My Recommendation to Barnes and Noble

19 01 2011
Congratulations, Barnes and Noble!  Looks like you’ve survived a key test of books sales move to the digital world.  You recently announced your best holiday sales season in more than a decade, with both online and in-store sales growing in the double digits.  This, coupled with the struggles of competitor Borders, makes you my pick as the horse to win the physical book dealer race (hey, I picked blu-ray, and that turned out to be right, and I can go 2-for-2 if I omit all my mistakes!).

But you are clearly not out of the woods yet.  It seems likely to me that your gain in physical book sales is probably related to a Borders loss, and not necessarily a growth in gross physical book sales.  With deteriorating margins and increasing competition from Amazon and Apple, you better get your act in gear and quick.

Obviously there are a laundry list of problems the brick-and-mortar stores are facing against the digital retailers today.  But when I go into a Barnes and Noble, here’s the main problem I have: you don’t know who I am.  On your site, I may have a full profile, with rich data on my past purchases and the books I have on my wishlist.  You may know how my tastes have changed over time, what I normally buy around this time of year, or what I typically purchase as gifts for loved ones around the holidays.  I may be the #1 buyer of Agatha Christie novels yearly, and yet when I ask a Barnes and Noble salesperson if they have any books to recommend to me, I get two probable responses: one, I get pushed towards the new arrivals area.  Or two, I get the question, “well, what type of books do you like?”.  Arg.  Help me out here B&N.

So here’s what I’m proposing: take a page from the Starbucks playbook and let customers start swiping more at your stores.  Add full profile capability to your B&N iPhone app, and then let customers ‘swipe’, or ‘bump’ their smartphones when they come into the stores if they wish.  Quoting the Starbucks press release, they estimate 30% of their customers are using smartphones today.  I’d be willing to bet this figure is even higher for Barnes and Noble customers (although possibly not the ones who frequent the stores – but maybe).  Then, I would build a Netflix-esque recommendation engine for both in-store and online book picks.  I’d imagine you use something along these lines today, and whatever it is, push it to the next step (maybe hang a million dollars out there).  I recognize this is no easy task, but it’s necessary for someone in your position, with a tenuous grasp on the lead and looking to build momentum.

So here’s how I see it working (for the customer):
Maybe the customer is just coming in to browse (as I normally am), but want to look up those books on your wishlist?  Sure, no problem.  They just swipe their B&N app-enabled smartphone on the way into the store, and get back info on where those are located in the store.
Or they just want personalized book recommendations?  Again, just go right ahead and swipe, hit ‘recommendations’, and a list is populated just for them.  It’s weighed by what books are available, which are on-sale, and which have been popular with book customers in the local area.

So here’s how I see it working (for B&N):
Suddenly you have rich profiles that exist both online and in the store.  As customers swipe, local B&N management will have a (somewhat biased) picture of what local customers are looking for.  Over time, they can better arrange the store, better target marketing and sales, and create stronger relationships with their customers.
“Help Desks” and the like would be equipped with smartphone readers.  Visitors with questions or looking for recommendations could get the answers logged under both their B&N account and on their phone (for taking through the store with them).

Can I prove that this would lead to more conversions?  No, I wouldn’t go that far.  But it could be a step towards solving a major problem for physical retailers today: browsers come into the physical store, handle the inventory, talk to the employees about recommendations, and then buy at the lower priced internet alternative anyway.  By increasing both the convenience and the effectiveness of in-store help, along with making a killer recommendation engine, Barnes and Noble could deepen the relationship with customers and increase the value of their offerings – maybe to the point of increasing sales.

Thanks to the Jan 12 NPR Technology Podcast for getting me thinking about this. 

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