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What can Barnes & Noble do?

Yesterday, I stopped by the flagship Barnes & Noble store in New York on Union Square.  Several features distinguish this store, including its spacious layout coupled with multiple floors, an authors series with some of the best known American writers, and from what I understand to be a rather unique store discretion to choose more of its own titles for display.

That discretion cannot be underestimated.  Whereas the center front tables on the ground floor were often what was at other Barnes & Nobles in New York, the ones to the side on the ground floor revealed better the quality of employees.  Selection of “Favorite Paperbacks” often included Orhan Pamuk, David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Celine — to name the few that come to mind.  Often those tables reminded me of books that I had meant to read while in hardcover but never got around to.   Seeing those books again prompted me to purchase them: in essence, achieving the intended goal of such tables.

However, in this brave new world where Barnes & Noble finds itself competing against technology, it made an odd decision: replace the “Favorite Paperbacks” in that position with stark white tables with translucent device holders for Nooks.  It’s an odd decision because upon immediate sight, as soon as one enters the door, one is reminded of Apple, the competition Barnes & Noble has in mind.  Of course, the minimalist faux-Apple display clashes against the faux-traditionalist hunter green and wood shelving of all and any Barnes & Noble store.  All in all, the display speaks of the urgent and desperate attempt to regain stock value and market share.

When I mentioned this to a bookstore friend, he asked me “Well, what can Barnes & Noble do?  They are in a bad situation.”  It’s true.  It’s easy to stand to the side and criticize this behemoth of the book world….after all, I am not under any heat to keep the enterprise afloat.  Yet, as someone who cares about keeping the brick and mortar bookstores alive, I write criticism of Barnes & Noble because I find myself actually caring about whether they survive or not.

And although my comments might never be read by anyone who makes decisions at Barnes & Noble, I offer this humble advice: do what you have done that succeeds.  Barnes & Noble became a success partly because of a large women readership.  Until Borders stumbled badly in its merchandising by offering too much toys, gum, and everything else under the planet, it had the larger male readership while Barnes & Noble had the larger female readership.  Borders is a good example of what Barnes & Noble should not do: follow the category leader and copy their merchandising.  Instead, Barnes & Noble should figure out what Apple and Amazon do not offer.

For all its vaunted user-friendliness, the iPad is still for the more tech-savvy audience.  With its minimalist elegance, its few retail outlets appeal to the young urban audience, many of whom are willing to forego lunches in order to afford the iPad or iPod.  The audience for the Nook can therefore be exactly the opposite: older suburbanites, many of whom might be soccer moms, and who might care about saving a couple of hundred dollars and where practicality is more meaningful than flashing a device as status symbol on public transit.

So, why is the Nook only in white?  A white device signals trying to follow iPod’s first launch in white.  It makes the Nook badly dated, retro in a bad way.   Appeal to women: do the Nook in colors.  Be unabashedly Martha Stewart green, or girly pink.  Do blue like Ralph Lauren.  And take off the Barnes & Noble name and Nook name off the front of the device.  It looks bad.  Put it on the back, or make it more discreet.

For displaying the merchandise, don’t go all minimalist.  There used to be the old days when Barnes & Noble gained readership by the rare offer of comfortable seating to readers.  Offer cushy armchairs again.  Or for the Nook display, offer sofas (the Anthropology very feminine sofas might work for the female audience), put the Nooks on some coffee tables, and offer some free bon bons for those who stop by to look (after all, Barnes & Noble does sell Godiva).    But just don’t look like a small piece of the Apple store joined to the bookstore.  It’s painful to see and cringeworthy.

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