In a wide-ranging interview with BISG executive director Brian O’Leary during the organization's online annual meeting September 11, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt responded to questions on store closings and reorganization, the importance of data and localized buying, as well as how B&N and publishers can best work together.
Introduced by BISG chair Andrew Savikas, Daunt opened the exchange with a discussion of closing the stores during the pandemic, calling the shutdown a “traumatic, a body blow.” Nevertheless, he said the chain was forced to “pivot” and focused its efforts on reorganizing its stores “and accelerating change” at the bookseller.
Beginning in March in the early days of the pandemic, Daunt said when the chain was forced to close, the company reorganized 350 stores while also instituting company-wide staff furloughs. He called the process of revamping the stores, “an ongoing, slow and demanding process.” He said B&N stores were “over-full with books. How do you deal with backlist stock, what do you keep and what is missing?” Indeed, Daunt said the reorganization focused the chain’s efforts on localizing its book buying, and “empowering local booksellers.”
“In the age of Amazon, you need a serendipitous place to find books that isn’t online,” Daunt said. “Bookstores have to justify themselves and if we don’t, we won’t exist.” Stores, he said, “need to look good and have great books and passionate booksellers, and chain stores need to do that across all of their stores.”
Daunt outlined some of the ways in which B&N would meet those standards. Every B&N store, he said, will not be able to “help every book. Books will be in every store though not in “vast” numbers unless they “resonate” with the community. He acknowledged that “some books will do less well, but returns will drop if you let booksellers choose what their customers want to buy and publishers will sell more.”
He urged publishers to have patience. “As we empower our stores, we accept that some will get it wrong and get worse,” he said. But he emphasized that “we’ll know [that’s happening] and we’ll educate them and bring up the overall average, but we need to be tolerant of mistakes.”
Daunt returned to the topic of local B&N booksellers repeatedly. He said intends to empower local B&N store buyers to use their knowledge of local taste and reading habits, fortified by data from B&N headquarters, to make smart and efficient buying decisions.
Sales data from B&N central office will be key, he said. “We’re trying to understand and use data to seed our stores with the right books and to get the right backlist. But each stores needs to curate titles based on the interest of their local community,” Daunt explained. That means, for instance, “coop advertising and promotions like it don’t work. If stores have autonomy you can’t have coop,” he said, citing as an example, “every B&N store will have Bob Woodward’s book, but no one will be told to do it.”
Daunt acknowledged the need for a B&N central warehouse—“we need to get our own house in order first—to reorder quickly and efficiently." Asked how publishers can help B&N, Daunt asked for “predictable releases” from publishers. He questioned the need for rigid pub date embargoes for “lesser books. Embargoes are valid for major books. The big books need to all go on sale for all stores at the same time.” But, he continued, “when physical booksellers are held to a pub date and forced to tell a customer they ‘can’t have it until Tuesday’ we lose a sale to online.”
He pledged support for the Nook, B&N’s digital reading device and platform, calling it “just another way of reading,” adding “we have to get the company back in love with the Nook.” And he was generous in praising public libraries and even, “our competitor,” Amazon. “We should celebrate anyone who celebrates reading. Reading leads people to buy books and gets them into the habit of having books in their houses.”
Daunt said B&N opened three new stores in 2020 and said he expects to open more stores in 2021. He also plans continued support for a healthy mix of non-book gift products at B&N stores, including toys and stationary, as well as a vibrant newsstand presence. “We want a really great newsstand, it compliments books and its key to a store like having a café.”
Asked what he sees in the short-term for retailers, he encouraged all booksellers to “keep to your principals and keep to quality and indie stores and chain stores will do well. Understand that stores have to take this moment of change as a challenge.” He emphasized that the key to bookselling is “curated spaces and inspiring booksellers. A good bookstore today isn’t that different what it was when I was a child.”