Barnes & Noble is Dying a Slow Death

For someone who loves books, and bookstores, this is really hard to watch.

I grew up going to a really epic bookseller in Denver, Colorado, called the Tattered Cover Bookstore. It is one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States, with a cafe that has the feel and comfort of smaller bookshops, furnished with comfortable sofas and overstuffed chairs and a world-class newsstand. It is more than a bookstore.

And that was what made it so special – it was not JUST a bookstore. It was an experience. You could get lost in the store for hours.

I think the death of any bookstore is a reminder that the future of all booksellers is far from certain. In a digital world, these brick and mortar institutions have to go a step further to maintain a market position.

The financial data about Barnes & Noble supports my argument, but that isn’t the reason I am writing this. In fact, the hard quantitative data isn’t nearly as concerning as the threat lurking beneath the surface – I think it is the “thick data” they should be most concerned with.

Thick Data

What is Thick Data?

The term Thick Data was made famous by renowned ethnographer Tricia Wang. In her famous TED talk, The human insights missing from big data, Tricia tells the story of her time researching cell phones.

It was 2009. She had just started a research position with Nokia, which at the time, was one of the largest cell phone companies in the world. While conducting ethnographic research in China, she discovered something that I believed challenged their entire business model.

For clarity, ethnography is the study of people and culture, within context, including their customs, habits, and mutual differences. It provides an in-depth view of their lives.

The prevailing thought at the time was that people in China could not, and would not, purchase expensive smart phones. However, Tricia saw “signals” that indicated otherwise. She concluded that low-income consumers were ready to pay for more expensive smartphones.

Enter the iPhone.

Forget what you KNOW today. At the time, there were a lot of very smart and realistic people who said, “Those smartphones — that’s just a fad. Who wants to carry around these heavy things where batteries drain quickly and they break every time you drop them?”

If they only knew…

Tricia was very confident about her insights and relayed them to Nokia. Her advice…

Replace their current product development strategy from making expensive smartphones for elite users to affordable smartphones for low-income users.

Like many large, data-driven organizations, Nokia was not convinced because the data was not obtained from a huge, quantitative study.

The reality was, Tricia was examining emergent human dynamics that wouldn’t be visible in a large data set, because they happened yet.

The end result…

Nokia went from nearly 50 percent of the market in 2007 to 3 percent in 2012.

There might be a litany of reasons for Nokia’s downfall, but one of them had to be the value they placed on quantitative metrics at the expense of the qualitative data Tricia had provided. They simply ignored the difficult to measure, intangible data that didn’t show up in existing reports; the data that was lurking beneath the surface.

Which brings us to the definition of “Thick Data.”

Thick Data is data brought to light using qualitative, ethnographic research methods that uncover people’s emotions, stories, and models of their world.

In short – Thick Data is consumer insight.

What does this have to do with Barnes & Noble Bookstore? Well, I could begin the story by telling you that I had the worst customer experience that I have ever had…

But that would be a lie.

Instead, I will tell you the truth that illuminates what I consider to be a “thick data” experience. But before we get to that, I have to ask you a question:

Why do people shop at bookstores when you can either get less expensive digital books at Amazon, or get the physical copy shipped within a few days?

Think back to the Tattered Cover bookstore. It is the experience.

A few weeks ago, I bought a book online for my Kindle. I discovered that the digital copy just wouldn’t work, so I jumped online to find a physical copy. I could have returned to Amazon to have the physical copy shipped by Prime, but decided I wanted the book sooner.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me. I am a person of limited patience. I suspect I am not that different from most in wanting instant results. Regardless, I didn’t want to wait for shipping. So I located a local Barnes and Noble and located the book. I was told that the online price for the book was $34.59. The in-store price for the book was $50.00.

So basically I am getting hosed to the tune of a 31% mark up for the “convenience” of getting to pick up the book today.

This is the beginning of an exceptional brand experience, wouldn’t you say? Do you sense my sarcasm, or is it lost in print?

Some of my “business-minded” readers might be saying that the stores have overhead that the online vertical doesn’t, justifying a higher price. Yep, you are right. But that isn’t the consumer’s problem; it’s the retailers.

Now, contrast the online price for the book on Amazon, with FREE Prime shipping was $33.76 to the Barnes & Noble price of $34.59; Barnes & Noble isn’t even the cheapest online option AND the shipping will take longer…

Which begs the question, why should anyone buy a commodity for more with slower shipping?

Regardless, I wanted the book straight away, so I requested it for store pickup. Notice the website indicates the book is “in stock.”

I woke up the next morning to be notified that they couldn’t locate the book.

It also is worth mentioning that I grabbed the screenshot nearly a full day AFTER receiving the notification that the book was unable to be located (yet the website STILL says it is available).

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask again; what am I paying 31% more for? Exceptional service? Convenience? Brand loyalty? Accuracy on the website?

My experience with Barnes and Noble on this occasion is:

  • I find a book that is sold by Barnes & Noble and am notified that the online price is nearly 31% less than the in-store price when I want to buy the book in the store;
  • I request a book that the website clearly states is in stock, but isn’t;
  • The retailer invites me to keep checking other stores in the area with a hyperlink that doesn’t work;
  • The retailer tells me I can order the book online (why wouldn’t I use Amazon for this?).

Now it has to be stated…

This isn’t the WORST experience ever. However…

It isn’t Tattered Cover.

We live in a branded world and brands are the sum of the consumer experience. To truly win, companies must seize every opportunity to positively position themselves in their customers’ minds.

This goes beyond explicitly stating that you have a competitive advantage; you have to demonstrate it. Barnes & Noble states their mission is, “To operate the best omnichannel specialty retail business in America, helping both our customers and booksellers reach their aspirations while being a credit to the communities we serve.”

Do they do this?

To win, a business must understand its customers. It must build on their perceptions, preferences, dreams, values, and lifestyles.

In addition, companies must seek to create frictionless commerce. This begins by identifying consumer journey touch points—places in which customers interface with the product or service. It continues by optimizing these touch points by removing barriers and making it easy for customers to flow through your sales process.

Did Barnes & Noble do this for me? Do they do it for others?

The digital experience suggests that they don’t. I would also add that the in-store experience isn’t adding much to their brand equity.

Is the Barnes & Noble experience terrible? No.

Is the Barnes & Noble experience breakthrough? No.

It is meh; But companies don’t win on meh.

But not all is lost.

Barnes & Noble Can Change Course

Despite the negative, I think Barnes & Noble can turn it around. However, they would need to do a few very specific things based on “thick data” observations:

  1. Barnes and Noble needs to figure out who they are. They are not the least expensive bookstore. They don’t have an epic online shopping experience. They don’t have the most unique in-store shopping experience. They are simply, meh. They need to reinvent who they are, rebrand, and operate in a manner consistent with the brand. If I were in charge, I would focus on developing a next-level customer experience (my free advice to them).
  2. Barnes and Noble needs to improve the in-store shopping experience and its pricing strategy. There is no special recognition for being the second least expensive. Since a price war can’t be won (in my opinion), and they likely can’t be the least expensive, they must justify a higher price tag by offering something OTHER than the commodities they sell, i.e. a book is a book. A book with an epic in-store experience, e.g. a kids shopping area with people dressed like storybook characters, is EPIC. These are the things you COULD charge more for. As a parent of four small children, I would pay more for this.
  3. Barnes and Noble needs to improve its digital experience. People shop online for convenience. If the online experience has more friction AND is more expensive than its primary competitor, they will lose.

If Barnes and Noble doesn’t want to go the way of the dinosaur, they have to do something. I will stipulate that I don’t have a big data set (other than the fact that they are falling further behind Amazon) to back my position. But I do have “thick data,” focused squarely on what matters; the customer experience.

Despite my advice, all signs point to them staying the course like Nokia did. And just like Nokia, the ending will be sad, and predictable.

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