min read
November 11, 2016

Barnes & Noble Needs to Improve Its Customer Experience

Customer Experience

If Barnes & Noble wants to set itself apart from its competitors, it first needs to decide what kind of company it wants to be.More than 100 years since its founding, Barnes & Noble’s biggest threat arrived in what must have felt like a matter of moments. Amazon, which aimed right at the heart of Barnes & Noble’s book selling operation in the web retailer’s early days, now quite famously has changed the face of the retail industry — even so much as to open it’s own brick-and-mortar shops. For Barnes & Noble, now one of the final remaining national book stores, some key steps in Amazon’s early days might have prevented Amazon from undercutting such a huge portion of the book selling industry. While it's too late to turn back the clock on the behemoth, there are key steps Barnes & Noble can take to reinvent its image in this experience-oriented age.Retailers like Apple, Starbucks and Bonobos, while not internet-only retailers, took smart steps to successfully combine omnichannel retailing with a welcoming in-store experience. It is here, in creating an environment friendly to the 21st century customer, Barnes & Noble has played the laggard, struggling to innovate and incorporate digital into their traditional brick-and-mortar led business model.Yes, it is too late to topple Amazon from its perch as the book-selling leader in the clubhouse, but Barnes & Noble must take heed of the following notes if it wants to even compete in the ever-changing retail landscape, where digital and optimized customer experiences are the norm and data driven decision-making is key to success in the omnichannel shopping experience.

Make a Game Plan

First, Barnes & Noble needs to decide what kind of company it wants to be. While it’s place as the nation’s final remaining major book chain is unique, Barnes & Noble must set out to redefine itself for a new age. As other companies introduce cozier store setups and more integrated and immersive omnichannel shopping experiences, just being a bookstore is not a solution anymore.Barnes & Noble can cultivate a welcoming retail community by remembering what originally made it so successful by starting to innovate again at the ground level, by leveraging the new digital technologies and experiences that have come with the age of customer experience. To do this, they’ll need to start by creating a digital roadmap and playbook to facilitate a transition into new retail technologies shaping the industry.

Design a Store That People Will Want to Hang Out In

Barnes & Noble’s initial non-prototypical shopping experience of book-focused enjoyment contributed heavily to Barnes & Noble's past success. If Barnes & Noble wants to bring customers into its stores again, it should reinvigorate its shopping experience for customers through new innovations.One leading example in redesigning the customer experience Barnes & Noble could emulate is Apple's new store in San Francisco, which is the design prototype that Apple plans to roll out in all its stores eventually. Instead of showcasing its products, Apple has decided to dedicate more space to tables and intimate seating, thus allowing for more enjoyment and interaction with the actual products in the store. That experience drives customer interaction with Apple's digital products through a digital ecommerce ecosystem, thus paving the way for driving and growing business in one of (if not the) fastest growing sector of commerce.This unique Apple store also made some interesting changes to its branding of in-store experiences as well. For example, the Genius Bar has become the Genius Grove, complete with real trees and open spaces. The entire setup has a futuristic vibe, and is a nice refresh to what was already a revolutionary experience driving huge revenue and customer satisfaction the world over.Right now, there's little reason for customers to visit a Barnes & Noble location except to buy a book and immediately leave. An Apple store simply feels more exciting and futuristic. If Barnes & Noble wants to bring more people into its stores, it needs to find a way to create a more fun and intuitive shopping experience similar to the one exemplified by Apple.With Starbucks already dotting many of Barnes and Noble’s biggest stores, another idea might be to more fully integrate the coffee giant into the book shopping experience. Working on coffee retailer placement inside Barnes and Noble locations could help to create a more integrated feel, perhaps even more seamlessly creating an improved space where it doesn’t even feel like you’re visiting a Starbucks inside a bookstore, but that the bookstore is simply improved by a constant opportunity to grab a coffee or a quick snack.

Optimizing The Omnichannel Shopping Experiences

Starbucks themselves has found incredible success with its all-in-one payment app. Customers can place an order, pay with it, and check their rewards from it. Barnes & Noble may choose to follow Starbucks' lead and integrating its own app with its in-store experience.Instead of going down rows of aisles looking for a specific book, which can be tedious, customers could use the Barnes & Noble mobile app to find the book they're looking for or request for a store representative to find the book and bring it to them. Barnes & Noble could also make it possible for customers to order and download the books that they're looking at directly from the app while they're still in the store. The app could give customers the option to check availability, so customers can see if the book is in the store, while giving them the option to buy either a physical or digital copy.If Barnes & Noble released a mobile app with these features, they could potentially market the app to people in store via beacon technology or other proximity related technologies. Convincing the crowd that this is an essential part of the shopping experience would likely come from the design integration of the potential instore re-branding and optimized Starbucks placements to allow for increased floor times for their customers.The Barnes & Noble app should also be simple and easy to use. Customers could not only use the application to figure out where books are, but also to discover new ones via a recommendation engine used by countless internet retailers. Perhaps they could also use the app to order a book by taking a picture of its USB code or maybe even order something from Starbucks and pay with the B&N mobile app before they even pick it up.For Barnes & Noble to have a comprehensive digital strategy, it needs to integrate its customers' mobile devices into the in-store experience. Sure, B&N has the Nook for customers who want to keep their reading materials in one convenient place. But most customers won't buy a Nook or its direct competitor, Kindle, if they already have an iPad or another device that they can download a book onto. Selling these devices is less important than marketing and selling the books themselves.Bonobos has another approach that Barnes & Noble could easily consider. The men's apparel retailer with brick-and-mortar stores creates an omnichannel experience by allowing customers to try on clothing before buying and then order what they want for delivery. Perhaps Barnes & Noble could test this experience as a way to sell books by allowing customers to snap a picture of the book they're reading and have it delivered to their home or even to their phone, which would alleviate the store’s immediate inventory needs.

Take Advantage of Bluetooth Proximity

Apple removing the iPhone's headphone jack could end up being a great way for marketers to reach their customers. Because iPhone users will soon need to keep Bluetooth activated for proper headphone functionality, Barnes & Noble could tap into that opening to connect to customers more intimately and in a completely new medium. Apple and other major retailers are already headed down that path.

Learn From Business Models That Have Implemented a Successful Digital Strategy

Regardless of which digital strategies Barnes & Noble eventually sets in motion, it must be digitally fueled and used as a way to leverage digital to improve its overall customer experience.Barnes & Noble should look to insights from successfully implemented business models across the retailing industry to figure out new ways to increase its digital in-store presence. The Apple store model prioritizes a welcoming store experience, the Starbucks model uses app controls to streamline everything, and the Bonobos model allows customers to order in the store for home delivery.Barnes & Noble should heed these companies' digital strategies and begin a new process of digital innovation if it wants to survive in today's cutthroat and ever-changing retail environment. With new technologies being released constantly, Barnes and Noble’s customer experience needs to be propelled by the cutting edge of technology. If retailers like Barnes & Noble forget to ensure the continued adoption of digital, they risk far more than simply falling behind. Look no further than B&N’s former competitor Borders to see just what can happen when the market encourages customers to look elsewhere for their needs.

Brian Manning