New Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt has modest expectations for the 2019 holiday season. Daunt only assumed his new role at B&N in mid-September, after most of the season’s books had already been bought and with holiday merchandising plans already in place. For the most part, Daunt said, “we’re executing someone else’s plan.”
Still, Daunt has implemented some changes, with the overall goal of putting more emphasis on books and making the stores brighter and more inviting. Front of store is where the most dramatic holiday changes have been made. The gondola display that had been close to the entrance has been moved back both to free up space and to act as a magnet to draw customers deeper into the stores. Tables have been added close to the doorway, most stocked with commercial hardcovers and tables angled toward the center of the store. The cash wrap has been thinned out with an emphasis on impulse buys. “I’m grateful for the effort our booksellers put into making these changes,” Daunt said. “Hopefully we’ll all see a payback.”
To date, though, results have been muted. The incremental changes, which have been in place for only a few weeks, seem to have helped adult book sales, but not children’s, Daunt said. PW spoke with the CEO a year after Michelle Obama’s Becoming was published, and sales comps at B&N the week before Thanksgiving were “terrible,” Daunt said. He said that while there are lots of good books being published, none have provided a sales bump yet. “We’re hoping some [books] come out of the woodwork,” he said.
B&N will not be spending much money on traditional advertising to push customers into stores. “$10 million is not enough to make an impact and I am not brave enough to spend $50 million,” he said, noting that he would rather spend the money in 2020 to refurbish the stores. B&N is using social media and BN.com to reach readers. Emails have been enlivened in an effort to better engage people, Daunt said, and while open rates are up, sales aren’t. BN.com has been “juiced up,” and its tone has been shifted to provide more of a point of view about the books that are on sale both on the website and in the stores, he said.
Daunt is also hoping one of his bigger first initiatives will draw more people into stores. The Barnes & Noble Book of the Year contest was announced in early November, and the winner will be unveiled this week. In establishing the contest, Daunt wanted B&N booksellers to nominate a title they would have the most pride in selling to someone who didn’t know about that particular book. One of Daunt’s goals in starting the contest is to get B&N back into the habit of “making a book.” While the retailer sells more books than any other physical bookstore in the country, Daunt believes it hasn’t used its booksellers or store layout effectively enough to help customers discover new books. “We can create bestsellers by better engaging with our customers on the store floor,” he said. Visitors to e-tailers typically buy a book they are looking for but have a difficult time finding a title by browsing. “Amazon is efficient, but soulless,” Daunt said.
To put more soul into B&N’s booksellers, Daunt has eliminated the corporate “script” that booksellers had to follow, as well as the “mystery shopper” who was used to check on how stores were following corporate mandates. “We want booksellers to be in control of their stores,” Daunt said. “Basic bookselling is what grew this company, and that is what we want to get back to,” he said, noting that that goal “won’t be achieved overnight.” He acknowledged that the current model of how B&N employs people “doesn’t work” and said he will be exploring ways B&N can invest in staff who are “true vocational booksellers.” Daunt has his work cut out for him in this regard, given that layoffs were made shortly after Elliot Management bought B&N and, following those layoffs, a longtime store employee filed a lawsuit in California against the company alleging age discrimination and seeking class action status. B&N had no comment on the suit.
While Daunt will be keeping a close eye on how B&N performs over the holidays, he is clearly eager for 2020 to get here. A priority will be to establish his plan to lower returns, which is straightforward: lower initial orders and lower reorders. Asked about the early reception to that plan among publishers, Daunt said: “Publishers would like you to order less and sell more.”
All the initiatives started or planned by B&N will take some time, Daunt advised. “In January, we will start the real work,” he said. “You can judge us by how we do next holiday season compared to now.”