September 28, 2010

Barnes & Noble

I just read in Publishers Weekly's daily e-newsletter that Ron Burkle has been unsuccessful in his proxy battle against Barnes and Noble's Leonard Riggio. As a result, Burkle will not have three slots on B&N's board of directors, although I am sure he will live to fight another day, in another way...after all, he does own 19% of the company. Stockholders bought into Riggio's plan to increase B&N's share of the e-book market to 25% by 2014 and embraced its growing B&N college division. What that means for B&N booksellers like me remains unknown. Anyone who's checked the online prices at B& recently and compared them against in-store prices realizes that B& is very competitive online with Amazon, but it appears that the strategy is to cannibalize its own brick and mortar stores in the process.

Just last week I priced a Dave Matthews 2-CD collection at iTunes and realized it sold for less at my local Barnes and Noble, which surprised me (again, why would a digital version for something cost more than an actual version, which includes physical CD's and a case?). Then I compared the in-store price against the online price; it was even cheaper online. To make sure it wasn't a one-time thing, I priced Ken Burn's War documentary - the in-store price is 15% higher than the online price.

Though membership benefits are not what they once were online - in order to compete with Amazon, B&N slashed its online prices, effectively eliminating the need for a membership online in terms of buying things - the relatively new policy of providing free express shipping for members can be a powerful lure. Until you realize that even non-members can get free shipping, albeit not express, on orders of $25 or higher (it's the same at Amazon).

Will brick and mortar B&N's go the way of those now-extinct Gateway stores that allowed customers to look at available models, which could then be ordered online and delivered? I think that's an eventual possibility, but a more likely one is that as the e-book market takes on even more steam, stores will close, leaving fewer physical stores for me to work at and you to shop. There are certain types of books that as yet do not translate well into electronic form - coffee table books and children's illustrated books (children's books in general...who would trust a small child with an electronic device that costs $150?), for instance - and the selling of educational toys and Nook and Nook accessories will help counter the loss of print book sales, but within a few years, it's quite likely many of us who work as booksellers will need to find some other way to pay the bills.


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