How Was Barnes and Noble Able to Turn Things Around?

Barnes and Noble is doing so well financially that they plan to open thirty new stores in 2023. That caught my attention, and I think it’s great news. Why is the store thriving? That’s the question music critic, Ted Gioia, tries to answer in this post. I agree with some of the reasons he cites (e.g., appointing a better CEO who decentralized decision making), but I’m dissatisfied with the overarching reason he offers–namely, that the new CEO loves books.

In this thread, I’ll explain the reason I feel this way, as well as offer an alternate explanation that seems more compelling. (In spite of this slight disagreement, I recommend reading his post.) OK, let’s begin.

To me, passion for books is not a sufficient explanation, although it could be linked to the critical factors that revitalized the business. For example, the ability to identify books that excite and/or enrich customers’ lives and developing an appealing and effective way to connect customers to these books are two factors that I think could explain the turnaround. Both would provide something that customers would pay for–and continue to pay for. Having a passion for books seems closely associated with these factors, but it doesn’t guarantee the presence of these factors. In any event, if the new CEO, James Daunt, possesses these factors, or has ensured they are a part of the Barnes and Noble business, this seems like a more compelling reason for the turnaround.

Essentially, Barnes and Noble would provide curation and an appealing physical space for this. I think people would pay for great curation, primarily because sorting through the many available options is a real challenge. This is even more true if this process occurs within a well-designed third place.

Gioia mentions that the Barnes and Noble success has lessons for other media like music, movies, and newspapers. This sounds right. I’ll try to expand on this later.

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