Barnes & Noble needs a strategy for survival in the age of Amazon

It’s almost hard to remember, these days, that Amazon started out as an online bookstore. Unless you run bricks-and-mortar bookstore. In that case, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Amazon accounts for about half of all books sold in the United States.

 Over the last ten years, while hundreds of independent bookstores have opened and flourished, Barnes & Noble has closed about 1/5 of its locations. Book publishers know that while the behemoth struggles, it is still crucial to building visibility for new titles.

Over the last ten years, while hundreds of independent bookstores have opened and flourished, Barnes & Noble has closed about 1/5 of its locations. Book publishers know that while the behemoth struggles, it is still crucial to building visibility for new titles.

The New York Times recently ran a story about Barnes & Noble, the other behemoth in the U.S. bookselling market. That company is now back under the day-to-day control of its 77 year-old founder, Leonard Riggio.

Riggio originally purchased one Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City, and grew it to a 700+store chain. Ironically, he took B&N public within a few months of the Jeff Bezos launching Amazon, in 1994.

Over the next decade into the mid-2000s, nearly half of all U.S. bookstores closed. But then a strange thing happened: Small, independent bookstores stopped closing and shrinking. Now, quality independent shops are flourishing on the strength of local relevance and curated selection. 

The same can not be said of Barnes & Noble, which many observers feel has lost its way. So the question is, Can Barnes & Noble scale the same techniques used by independent booksellers to successfully compete against Amazon?

The answer: Yes. And the model is Trader Joe’s, which succeeded in building fantastic brand loyalty by hiring the right customer service staff, encouraging customer interaction, and empowering staff to create great customer experiences. In ‘Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s’ (yes, available at Amazon!) I point out that TJ’s hires for attitude and then trains for aptitude. If you’re a cheerful extrovert, TJ’s doesn’t care whether or not you can work a cash register or quickly bag groceries.

The same approach would work for Barnes & Noble, if they’d only try it. Imagine a well-staffed Barnes & Noble store with literate, helpful employees. “You’re looking for ___? Let me show you where that is." Then, as the staffer walked to the right stack with the customer, he or she'd add, "You know if you like that author, you should try reading ___?”

The real beauty of this strategy is, can you imagine a more under-utilized resource than recent college grads with literature and other humanities degrees?