depends on management, always. Because: The Buck Stops Here.

  • Joe Krill December 28, 2022, 9:28 PM

    Just before Borders closed I purchased a copy of the Divine Matrix by Gregg Braden on the $1.00 discount table. I paused and looked at the book at least 3 times as I meandered through the store. I kept saying that for a book to be so cheap that it had to be a real dog. My wife persuaded me to buy it. One of the best books I have ever read. Must have given at least 50 away.
    I met Gregg a couple of years later. I told him how much I enjoyed the book and that it took me about 3 months to read. He said it only took his mother about 4 hours to read cover to cover. I explained that I questioned almost everything he said in the book and I had to prove it for myself.

    • ThisIsNotNutella December 29, 2022, 7:01 PM

      So what’s its Eigenvalue? 42?

  • rocdoctom December 29, 2022, 7:34 AM

    My 8 year old grandson loves Barnes & Noble. For the books–yes. Especially for the Harry Potter books and merchandise. So, on the frequent trips to B&N we now pick up a book or two for ourselves. Thank God for grandchildren.

  • PubliusII December 29, 2022, 6:35 PM

    In principle I support independent bookstores. However, all of the ones I’ve visited have a massive political chip on the shoulder — the Left shoulder. And the staff has reflected this attitude.

    Probably why I buy used books almost exclusively, and mostly ones that are out of print as well.

    If a revived B&N can attract book readers, it’s surely a good thing. But I probably won’t be found wandering the aisles there.

    • Vanderleun December 30, 2022, 1:05 AM

      I SECOND THE NOTION OF bookstore employees being of uniformly the same ideological tint. And a booooooring one….But of the store is used persuasion (or a rare family book store) the bozos in the bus can be ignored except when asking them to clean the restroom.

    • John Venlet December 30, 2022, 8:29 AM

      Publius II is right about those independent bookstore owners largely leaning left, unfortunately.

  • doug galecawitz December 30, 2022, 9:07 PM

    a number of months back i was in a B&N, i saw a display proudly titled “BANNED BOOKS” i asked the clerk if nobody working there saw the irony. he muttered something about the books being banned in schools (mind you most of these books were gay or tranny or CRT race baiting) by his logic Penthouse Letters is a “banned book”. i would like to ask for titles by Kevin MacDonald or Tito Perdue but why bother. it isn’t that bookstores employ people who love books, it’s that they employ a certain type of people that love certain types of books. a pox on them.

  • geek49203 January 1, 2023, 7:28 PM

    I ran a record store back in the 1980’s. A few thoughts: 1) many of the shops became head shops, making a lot more money out of those funny bubble pipes and “clip on jewelry” and rolling papers and stuff. 2) They all seemed to be playing the same jazz records, kinda cliche. With the same Rock posters. 3) Target et al sold all of the big sellers below our cost, and that was a real problem. and 4) The entire “Record industry” collapsed a few years ago (per Gene Simmons, who points out the lack of major acts these days).

  • Roland F Hirsch January 1, 2023, 7:58 PM

    We have two Barnes & Noble stores in our area, one 2 miles away and the other 8. Both are enjoyable to shop at as they display books of all kinds. The staff are friendly and know about many of the books. The displays in the front of the store include a large variety of books, not just the standard best sellers. They also have a large display of specialist magazines.

  • Roland F Hirsch January 1, 2023, 7:59 PM

    We have two Barnes & Noble stores in our area, one 2 miles away and the other 8. Both are enjoyable to shop at as they display books of all kinds. The staff are friendly and know about many of the books. The displays in the front of the store include a large variety of books, not just the standard best sellers. They also have a large display of specialist magazines.

  • Aesop January 8, 2023, 12:39 AM

    The Leftard taint is strong at B&N.

    Yards of shelves extolling the virtues of Obozo and Emperor Poopypants, but you can count the Regnery Press titles on the shelves on your thumbs. Another shelf full of pot growing advice, but precious little on sustainable homesteading. Common Core Math and History books by the yard, but few books on homeschooling. Kids’ books on every vacuous idiot celeb on the planet, but none of David MacAulay’s Caldecott Award-winning books like Cathedral or Castle, and you need to organize a search party to find The Way Things Work, and they’ve never heard of Biesty’s Incredible Cross Sections or Man Of War. (The last staff member I talked to there was older than I am, and astonished to hear those books even existed, and shocked to find out they had them in their regional warehouse, but not a single copy on the shelves in any store within four counties. Probably because “they don’t sell”, which has a tedious predictability when you never put them on the shelf to sell.)
    Stacks of shelves of globull warming and climate change hucksterism, but the technology shelf with info on welding, electronics, HAM radio, etc., is measured in single titles of each, at best. Books for 57 dog breeds, but lucky if you find a single title on raising rabbits, chickens, or bees. They keep putting the preparedness section books in gardening, and vice versa. They have 57 books on how to pass various medical entrance and licensure exams, but you could bleed to death from a shaving cut before you’d find a single basic layman’s first aid text. 3 head-high shelves of sportsball books, but wilderness survival, fieldcraft, and hiking books covering less than a foot, and splattered and mis-shelved all over like a dog’s breakfast. Over 20% of the store is toys, games, puzzles, merchandising tchoschkes, plastic gadgetry, and other geegaws that have f**k-all to do with books. Potter-mania abounds, but despite the cinematic success of The Hobbit, Lord Of The Rings, or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you’d once again need GPS and a search party to find the actual works of Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis’ complete Chronicles Of Narnia. But they have ample choices of LGBTEIEIO books, and a substantial section of offerings on astrology, crystals, tarot, and witchcraft. A shelf of pro-evolution books from floor to ceiling, but not a single offering on any topic from any creationist or intelligent design authors, not even in the religious section.
    If you had a list from anywhere between 1950-2000 of the 300 greatest books ever written, absolute classics one and all, you’d probably be lucky to find 20% of them on the shelves at any B&N.
    Their movie section is a bad joke with gaping holes in selections, the music section even worse than that, and I’m all but convinced the person who does their magazine section is blind and severely autistic, and that’s the kindest take I can manage on that.

    I’ve probably put several B&N manager’s kids through college with my purchases at the local examples, but the staff viewpoint selections trends somewhere between Che, and the anarchists who took over downtown Seattle and Portland.

    The may yet succeed in not being driven completely out of business by Amazon, but if they do, it won’t be for lack of trying.