Bye Bye, Big-Box Bookstores

After more than a decade of dominance fueled by aggressive expansion, the leading big-box bookstore chains in the United States are hurting.

Borders is barely hanging on by a financial thread, with an almost $38 million loss near the end of 2009 sending the company into a tailspin. 2010 began with a round of layoffs, followed by restructuring and most recently the departure of its CFO, Mark Bierley. The cracks are beginning to show in its retail stores, too. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, the bookshelves at our local Borders are getting emptier by the month. It’s also now closed on Sunday, presumably as a way to cut operating costs.

Barnes & Noble seems to be faring better, but that’s a relative statement these days. For the better part of a year now it’s been fighting a takeover attempt led by billionaire corporate raider, Ron Burkle. But in some ways that’s not the worst of its worries. In an attempt to counter Burkle, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio recently went looking for someone else — someone friendlier — to buy the company. He was met with this grim response by the financial press:

Before news of Barnes & Noble’s plan to explore alternatives, shares had declined about a third this year in the face of concerns that the growing digital-books market and competition from Amazon.com Inc. would squeeze out its 720 bricks-and-mortar stores while also leaving it with little market share in the digital world, where its Nook e-book reader followed in the footsteps of Amazon’s Kindle.

“It’s difficult to envision a buyer of this company given the structural issues it continues to face,” said Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter.

Realistically, it’s probably an overstatement to say that nobody would want to buy Barnes & Noble. Someone with an interest in revamping the chain might well want to do so. Of course that would most likely mean, sayonara Barnes & Noble as we know it.

This isn’t a surprising development, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble should have seen it coming.

Remember Tower Records? Or all of those Virgin Mega-Stores? With the rise of digital music, most of the big-box music stores were forced to shut their doors. They just couldn’t compete with a business model premised on minimizing infrastructure and abandoning material goods. The same goes for Blockbuster and all of those other national video store chains, whose physical stores have been driven under by the double-whammy of Netflix and video on-demand.

E-books still have limited uptake, of course, which means that Borders and Barnes & Noble have yet to feel the digital squeeze to the degree that music and video stores have. Still, their lackluster forays into online bookselling have put both companies at a major disadvantage. Barnes & Noble used to have a fallback in the education market, with an exclusive lock on hundreds of college bookstores across the United States. Even that’s now being eroded by Amazon.com, however, which is actively courting students on its website.

There’s been some talk lately of how to retool the big-box bookstores to make them more competitive. Unfortunately, as a recent Publishers Weekly article noted, one plan would significantly involve “Taking the ‘Book’ Out of Bookstores.” In place of the physical volumes there would be an increase in what booksellers like to call “non-book product,” including journals, cards, fancy writing paper, reading lights, games, and that type of thing.

No doubt the profit margins on non-book product are attractive, and I suspect they help to create store traffic. But honestly, is this a viable long-term strategy? Does it make sense to save these bookstores by turning them into plus-sized stationery stores?

Here’s a different idea. Bowker, a leading book industry research and information firm, recently reported that women over the age of 40 comprise the largest segment of the US book buying market. Common sense would dictate that Borders and Barnes & Noble ought to pursue that aspect of the market even more actively than they do now, since that’s where the money is.

But it’s clear that now’s not the time for common sense; now’s the time for bold, unconventional thinking. What this means is that the bookstore chains ought to be courting those who aren’t your usual book buyers and working closely with publishers to develop titles that would appeal to them. That way they’d be broadening the market rather than simply reproducing it as it is.

I also wonder if now might be the right time to begin experimenting with smaller, shopping mall-based stores as well. Borders and Barnes & Noble closed most of their Waldenbooks and B. Dalton mall locations in the 1990s, in part to help finance the construction of their superstores. Nevertheless, people still love to shop at the mall, even in the internet age. The experience of being in pubic, hanging out, and poking around is something that online retailers can never hope to duplicate. And so here, again, is another untapped possibility. A suitable print-on-demand system could make mall stores even more attractive to book buyers, moreover, since then they wouldn’t have to wait for titles to be delivered from suppliers or sources online.

Maybe, in the end, it’s time to bid farewell to the big-box bookstore chains. Personally, though, I’d be sad to see them go, especially since they’ve been instrumental in making books available in places where, for the most part, they weren’t abundant — places like my hometown of Goshen, New York, for instance. I also think it’s important for printed books to remain a part of the experiential landscape of people’s everyday lives, both in the form of libraries and retail stores.

Indeed, what would it mean to live in a time when we couldn’t pluck a random volume off of a shelf and start reading, just for the sake of doing so? That’s the question we’re staring at now, not only because of the shakeout that’s been going on for the better part of 15 years in the retail sector, but also because of the cutbacks that are crippling US public libraries. But Instead of staring at this question, isn’t it about time folks started staring it down?

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