As a cash-poor graduate student in Arizona, I couldn’t afford to go out much. So instead of hanging out in my small, hot apartment on Friday nights, my wife and I did what any no-money schmoes with a love for books and air conditioning would do: we hung out at Barnes & Noble.
Reading novels in the book-filled, cushy-chaired world of B&N, I fell in love with the book giant’s in-store experience. But even back in the mid-90s, I saw challenges for the company in the age of the Internet. Amazon had already started to make a name for itself as an online bookseller, and as the two companies battled into the new century, the online e-tailer continued to eat into B&N’s market share. Today, as Amazon kickstarts the e-book revolution, B&N faces a renewed challenge, as the online powerhouse with digital DNA tries to “Netflix” the bookseller.
Can B&N, which (like Blockbuster) has shown a lack of coherent digital strategy, leverage its still-strong brand among book buyers and avoid becoming the Blockbuster of the book world?
The similarities are striking: Both are industry leaders both trying to defend a dominant brick-and-mortar business. One rents movies, the other sells books, but both had built up dominant market positions before the advent of the Internet. For Blockbuster, the erosion of its business in the face of Netflix’s DVD-by-mail and digital distribution efforts have been painful to witness. B&N has seen a similar erosion of its business by Amazon. The Seattle-based e-tailer has been consistently eating into B&N’s core retail business, as every year more casual book buyers eschew the comfy chairs of B&N in favor of the online-shopping-cart ease of Amazon.
The bumbling and half-hearted digital efforts of both giants have been strikingly similar as well. Blockbuster’s digital gameplan has been a comedy of errors, with a zig-zag mix of acquisitions, partnerships (including one with, of all companies, Enron) and strategies. All this has resulted in a company in crisis. B&N hasn’t been as erratic as the the movie rental giant, but by being late to the Internet game it became a posterchild for the risks of dawdling in the digital era, and its slow response to Amazon’s Kindle is reminiscent of its too-little-too-late reaction to the rise of e-tailing more than a decade ago.
But in comparing the two brick & mortar giants, B&N retains one significant advantage: in-store experience.
While Blockbuster is all about the get-in, get-out experience, B&N has an immersive experience reminiscent of Starbucks, where book lovers can lose themselves among overstuffed chairs, bestsellers and, well, Starbucks coffee. B&N will succeed in its core retail business longer than Blockbuster precisely because of this great in-store experience.
This in-store magic gives Barnes & Noble a longer time horizon to adjust its strategy than Blockbuster has had. B&N should, at every turn, look to leverage that to market Plastic Logic’s e-book, with endcap after endcap showing off the product and in-store experts on hand to demo the product.
Despite these advantages, Barnes & Noble also needs to make sure it doesn’t make missteps with its e-book marketplace. B&N needs to lock in Plastic Logic as it long-term partner, and together the pair needs to offer a tightly integrated hardware/online marketplace that provides a seamless shopping experience.
If B&N can take its patrons by them hand and guide them into the e-book era with in-store e-book education and promotion, and package this strong in-store experience with a great product and online marketplace, I believe the bookselling giant can make a U-turn off its parallel path with Blockbuster and remake itself into a bookselling/e-book giant with a long-term future.