What A Book Store Tells Us About The Future Of eCommerce
Jan 12, 2023
By Paul Phan3 mins read
What A Book Store Tells Us About The Future Of eCommerce

In 2020, everyone talked about how eCommerce spells doom for brick-and-mortar stores. We were wrong.

02 years later, foot traffic is up again, and the in-store shopping experience is making a strong comeback.

If you need an example, just look at Barnes and Noble.

In 2022, Barnes & Noble is making an admirable turnaround after a long period of decline. When all of the technological flavors of the year are in trouble - Mass layoff at Meta, Salesforce, Amazon, Netflix stock plummeted by 50%, Crypto is entering its winter - Barnes, and Noble is still making bank, they even planned to open 30 new stores.

So what was their secret sauce?

There was no secret sauce. Barnes and Noble had been struggling for quite a while - bearing a heavy brunt in the transition to online shopping and ebook reading for the last 10 years. They failed to catch up and the shadow of Amazon Books was too big to escape from. They tried making their own ebook readers (The Nook): Failed. Selling greeting cards and toys: Failed. Launching a restaurant chain (Barnes and Noble Kitchen): Failed, again.

They came within a whisker of a complete collapse in 2018 when they had to fire 1800 full-time employees and suffered an $18 million loss. Its share price was down by over 80%. It was a disastrous era.

But they managed to turn it around. Ted Gioia wrote an excellent case study on B&N’s strategy so I’m not going to regurgitate the entire thing here - I encourage you to read his substack post in full.

Here’s a quick summary of B&N’s strategy, and spoiler: it's beautifully elegant.

  • Empower booksellers: B&N lets booksellers select displayed books - instead of having an iron fist on which books are displayed. B&N’s new CEO - James Daunt - explained: “Staffs are now in control of their own shops. [..] Hopefully, they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”

  • Understand buyers: Daunt also made it his north star goal to create an environment that’s intellectually satisfying —and not in a snobbish way, but in the sense of feeding your mind.

It was a big success. Ted ended the case study with a lesson about “love what you do” - but I don’t entirely agree with him.

Love for books was vital - but not enough - the remarkable turnaround of B&N represents a bigger change in shopping behaviors post-pandemic: The craving for genuine interaction.

A brick-n-mortar store provides something eCommerce storefronts can’t (at least for now): the experience of being physically immersed in a space designed for your interest: fascinating curation of books that are well-displayed + the element of human understanding coming from the booksellers themselves - empowered to choose the books.

Look at this photo and you tell me you can get this kind of atmosphere and vibe from an online store?

Shopify Plus’s Commerce Trend 2023 also told the same story: A physical presence can supercharge an online one by doubling as an interactive billboard that builds customer trust. Brands get on average 37% more web traffic the quarter after opening a new physical store.

"Online and offline are effectively one continuous experience,” says Shopify director of product retail and messaging, Arpan Podduturi. “Very few people walk into a retail store without having done their homework. They usually started on their phone. They're following some brand and they go into stores with purpose.”

So what’s next?

Physical and digital retail is no longer separate lanes of business. Retail is going nowhere. More streamlining will be needed to unify both in-store and online shopping experiences. And to have complete creative control across all your touch-points - in-store or online - for a cohesive, purpose-driven customer experience, you'd probably need headless commerce.

But that’s the story for another day.