Several years ago, I launched a small press to bring my children’s series, Where Is Robin?, to life. Following the series’s publication, I was fortunate to receive an order for my three titles from Barnes & Noble. As a part of my marketing efforts, I spent 2018 visiting stores and, as a result, I identified a few key characteristics of a great store experience and have the following recommendations to share.
• Bring back the music department staffed by a knowledgable person
My favorite Barnes & Noble stores all had music departments that sold vinyl records. These small sections of the stores were creative and comfortable refuges of genuine engagement between staff and customers. There was a certain lightness and happiness that rounded out the store experience even if you were not there to buy music.
• Hire community managers who are community leaders and staff who like people
The common element of my favorite stores was that, in addition to loving books, the staff genuinely liked people. They liked to talk to people, learned about their customers’ interests, and made heartfelt suggestions. These employees felt empowered by the community relationship manager, who was a genuine leader and natural organizer. These stores maintained corporate standards while providing staff the space to innovate and try different ways to connect with customers and enhance customer loyalty through top-notch customer service.
• Teach all levels of your staff how to sell and how to be curious about the customer
Customers who visit Barnes & Noble are often there to buy a specific book, since they have been trained that you can find every book in a Barnes & Noble outlet. But often, because of the size of Barnes & Noble stores, customers will ask the information desk for help. On every visit I made, I saw a staff person tell at least one customer that a particular book was not in stock. While the staff member could order the book for the customer, in most cases, no alternative option was provided, leaving the customer frustrated. Imagine for a moment if the staff member chose to ask the customer a few questions about the intent of the purchase. Who is the book for and why? With a few short questions, the staff member could easily recommend alternative books that are already in the store for an immediate purchase.
• Expand in-store book fairs that require minimum thresholds of participation by school organizers
Hosting school book fairs is one of the most incredible value propositions that Barnes & Noble has to champion school interactivity and drive direct sales at the store. The Barnes & Noble book fair provides overwhelmed PTAs with the infrastructure, staff, and resources to structure a successful school fund-raiser. The key element of a successful and engaging community event for both the school and store is interactivity with the store, fostered through such events as scavenger hunts, inter-grade book readings, and pre-event preparation sessions for the students, often led by the school librarian.
• Expand awareness of online purchase/in-store pickup
Last year, customers were given the opportunity to buy books online and pick them up in stores—an option very much appreciated by busy people. Customers love the convenience of shopping online with the freedom of return “just in case.” But this benefit is largely unknown to customers. I discovered it when a fan told me about how they stopped shopping on Amazon once they discovered the ease of use of the B&N pickup option. Customers prefer this to having books drop-shipped home.
These are my suggestions as a customer, an author, and a book enthusiast who loves buying books in stores. After visiting almost 100 B&N stores, the common element of all my suggestions is the importance of customer service. I hope that someone in the C-suite at Barnes & Noble realizes that improving customer service could be a key ingredient to growing in 2019.
Robin Barone is the author of the Where Is Robin? children’s series, which uses travel to reach curious kids.