12.13.16 - A Trip to the New Barnes & Noble Concept Store

A Trip to a New B&N

Hey, guys. Amy here, otherwise known as “Assistant Amy” or “The Kerr.” I answer to both. 

As you know, the way we read and obtain our reading material has changed dramatically over the past ten years. The advent of ebooks has made sitting down with your favorite stories easier than ever before—and it’s certainly changed the way we shop, if at all, at brick-and-mortar stores. Every week, I read about another neighborhood bookstore forced to shut its doors, and the small mom-and-pop shops aren’t alone. Some of the bigger box stores that foisted neighborhood bookstores out of the picture 20 years ago (you saw You’ve Got Mail, right?) are now being foisted out themselves, all thanks to the mighty ebook.

One of the biggest brick-and-mortar players left is Barnes & Noble. They’ve felt the ebook pinch over the past few years, in both their retail stores and online ventures (I’m looking at you, Nook), not to mention they’ve had significant CEO turnover in the past five years. In what seems like a last-ditch effort to keep up with the zeitgeist, Barnes & Noble has begun rolling out a new concept for their bookstores. Last week, I got to visit one of these new concept stores in Edina, Minnesota, a tony suburb of Minneapolis.

Turns out, B&N really has transformed their space—and, along with it, a new vision for their bookstores in the 21st century. And this vision is actually a surprising throwback.

A few takeaways from my visit:

(Warning: this is about to get super publishing geeky)

1. The Layout

So open! So airy! Who's breathing deeper? *raises hand*

The biggest change I see in the new concept is in the store’s layout. It’s open and airy, designed to circulate traffic throughout the entire store. Guests enter the store and dive headfirst into a sea of co-op tables positioned in the middle of the store, then circulate the perimeter to fiction, nonfiction, then music and gifts in the corners. 

I could do cartwheels down these aisles—note the clean displays of merchandise

I could do cartwheels down these aisles—note the clean displays of merchandise

If you’re looking for a particular sub-genre, they’re much easier to find in the new concept store. Fiction and Nonfiction sections are clearly marked and along the perimeters, and sub-genres reside in floating displays according to their parent group.
 

 

 

 

2. The Books

So many face-out covers

There seem to be fewer books displayed on the B&N floor (remember: open and airy layout), and a significantly higher portion of books are on display face-out. I think this has everything to do with Amazon, both online and their brick-and-mortar stores, which displays their entire stock face-out. Think about the last time you went through shelves at a bookstore looking at the spines—not looking for a particular item, but just browsing for something to catch your eye. It doesn’t happen that often, does it? With the advent of online stores, we’ve become so accustomed to seeing the entire front cover and, ergo, literally judge our books by their covers in order to make an informed purchase. I’m curious to see what this positioning does to sales.

Also, this may or may not be the case, but I detected fewer book discounts than in the old concept stores.
 

3. The Co-Ops

Perhaps the only discounted books I saw.

Good news, authors: if your book is displayed on a co-op table, the new concept store ensures your book will get more eyeballs on it than ever before, thanks to the open layout. The co-op tables are the first thing you see when you walk in the store, taking up significant square footage and prime real estate. The tables are on wheels, making the displays easily mobile. A few copies of books grace the top of the display, while larger stacks of stock are placed under the table, for easier browsing for customers and easier restocking for employees. 

Another thing: there seems to be more endcaps at the new concept store. And I’m not talking about the small, outside-of-the-bookshelf endcaps. I’m taking about entire wall displays—sometimes with one author in particular, but sometimes displays with themes. Not sure if these are paid-for promotions or if the store assembled these themes themselves, but it’s definitely noteworthy.
 

4. The Restaurant

The token coffee bar (the restaurant is tucked away behind it)

The token coffee bar
(the restaurant is tucked away behind it)

Now the fun part: the most head-scratching part (to me) of B&N’s new concept announcement was probably the full-service restaurant portion. The restaurant, Barnes & Noble Kitchen, serves beer and wine along with a selection of entrees, in addition to a coffee bar placed at the front of the restaurant a la the Starbucks of old. 

I must say: the food quality and service at this restaurant were excellent. My dining partner and I sampled some guacamole, meatballs and polenta (spectacular, especially in cold weather), a lovely kale salad, cappuccino and tea. Everything was perfect, though the price point surprised me—the entrees range from $14–$26, a little higher than I’d expect for a bookstore café.
 

 

I like the new concept. I’m just not quite sure what to do with it.

Is the store a destination spot, a gathering place for special occasions and book groups looking to splurge on a night out? The restaurant fare and prices make it seem that way. Or is the new B&N positioned to entice a reader who’s looking for a particular book or a short browse, followed by a quick cup of coffee to-go?

Yes and yes, I think. B&N is trying to play both sides of this coin, becoming multiple things to multiple buyers. It’ll be interesting to see how the restaurant acts as a sales driver for the store, both in food and book revenue.
 

Verdict: ultimately, I think B&N is creating a store highly targeted to a certain kind of buyer.

From the higher priced entrees to the lack of book discounts to its location in a tony metropolitan suburb, I’d wager B&N is looking to appeal to a very particular kind of customer: an upper-middle-class buyer who doesn’t care as much about price point as they do about the quality of their book buying experience—and they want that book-buying experience to be a traditional one. It will be telling to see where, exactly, B&N places the rest of these new concept stores, if the company converts their traditional stores to the new concept, and if they want (or are able) to keep their traditional concept stores at all.

In an age where price seems to trump the book buying experience, I wonder if B&N’s Great Big Experiment will pan out. I guess the only thing to do is get a cup of coffee and a book, and wait it out.

I know her!

P.S. – Guys: this morning, B&N's head of restaurant development "resigned." 

Now I'm even more curious about B&N's future...aren't you?