April 5, 2023
An AI Read On Barnes & Noble’s Latest Chapter

Brand Insights in 3 Sentences: Barnes & Noble has had a storied, somewhat tumultuous history, but a revival of book reading, new management, and an unexpected opportunity to take stock of their business has allowed the chain to stage a comeback. The company has revamped its strategy to cater to book lovers by creating a community both on and offline, empowering booksellers at their local stores and understanding what makes their consumers tick. The brand has placed product and reader first, a key element of its recent success.

Barnes & Noble has seen its fair share of ups and downs in the past century since it opened its doors at the Cooper Union Building in New York City. They famously became the first booksellers to introduce the megastore concept, selling books, magazines, and toys. They encouraged customers to get comfortable in their stores and created environments that allowed them to stay a while. Along the way, they also earned a villain reputation for strong-arming writers and publishers and threatening the existence of independent bookstores (whose conflict served as inspiration for the movie, You’ve Got Mail.)

The introduction of digital technologies to the industry, like e-books and online shopping, hit the chain hard. Their reluctance to adapt to an online bookstore meant they were quickly edged out by mega e-commerce retailers like Amazon. To add to their issues, smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices also offered unlimited digital content options, so book reading was also on a steep decline. In 2011, it became the last standing national bookstore chain in the United States.

After a decade of store closures, ownership changes, and seeing their stock dive, an unexpected boon occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. With everyone in isolation and stuck at home, print book sales rose by 8.2% in 2020 compared to the previous year. With their prolific, new(ish) CEO James Daunt at the helm, Barnes & Noble took the opportunity to temporarily close hundreds of outlets to take stock and revamp their stores and strategies. Their efforts paid off, with sales growing by 3% that year and a 14% increase in book sales compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Since then, the company has announced its plan to grow its fleet by opening 30 new retail stores this year and rolling out new initiatives. They’ve also had a bit of a comeback story with the public as a sort of underdog hero. Somehow, they’ve become that beloved neighborhood store to be protected from the corporate giants (aka Amazon.com).

Things are looking up for the company, and the brand has been working hard to keep the tide turning. Using our AI research tool, Sphere, we decided to take a look at their website and social media to see some of the steps Barnes & Noble has been taking to reinvent itself, both on and offline.

One of the company's first steps was to better understand their customers and the emerging generation on how they interact with books. While studies show that millennials remain the generation that reads the most, an increased desire to disconnect has fueled Gen Z’s love for reading. The books that they choose, however, look different from other generations that came before them.

A few defining characteristics of Gen Zs are nostalgia and authenticity. The act of reading books is nostalgic to them, and they seek stories that they can escape into, so genres like fantasy, romance, and comics are extremely popular. While their desire for authenticity has manifested in Gen Zs wanting to feel connected to, and represented within, the world around them. They are considered the most diverse generation we’ve ever seen, so they look for stories written by people like them or characters they can see themselves in.

A look at the Barnes & Noble social media platforms shows a genuine attempt to feature different types of authors and books and using hashtags like ‘diversifyyourbookshelves’, ‘yafantasy’ and ‘romance’, in order to ensure that their content is reaching their desired audience.

Reaching this generation also means that they have to be where they are. This means a strong presence on social media, which includes creating TikTok content. We have seen the power of #BookTok from our previous analysis of last year’s bestselling books, so becoming a part of this community is crucial to players in the book-selling industry.

Barnes & Noble does this by using popular sounds on the platform and Gen Z slang. An example would be the use of emojis like 😅and 🚩, which are two of their most frequently used. These emojis are popular for their use in different situations, with 😅meaning “I’m stressed, but I’m fine” and 🚩being used when someone is problematic or something might be a dealbreaker in a relationship. Jumping on these trends and learning their language is key to entertaining content for their viewers and keeping relevant.

Another aspect the company has worked on is to curate experiences for the consumer, and build a more personal relationship with them. While the physical act of reading is solitary, #BookTok has shown that readers are keen to discuss the books they’ve read with other people.

Barnes & Noble suggests monthly picks to its readers and lets writers take over their social media to host Q&A sessions and talk about their books. They even started an official podcast where authors talk in even further detail about the novels they wrote and the meanings behind them. The podcast format has become increasingly popular for its intimate nature and ability to allow people to multitask while listening. It doesn’t require one’s full attention, making it perfect for millennials and Gen Zs, two digital generations used to oversaturating themselves with entertainment.

They also recently launched a new paid membership program that includes 10% discounts in store and online, early access to special titles and events, and bigger lattes at their cafes. In conjunction, a free, lower-tier membership program is also being rolled out, where members can earn virtual stamps to be translated into credit. Loyalty programs give the company an opportunity to learn more about its customers and engage them more efficiently. It also helps to boost the brand image by building a sense of belonging and rewarding consumers for continually coming back.

Sphere’s analysis shows that content created by Barnes & Noble signals creativity, affiliation and affection the most, which affirms that the brand’s intent is not just to introduce interesting books, but to gather book lovers together to read alongside each other and discuss ideas, just like a book club.

Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.
Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.

Their relationship-building efforts aren’t just reserved for the virtual world though, they’ve also worked to create better in-store experiences and the right product offerings. They’ve given their stores a new look and tried to emulate the independent bookstore concept, by building relationships between customers and employees, offering novel recommendations, and a space for people to sit and gather for hours.

In order to do that, James Daunt decided on giving more autonomy to local store managers over the books they stock and how they are displayed, with his rationale being that only they would have the best understanding of their customers’ preferences. He also encourages managers to select books based on their own tastes, which then allows people to discover titles that they might not have otherwise found. It’s a clever move, since more engaged and empowered workers would likely mean better stores and customer service.

By leaning into their newfound lovable, neighborhood bookstore reputation, the company has won the hearts of communities and book lovers that are rallying around them and helping them to continue to thrive. The reading renaissance comes at a serendipitous time for Barnes & Noble, and they’ve seized the opportunity with both hands. We believe that as the company remains forward-thinking, malleable and aware of their customer, they’ll have a promising new chapter ahead.

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Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.
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