Despite a slow December due to the omicron surge, 2021 was “another year of solid growth” at Barnes & Noble, according to CEO James Daunt, who spoke with PW from a hotel in Stamford, Ct., where he was on the final leg of a national tour to meet with store managers. Daunt, with the financial backing of Elliott Advisors, took over B&N in September 2019. He said sales in the first eight months of 2021 were running 5% to 6% above 2019 levels, and November was very strong, but then Covid infection rates started to spike again. (The interview took place February 28, the day it was announced the Elliott/Daunt team had acquired the U.K. chain Blackwell’s.)
Daunt said book sales were strong in 2021, and that sales of toys, puzzles, and educational games were also up. The café and newsstand businesses, though, have still not recovered from the impact of the pandemic. Sales at physical stores improved over 2020, and while online sales dipped, they did not give back all of the ground they gained over the past two years.
Backlist titles drove the overall sales increase, sparked by the impact of BookTok, according to Daunt. The success of BookTok in getting young people interested in books is in keeping with a trend he said he has been seeing for years: teenagers and young adults are the main drivers of book sales. “I don’t make money from old people, I make money from young people,” he explained.
Daunt can’t predict how long the BookTok phenomenon will last, but he said it is thrilling to see the energy the platform brings to reading and book buying. “When the school bell rings at 3:30, the stores get ready for an invasion,” he added.
Daunt believes the time and energy B&N has spent making its stores more welcoming has played a part in drawing the BookTok community and other customers back. And more refurbishing is on the way. The initial remodeling, he acknowledged, was mostly done by shifting existing furniture. Now, he said, “we are going to spend some money” to bring in new furniture and other fixtures. B&N is currently remodeling 30–40 stores, and plans call for the retailer to do all stores as soon as possible.
Part of the makeover of the B&N interiors involves working with Paper Source, the stationery and gift retailer that Elliott bought in May 2021 and that Daunt oversees. “I think they do a great job of merchandising,” Daunt said, noting that he expects to add more Paper Source items to B&N. He is not opposed to selling different products along with books, as long as they can be sensibly presented.
Daunt hopes to finish 2022 with a net gain in stores, but he said the scarcity of building materials could hinder plans to open as many locations as he would like. He credited an improved website for buoying online sales last year, but also noted that B&N, like other retailers, benefitted from consumers looking for alternatives to Amazon.
While Daunt’s priority is to make B&N bookstores places consumers want to go to, he knows online retailing and e-books need to be a part of the B&N experience. “We are in the business of selling reading,” he said, adding that “e-books are not an insignificant part of our business.” To that end, the company will continue to upgrade its Nook reading devices.
A major focus for 2022 will be in the continued training of B&N’s booksellers. The shift to more local control over management of the stores that Daunt has championed has worked well, and he wants to build on that success. One example of the impact of the strategy is in the area of returns. By keeping initial orders low and relying on managers for replenishment at the store level, returns are much lower than they were two years ago. “It’s not rocket science,” Daunt said.
Looking at prospects for 2022, he said B&N has slowly started to host some in-person events, with a focus on children’s storytimes. He hopes the stores will soon be able to return to doing in-person author events as well. “Events are an important part of what we do,” he noted, adding that when events are revived, stores will follow all local protocols.
With 2022 starting on the quiet side, Daunt said what the market could really use is a new breakout hit. He thinks one candidate could be the middle grade novel Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A.F. Steadman, which, he added, all of B&N’s booksellers have been raving about.
While the pandemic has slowed Daunt’s plans to remake the retailer, he believes that, together with Elliott, “we’ve able to change the trajectory” of B&N.