Playing CEO: My Proposal to Save Struggling Barnes & Noble

After basically announcing that they were up for sale today, I have gathered that Barnes & Noble is struggling.
Hardly news, right? Under statement of the year, even. Profits are down, and it’s becoming harder and harder to compete with behemoths like Amazon and Wal-Mart. Hell, I don’t even think B&N even has a CEO right now. So things are bad. Not “split in half after hitting the iceberg” bad. More like “Oh shit, there’s an iceberg ahead; we need to start shoveling in the coal and turning the ship” bad.
If you’re a book lover like me, that’s the silver lining. Barnes & Noble is struggling, but there’s fight left in them. And changes can certainly right the ship.
What are those changes? I’m sure they have plans. But if they don’t — or if any potential buyers are reading this and need some advice — here are a few suggestions on staying afloat (OK, I’m done with the boat analogies).
1. Close out some stores. Obvious, right? Look, if you want to play ostrich and bury your head in the sand about it, go ahead. I’m upset about this too — the closest B&N to me is roughly 50 minutes away. Beyond that, 90 minutes. After that, over 2 hours. After that? I’m afraid to look. I don’t want these stores to close — I’m still pissed about the Borders that was 30 minutes away and closed — but to recapture profitability, Barnes will not be able to continue operating at its current level.
So they need to look at numbers. What stores are currently deep in the red? Also, they need to look at stores that are close to other stores to avoid a harsh impact on buying customers, as well as the potential to transfer employees and minimize job loss. If there are 600+ stores, pessimistically, I’d say 100 stores are closing. Optimistically, I’d say less than 25. It’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle. And while we’re looking at those numbers, let’s find trends. Why is Store A so much more profitable than Store CCC? What are they doing differently?
But if articles I read are true — and assuming they own the structures — closing stores could turn into leasing opportunities for up-and-coming businesses Warby Parker or Casper (Thank You Mr Bary).
Dying limbs get cut off trees. Sadly, the same is true of struggling retail chains. I hate it, but it’s business. And I’m not ready to see B&N die.
2. Reward Loyal Customers Like the Ice Cream Shops and Gas Stations. Chances are you bought ice cream this summer, or purchased a fountain drink or coffee at a gas station. Did the ice cream shop give you a punch card? Did the gas station scan the little card on your keychain?
Both kinds of places offer the same type of reward system: buy so many of our product and we’ll offer you one free. Barnes currently does typically run “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” sales, but it’s book dependent (only the ones on this table, only the ones with the sticker). What if you earned an 11th book after buying 10? What if it wasn’t limited to certain books, but instead any book, perhaps with a set dollar limit (most paperbacks run about 16.99; I understand if they’re unable to do this with brand new hardbacks)? Barnes currently runs a number of discounts, but could really do themselves a favor by raising the stakes.
Also, if you’ve ever noticed on your receipt, Barnes recommends titles to you based on purchases. But do they offer these books at a discounted rate personally for you for a number of days, say 20% off if you purchase within the next 30 days? Well, they should.
3. Let’s Get Interactive! As Bary notes in the article linked above, a number of B&N stores already offer book clubs, but not all of them, and only certain titles. The Barnes in Manassas, VA also offers Bingo nights. But I highly doubt all stores do. And why not?
I LOVE to read (Duh, right?), and I would LOVE to interact with others based on books. But I’m an extreme introvert, so finding or even starting a book club is not a venture I can, or am even willing, to try. And I certainly can’t be the only one who feels this way. But if there’s one at my local bookstore, I would definitely want to check it out. It’d be a great way for adults to interact. Or even a book club for teens/college students might help inspire friendships for kids like me who had a hard time making friends. And now that I have young children, I would be delighted to take them to a store reading for a children’s book where they’d get to see other kids and enjoy a fun night out.
And that’s the essence of point 3. To me, books are fun. Entertaining. So why shouldn’t bookstores be the same way, full of energy and entertainment opportunities? Again, I’m not knocking the ones that already do this: I’m just saying there are certainly opportunities to expand upon this. Which, again, leads back to my earlier statement: what are your successful stores currently doing that separates them from the pact? 
 
4. Create an App Worth Downloading. A quick search on my phone at the App Store shows me that Barnes and Noble currently has several apps, but none seemed particularly appealing. And why is that?
McDonald’s has daily deals on their app. Target has coupons on their app that you can download. Does Barnes and Noble have enticing deals on their app? Doesn’t look like it. And why not? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
  • Daily, or even Weekly deals. “Buy One, get one 25% off.” “Buy this book, 40% off this week only.” “Buy a book, and get a free coffee.”
  • Pathway to Awesome Deals. I’m picturing a Candy-Land-Style board with certain “benchmarks” you have to hit (eg: Benchmark 1: Buy a book, then you move to Benchmark 2, etc) and at the end of the path when you hit the final benchmark, you get some awesome reward! Games could be quarterly so customers would have three months to reach the end of the path Wouldn’t that be fun??
  • Piggybacking on the above point, what about a Scavenger Hunt? Create Weekly Clues that customers need to unlock (ie. What is the first word on Page 132 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?). Once customer’s correctly guess the clue, a barcode unlocks that has to be scanned by a B&N employee (thus ensuring customers have to come to the store to do it), and then the next clue is revealed. After so many clues unlock, another handsome reward is waiting our faithful players.
  • Trivia Games: Weekly Trivia Games (with book trivia, obviously) that with a passing score of say, 80% and above, a reward is offered (And yes, put a timer on the questions so cheaters can’t Google the answers).
See a pattern here? Rewards. Discounts. Fun. Just because you can’t necessarily beat a competitor’s prices, it doesn’t mean you can’t beat them. What can Barnes offer that Amazon doesn’t? Within that answer lies the key to success.
5. Reclaim Your Identity. Cut the Crap: Trivia Time! What is Barnes & Noble?
  • a) Bookstore
  • b) Toy Store
  • c) Store for DVDs and CDs
  • d) A Store for Useless Trinkets at the Register that No One Needs
  • e) All of the Above
If you answered E, you are right. But that’s where Barnes went wrong.
I’d love to see numbers on the profitability of answers B-D. Are these things selling? Is the inventory hurting or helping sales? Because frankly, if it’s not a book, it probably shouldn’t be there when you’re losing millions in a year. Got news for you, Barnes: you have a hard time beating the competition at book prices, you sure as hell ain’t going to beat ’em at toys.
The answer to the above question should be A. In order to survive, Barnes has to remember its roots and appeal to that customer base. Books are what made you. Books are what can save you. Not overpriced stuffed animals. Not Marvel figures that are $80. Not card games. Not DVDs that cost less at Target, Amazon, AND Wal Mart. Inventory is costly. Inventory that doesn’t sell is painfully costly. So let’s run those numbers and remember who we really are: a BOOK store.
6. If We Are Ever Profitable Enough to Open More Stores, Cut the Coffee: Barnes & Noble does good coffee business. I am aware of that. Sadly, it’s a longer line than the book registers most of the time. And books and coffee go so well together! (In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a pillow that says that, along with rain) But maintaining the price to run a bookstore and a coffee shop is not cheap. Take it from a guy that works for a utility company.
Coffee costs money to make. Product aside, it runs up your electric, water, and gas bill (it probably runs up your trash bill too). It also forces you into maintaining a larger space, and larger spaces are more expensive to cool and heat. Like Jon Snow said: Winter is Coming.
Right now, Barnes is struggling to stay alive, so the very idea of opening stores is ludicrous. But if we can get to that point — and with all the uncertainties in the world right now, I have to believe that we can — we do not need to open a coffee shop as well. Leave that to Starbucks. Besides, without running data, I can guarantee there is probably already a Starbucks within 10 miles of every Barnes in the US. They need to stick to what they know best:
BOOKS.
It just might be the key to their long term survival.

Moving Forward: Pulling Success From the Clutches of Failure

Happy Almost 4th of July to you and your families! Are you eating burgers? Dogs? See any fireworks yet? Well, I hope it’s glorious when you do!

Let’s start off with the bad news: my short story “The 9 Lives of Jay Catsby” was not selected by voters as one of the Top 25 to be voted on to be published in a collection later this year. I can’t say I’m surprised. Because I was not a long time member at Wattpad when the contest started, I did not have a following, and therefore could not muster up the votes, despite blog pleas and several tweets mentioning the vote. It was always going to be a long shot at best.

But still, I’m quite disappointed. I saw this as a golden opportunity to achieve a goal of mine. Because I frequent Target stores a lot and saw the poster indicating the contest, I thought it was, as they say, written in the stars. Meant to be. I work forty hours a week. I have a family that I enjoy spending time with, so my opportunities to fully immerse myself in writing are limited. (Yes, I know. If I truly want this, I wouldn’t make excuses, but if you have a family, you understand the sacrifices one has to make in order to write and hold a full-time job). So I naturally saw this as something I was supposed to do to achieve success. A sign. (Sidenote: I’m very pessimistic until an opportunity comes along, and then I dream big. Very big.).

But alas, I was mistaken. It was just another life lesson for me. Another due that I had to pay as a writer before my big break comes along, if it ever does.

But let’s focus on the positives. The good news: I started and finished a writing project of mine! At all times, there are approximately 9,000 ideas floating around in my brain, just waiting to be put on paper to see what they look like, but usually they just bang against each other like rocks in space because I don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time. But my brain not only gave birth to this idea, my fingers ran with the idea, putting down on paper, finishing it, editing it, and submitting it. Rarely does this happen. So this is a huge step for me. Anytime I complete a project related to writing, I can not view it as a failure, even if the end goal is not reached.

I don’t plan to stop here either. There’s more than one way to get a short story published. I have a finished project, a great short story, and it’s just a matter of making someone else believe it’s good. I haven’t had much luck in that department yet, but maybe that just means my luck is about to change.

A huge thank you to my wife, who is the hero of this story. She understands how important writing is in my life, how desperate I am to be published, how much I struggle on a daily basis not doing what I love. She took the reins of the house, left me the time to write, gave me the time I needed to get this project done. I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s my rock. Any I success I achieve in writing is only success if it includes her, because I am able to do what I do because of her.

Congrats to the 25 stories who did receive the necessary votes, and are eligible to be one of the ten finalists to be published later this year! I, more than anyone else, understand how hard of a step this is to achieve. To those who, like me, did not make the top 25: don’t give up. Use this as an opportunity to find other avenues to achieve publication. That’s what I aim to do.

Until Next Time. Keep Reading!
-MP

 

Help A Writer Realize His Dream

I want to tell you about a short story I wrote.

It’s called “The Nine Lives of Jay Catsby.” In short, it’s about a journalist who encounters a stray cat on the side of the road during an accident in which a dog is hit by a car. The journalist sees the dog, lying lifeless on the road. When he turns back, a cat is there, and the dog is moving. Hours later, still trying to process the events, the cat shows up on the man’s doorstep. As if this weren’t bizarre enough, the cat eventually begins talking, though only the man can hear him, and the cat informs him he has the ability to save lives–nine of them to be exact. The cat, Jay Catsby, is based loosely on my cat, shown above.

This story came about when I was wandering the aisles at Target, which I like to do at least once a week. Specifically, I enjoy looking at the books and dvds, although the kid in me still wanders the toy aisles. While looking over the new titles, I see a message on the side of an end cap that says “You can be published in Target stores!” Intrigued, I read on and find out it’s a contest sponsored by Wattpad and Target. The details are simple: write a story dealing in modern life with a fantastical element. Make sure it’s between 4,000 and 9,000 words. Post it on Wattpad, tag it with #OnceUponNow, and if enough Wattpad users vote you into the top 25, you have a chance to be selected by Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) as one of 10 stories to be published in October of this year.

Suddenly, the bridge between my lifelong dream and my current status became a little shorter…

…but only a little.

Here’s the thing: I’ve never used Wattpad before. I’ve heard about it, maybe perused it once or twice, but didn’t use it. The problem with my lack of use when it comes to this contest is that, similar to WordPress, Wattpad is all about building a following. I learned about this contest roughly four weeks ago. I’ve spent my free time in those past four weeks, crafting the “Catsby” story, editing the “Catsby” story, and figuring out how to successfully post the “Catsby” story to Wattpad.

None of this free time led me to building a following on Wattpad. And starting on Tuesday, June 14th, the writing window for the Wattpad contest will open. I’m not sure if there’s a way to calculate the number of stories that are being entered into this contest, but I’m going to assume it’s a lot. Definitely in the triple digits. Possibly in the four-digit range.

I’ve read that a writer’s job is never done, and that couldn’t be more true. If you’re not editing a story that you just finished, you’re thinking of the other stories that are stuck in your head that need to get down on paper. And if by some miracle your brain stops talking to you long enough to have a clear thought, the writer–published or unpublished–constantly has to be a shameless self promoter if he/she wants their book to be read.

So in the limited time I have left, I’m going to ask you, the reader, to push this blog, forward it to you and your Wattpad friends, to help me achieve a dream I’ve had for at least the last 15 years: publication.

Quickly, if you don’t currently use Wattpad and are unsure how to vote, I’m going to give you a quick tutorial if you’d like to sign up. (And I’d really appreciate it if you did!) Quick but important sidebar: YOU CAN ONLY VOTE BETWEEN JUNE 14TH AND JUNE 21ST, ENDING AT 3:59 PM (EST) ON THE 21ST!!!

  1. Click here to go to the Wattpad site
  2. My story should pop up. Cick the “read” button at the top.
  3. You will have to submit a username, an email address and a password to read.
  4. You will need to confirm your email by going into your email account and clicking on a link. This is important, because you can’t vote until you do this!
  5. Now you are able to read my story! I hope you love it as much as I did writing it!
  6. If you enjoy it enough and you’d like to vote, there is a “vote” button at the bottom of  each page of the story. Additionally, under each chapter (this story has 7), there’s a vote button at the top right-hand corner of the page that you can click to vote. You will know it works if the voting icon gets filled.
  7. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please email me and I will help! You can reach me at mpenbrell@gmail.com

Whether you choose to vote or not, or whether you choose to even sign up at Wattpad or not, I will say that I appreciate you reading this blog. Working fulltime, having a family, having a yard that needs work in the summer, it’s hard to find time to write, let alone time to develop a following. The fact that you found me and took the time to read this is a victory itself!

Thanks again, everyone! I’ll keep you posted!
-MP