Barnes & Noble’s Catch-22

A friend texted me yesterday after the resignation of Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch and asked my thoughts on the company as a whole. I basically repeated what Matt Yglesias wrote yesterday:

Barnes & Noble is a very successful chain of bookstores, except the number of people who want to buy physical books is plummeting. A digital bookstore can stock a much larger inventory with almost no warehousing costs, and can deliver the book of your choice to you within seconds. What’s more, a Kindle Paperwhite or a iPad Mini is lighter than a book and yet can contain many books, greatly facilitating travel. Even better, you can highlight passages of your digital books and annotate them and then have all your annotations available to you on all your digital devices. The only real value of physical books at this point is a kind of nostalgia-soaked experience, and people want to experience that at a friendly independently owned bookstore not an impersonal chain.

She was disheartened by my response, particularly because she had spent hours and hours as a kid reading various books in the now-defunct Borders bookstore. Barnes & Noble is just the next (and largest) chain bookstore to succumb to market pressures. This made me realize exactly who Barnes & Nobles loyal customers are: they aren’t customers at all. They are the kids and adults who sit in the store for hours at a time, reading different selections, moving from chair to chair and not spending any money. These are the people who attach sentimental value to the store, just like my friend. Unfortunately, they also just suck money from the large retailer, taking advantage of the vast book selection without contributing anything to the store’s bottom line.

However, if instead of sitting in the store and reading, my friend had purchased books and taken them home to enjoy, she wouldn’t ascribe the same sentimental value to the store and wouldn’t care about its closure. It’s a catch-22 for B&N and one it can’t find its way out of.


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