Dear Barnes and Noble,
I'm one of your most loyal customers. I think I've been buying books from you since I was around 15 or so (I remember getting the catalog in the mail!)... almost 30 years. I've been to some of your smaller stores and to your largest locations. I appreciate that you try to have a section for just about every taste. And I love that I can always count on your staff to have all the new releases out before the doors open on New-Book-Tuesday. Your stores are always clean, and I'm always able to get someone to help me at the Help Desk when I'm looking for something in particular.
But I'm troubled by a few things that, as a book reader and a book buyer, I believe are slowly eating away at your customer base. Some of them are small...some are big.
1. You're B&N, not Wal-Mart . I realize businesses are always trying to look for ways to grow their business, but you're a bookseller. Are you really selling enough of the $25 to $40 mini-speakers for iPhones and iPods to warrant the large shelf near the checkout? And the Star Wars bobble heads and Angry Birds water bottles just seem out of place. And are my eyes really seeing three (3!) remote control drone boxes for sale behind the counter? Really? RC Drones?
2. You're a bookseller, not a library. On a recent visit I counted 67 cars in the parking lot and 31 people in the coffee shop. One gentleman had over a dozen magazines in a stack that he was reading. One of your staff told me he comes in two or three times a week and reads for hours before leaving... no purchase. I'm all for reading the occasional article of interest or the first few chapters of a potential book buy, but I believe people are abusing the privilege like never before.
3. You sell books, not office space. When you have folks sitting on the floors with their laptops using your free WiFi, it's time to examine your business model. On my recent visit there wasn't a single chair or desk to sit in at at 3pm in the afternoon on a workday. Even the train table in the kids' section had a woman using it as a place for her laptop and phone. She didn't offer to move when my two year old wanted to drive a train around the table. One other parent (with two kids) and myself had to stand because the two chairs that are usually available for parents to watch their toddlers had business workers typing away. A quick walk around the store found 20 other people with laptops at tables or in chairs. One guy was watching Spiderman 3's song and dance number on an iPad, I kid you not. (I might have forgiven him if it'd been Toby's first run at Spidey, but there's no excuse for that third film.)
4. You're a bookseller, not a music store. A quick run through the music section showed me not a single customer. All that space dedicated to overpriced music CDs that no one is buying, let alone browsing. I love the large size of your store, but I'd take a smaller store with just books and magazines. Lose the music, the games, and the new toy section that honestly is so overpriced that anyone buying toys from there should have their head examined. Again, I love the big store, but get back to your roots... books and magazines... and let Toys-R-Us and iTunes handle toys and music.
5. You're B&N, not a coffee shop. When you started offering coffee and muffins, it seemed like a good idea. The WiFi wasn't free, but most customers didn't expect a bookstore to be subsidizing illegal movie and music torrents. The coffee and muffins are still a great idea, but the free WiFi has taken your store in a completely different direction than I believe you originally intended. There's a guy who hunkers down every day in your coffee shop and runs his business there (Spanish tutor). I see one regular in there who does video customer support via Skype, much to the annoyance of other customers around him. You've got folks upstairs with laptops conducting business for hours on end, running off paying customers who might like to just sit down for a moment and read through the first few pages of a possible purchase. You've got a coffee shop full of customers buying drinks but no books or magazines. If you were going for the Build-It-And-They-Will-Come-And-Buy-Books idea, I think that boat has sailed.
Look, B&N. I still love you. And I still want to come and browse and buy the occasional book or magazine from you. But your stores (and yes, I've seen this in multiple locations, both in and away from Atlanta) are becoming less-and-less places to buy books and more like a mall food court with free magazine racks and no manners. And I don't think I'm the only customer out there that feels this way. And it's your paying customers who will keep you in business. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know it's got to be something different than the status quo. My neighbor finds books in your store, takes a picture of the covers, and then goes home to purchase them from Amazon.com. She told me that she's had enough of finding adults sitting at the kiddie tables with their laptops and mobile phones. My dad doesn't like to shop at your store (in Pensacola, FL) much anymore because there's never a place to sit down, and he's one of those Read-a-chapter-and-then-buy customers. I refuse to shop at another large location in Atlanta (near the back way to the airport -- off of 285 -- you know the one) because I tripped over a lady's laptop cord once (in the History section!) as she was sitting in the middle of an aisle and got yelled at for being inconsiderate.
You've got some problems, B&N. Your large stores can't be cheap when it comes to rent, and although I don't have access to your sales reports, my rough math based on the many observations of the parking lot and the usual length of the line whenever I check out (1 person) makes me think book sales may not be doing all that great. Am I right? Hey, maybe you're selling a @#$ load of muffins and coffee and Star Wars bobble heads. Maybe someone really did head to B&N to pick up a $500 drone kit. If so, that's great. But if books are no longer the crux of your core business model, would you mind changing the name to something that is more accurate? Barnes and Noble Bookseller has a lovely ring to it, but I'd be okay with Barnes & Noble Coffee Shop and Knick-Knack Supply. I wouldn't be shopping there much, but I'd at least appreciate the truth in advertising.
You know your business better than I do (I hope), so maybe I just don't have a handle on coffee and muffin sales. Maybe you're heading down a path where you'll be giving away a book and magazine with the purchase of a large decaf mocha latte. Maybe I need to accept the fact that the days of browsing the stacks (without tripping over power cords) and enjoying a few chapters before making a purchase are over. Maybe the days of print books are numbered, but it doesn't mean your customers have to accept it quietly. Absolutely not! When I was younger, customers treated your bookstore like a library and were respectful of others. But now we can yell out our disappointment as loudly as we like -- we have to yell because one of your customers on the second floor is cursing out someone on his mobile phone. (Again, I kid you not -- it happened!)
All kidding aside, B&N, I wish you the best in the years ahead.
James Floyd Kelly