Barnes & Noble is trying to write its last next chapter

James Daunt is turning around Barnes & Noble by… not being Amazon.

December 9, 2020

If you’re like us, when you pass a bookstore you probably think, “How on earth is that still around?”

Surprisingly, indie bookshops are thriving, with one prominent trade group — The American Booksellers Association — growing from 1.6k+ stores in 2009 to 2.5k+ stores in 2019.

Now, Barnes and Noble (B&N) CEO James Daunt has a plan to ride this trend and compete with Amazon.

The playbook: Don’t compete with Amazon

Per the Wall Street Journal, after 5 CEOs with big-box retail experience failed to revitalize B&N, activist firm Elliott Management stepped in and hired Daunt — a mastermind British independent bookseller.

Instead of stockpiling books that people need but don’t want (like history textbooks), Daunt is shifting B&N’s focus to curating books with local, thematic value.

Daunt is also the CEO of Waterstones, a 280+ branch bookstore in the UK where his focus turned the company into a profit machine.

Impressively, Waterstones’ return rate (the number of unsold books retailers return to publishers) is 3.5%. Now, Daunt is trying to slim down B&N’s marginally higher rate of 25-50%.

Local managers have full control on book selection and store design

B&N still has issues to contend with, though:

  • COVID-19 (we don’t have to explain this one)
  • The major publishing merger between Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, which together account for around 1 in 3 US books sold (price hikes coming?)

There’s also a staffing problem, with one B&N manager noting that it’s hard “having a teenager trying to shelve American History.”

He’s currently on the hunt for vocational booksellers.

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