Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Nook misses its niche

by Libby Sternberg

The news in the publishing world is that Barnes & Noble's tablet/e-reader, the Nook, didn't fare so well sales-wise this past year.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, "Nook revenue plunged 26 % to $316 million for the fiscal third quarter ended Jan. 26 and the segment posted a larger loss." 

While Nook languishes, profits have improved at its retail stores business. In other words, folks might not be buying Nooks, but they are buying books.

A day before the negative Nook news appeared, another story circulated: B&N's former owner and now chairman and largest shareholder, Leonard Riggio, wants to buy the company's retail assets. This means the Nook side of the business would likely be separated from the general retail side.
This represents something of an about-face for Mr. Riggio, who introduced the new B&N CEO William Lynch three years ago by saying the chain needed to be "more than a retail bookseller." Mr. Lynch had come from a tech background, and, according to news reports, spent "almost all of his time" on the digital side of B&N's business.

Now it appears that time was ill-spent. Nook never managed to capture the e-reading public's fancy in the same way the Kindle has, or even the way the iPad and its newest iteration, the iPad mini, has.

Why not? The Nook is a solid e-reading device. Although I'm in the Kindle camp, a close relative has a Nook tablet, a gift she received about a year ago. She checks her email on it and surfs the web when traveling. And, oh, yeah, she can read books on it, too.

She's not a techie--neither am I--so I have no first-person analysis of the relative advantages and disadvantages of Nook vs. Kindle vs. iPad (another close relative owns one of the latter--and asked for a Kindle as a gift within a few months after discovering that reading ebooks on an iPad in bright sunlight is a bear).

Therein, however, lies an advantage for the Nook that has never been exploited, certainly not in any promotions I've seen. If anything, after seeing a Nook ad, it's hard to remember if it was for Nook or Kindle.

The advantage for my relative with the Nook was this--she's no techie, as noted above, so when she went to set up the device, she immediately hit the brick wall of tech blah-blah-blah, the usernames, the passwords, the configure-this and download-that. She has little patience for all that. So, she took herself and her Nook to the nearest Barnes & Noble store where a real-live person cheerfully helped her set it up. A real live person--not a name at the end of an email or a voice on the other end of a phone! She loved this aspect of owning a Nook. Amazon's customer service might be good, but nothing beats talking to someone face-to-face.

So, my question is: how did Nook miss this promotional niche? They certainly used up a bunch of precious store real estate on Nook displays. Why didn't they market the fact that while Amazon's Kindle does everything a Nook does, Nook has real people to talk to when you have questions, problems or even suggestions. People who happen to be in their...stores. Smiling at you. Waiting to talk. And, you might buy some print books while you're there.

That seems to me a tremendous marketing advantage Barnes & Noble never even mentioned, let alone exploited.

Mr. Lynch might have missed the proverbial forest for the trees. He didn't see the vast opportunity Nook had to attract non-techies (the majority of folks who probably use these devices) to his product.

But who am I to suggest what captains of industry should do? Just a lowly editor who likes to occasionally mouth off on what's wrong with this business or that one.

Libby Sternberg is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books. She is also an author.

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