Barnes & Noble’s strong sales in 2021 credited to in-store renovations, revamped inventory management, and the influence of #BookTok

Photo: Barnes & Noble

“I don’t make money from old people, I make money from young people,” says James Daunt, the CEO of American big-box chain Barnes & Noble, in conversation with Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly.

This was arguably the most eye-opening statement in Milliot’s piece about the success B&N enjoyed in 2021, while still navigating the fallouts from Covid-19 lockdowns, outbreaks, and restrictions. According to Daunt, sales in the first eight months of 2021 outstripped those of 2019 – the last pre-Covid year – by 5%–6%. This was on the back of increased book sales, both in-store and online, as well as strong sales in sectors like toys and games. Unsurprisingly, the hardest hit segment of B&N’s operation continues to be in-store cafés, which have suffered from a lack of clientele due to government-imposed restrictions and people’s general lack of enthusiasm about gathering for extended periods of time indoors among strangers.

But Daunt’s focus on young readers is particularly encouraging. He credits #BookTok, a literary segment of the social-media app TikTok, as driving enthusiasm among a younger generation of readers. B&N’s website, barnesandnoble.com, has a banner list at the top of its home page with the heading “#BookTok Made Me Read It.” Among the books currently highlighted are The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, and The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. (No indication is given as to whether the Reid and Turton books are both there because people are prone to mixing up their titles.)

“Daunt can’t predict how long the BookTok phenomenon will last,” Milliot writes, “but he said it is thrilling to see the energy the platform brings to reading and book buying. ‘When the school bell rings at 3:30, the stores get ready for an invasion,’ he added.”

The popularity of B&N among a younger cohort of readers complements two other innovations Daunt has spearheaded since being wooed across the pond from the U.K., where he headed the Waterstone’s book chain.

First, he engaged in a redesign of the company’s stores, dispensing with the dark green colours that had been dominant, opening up floor space, and substituting square tables with more browser-friendly round tables to display front-of-store inventory. “Revamped stores are brighter with abundant overhead lighting and more open floor space,” according to a September 2021 piece in the New York Post.

The other change Daunt introduced was allowing individual store managers to handle ordering, rather than having everything processed from a head office. Managers have also been given a green light to reconfigure their stores to better suit their individual customer bases. “Those types of changes would have been forbidden under the old B&N way whereby edicts as granular as what books could be displayed and where they were to be displayed, were passed down from headquarters,” writes the Post. “But it’s the type of ownership that Daunt says he encourages.”

The changes are already paying dividends. According to PW, sales for the chain were up in November 2021, though the appearance of the Omicron variant of Covid resulted in the numbers for December taking a dip. But Daunt is bullish about increased revenues and profits in 2021. Whether this is a brief blip related to an increased demand for books during Covid or something more enduring is impossible to predict at this point, but Daunt is pressing forward with expansion plans in 2022.

From PW:

Daunt believes the time and energy B&N has spent making its stores more welcoming has played a part in drawing the BookTok community and other customers back. And more refurbishing is on the way. The initial remodeling, he acknowledged, was mostly done by shifting existing furniture. Now, he said, “we are going to spend some money” to bring in new furniture and other fixtures. B&N is currently remodeling 30–40 stores, and plans call for the retailer to do all stores as soon as possible.

Barnes & Noble’s strong sales in 2021 credited to in-store renovations, revamped inventory management, and the influence of #BookTok
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