How Barnes and Noble Competes with Amazon

by William Grosso

Related link:

Yesterday, I posted a short entry about how cell-phone cameras are causing a stir in Japan. I thought a lot about it over the past 24 hours and realized that we really are just at the tip of the technological vortex-- Larry Ellison may have been right when he said "The Internet Changes Everything" but he forgot to add "and then, once everything's changed, it's just gonna change again and again and again and again."

(and spare me the "Duh!" comments. I've been heads-down at a startup for the past three years and am just getting back in touch with all the changes in the world).

With those thoughts rumbling around in my head, I went to a Barnes and Noble yesterday, to pick up a copy of Elliotte Harold's new book, Processing XML With Java and I noticed: Barnes and Noble is doing well. There were a lot of people in the store, people were buying books and browsing, and ... I confirmed it later-- Barnes and Noble is doing okay.

Another thing to notice: their prices haven't gotten any lower.

How did they do this? Wasn't the arrival of the internet, and the e-tailers, going to force brick-and-mortar retailers to become cut rate discounters, barely able to eke out a living? Wasn't Barnes and Noble going to compete with Amazon primarily through its web store (a nice site, but not really competitive, imho. It just completely lacks any sense of style). I know, none of us really believe that now, and I know that everyone now claims that they were skeptical back in the heyday, but it's still worth wondering: what is the impact (so far) of the web on more traditional marketing channels?

Here's my answer: Barnes and Noble is a much more pleasant place to shop in. They guessed, and rightly so, that for a wide range of books, if I'm in their store, and I see a book that I want, I'm not going to think "let me check on the internet and see if I can save $3.50." The trick for them is to get me into their store, and to get me into a good mood, where I'm inclined to browse and explore and buy.

The aisles are wider at Barnes and Noble these days. The floorplans are more spacious. There's pleasant music in the background, a nice cafe on the second floor, and loads of comfy chairs in handy locations. There are people using it as an office (seriously; people are bringing their laptops, parking in a comfy chair, and grabbing a latte from the cafe before setting down to a couple of hours of work). There are people using it as a meeting place (for example, the
Bay area Futurists frequently meets in a bookstore), it's become a place to go and hang out, rather than just a place to buy books.

So why is Walmart as unfriendly as ever?


2003-07-06 15:55:19
And a book-related advantage:
In a real bookstore like B&N you can test read several books on the same topic before deciding which one to buy.

-- Lars

2003-07-06 21:55:51
A related store
If you're in or around Denver, you'll find the ultimate book buyer's experience in the Tattered Cover bookstore (

The main branch (in the Cherry Creek area) has four floors, plenty of room to browse and nice comfy chairs in which to do so. The range of titles is outstanding and the employees really know their stuff.

2003-07-07 10:30:14
but there is a limit
Being from Canada, I will use Chapters/Indigo instead of Barnes and Noble.
I was one of their discount cardholder and buying a considerable volume of books until the difference of pricing with Amazon became significant: I have seen differences of 30%.
Now, I have not renewed their discount card, I go there note the books I want and order from Amazon.

PS: the confy chairs are fine.. but none are ever available!

2003-07-07 11:42:07
A related store
Agreed. Tattered Cover is the best bookstore I have seen. Although hard to quantify, they always seem to have what I want, whereas I often walk out of B&N with nothing.
2003-07-07 11:53:02
order mixed up
IIRC, the Barnes & Noble stores (at least where I was in NJ) had outstanding ambience back when there was no online shopping to speak of. Their competitors were the Waldenbooks shops in malls and the little mom-and-pop places.

They crushed those competitors not just on price or ambience, but on the sheer number of titles they carried.

2003-07-07 18:45:42
buy where you shop
There was an interesting article at the beginning of an OReilly catalog I got in the mail recently titled "Buy where you shop" or something like that.

Way back when the only place we could find books like OReilly's were the independent bookstores. They had they ambience and maybe a bit of quirkiness. But somewhere along the line they are getting squashed between BnN and Amazon. I don't know why I'll miss them but I think I will.

BnN is a cool place to look for books even if I can't score a comfy chair. And Amazon is pretty cool too because they're putting the technology to work...

2003-07-08 10:05:55
tragedy of commons
so I think barnes and noble could be a test of the "tragedy of the commons" theory. In a way the convivial atmosphere, and the ability to browse books to decide which to read, provide a free commons that no one pays for, in that users are only charged for them when buying a book, selfish consumers could use these resources but after determining that they wanted a book jump on their pda and go to amazon and order it. Not that I think that would happen.
2003-07-08 11:18:47
Comfy chairs freeloaders
I hate going to Barnes and Noble in some respects because I can NEVER score one of those comfy chairs (or even a seat at the cafe) because there are so many freeloaders who have set up camp there. They bring their Psych101 textbooks, buy one coffee and stay all day.

Since I don't camp out, whenever I go there there is no place to sit and enjoy that atmosphere, so I turn around and leave (w/o buying a thing). The Steven's Creek store in San Jose is horrible in this regard.