Monday, February 24, 2020

Drama But No Theater

No One Buys Mediocre Theater

Nothing speaks to the inadequacy of book retailing better than some recent news from Barnes & Noble. To ‘celebrate’ Black History month, the company chose to re-cover some well-known classics with images of ‘people of color,’ presumably to suggest their relevance to consumers of color. Not only was the move ignorant and arguably racist of this move, the images themselves had nothing to do with the story lines in the books – surely a fundamental failure by a bookseller! These books were quickly recalled from sale but the episode did get me thinking about “retail theater” in the context of books and publishing. I really think B&N (and others) are missing a trick.

The retail experience done well is ‘theater’ as sophisticated retailers frequently demonstrate. Consumers visiting Starbucks Reserve Roasting, Nike or Roots Chicago are captivated by those concepts and become participants in those retailers’ theater productions. Retail theater is not a new concept in store design but, as more shopping migrates to the web, savvy physical retailers are investing in theater-like retail experiences to draw foot traffic. The goal of this strategy is to make the store a ‘celebrity’ in and of itself so that consumers trek there specifically to visit, engage and buy.

The best exemplars of the retail theater concept also seem to have a strong sense of branding and consumer marketing. These brands – Nike, Starbucks and others like them – stand for something in the minds of their target consumers which is reinforced by the in-store experience. There are few, if any, similar examples in book retailing (and I don’t count Amazon) despite the inherent advantages of publishing and book retailing. Arguably, not since Crown Books in the eighties and nineties has book retailing communicated a strong brand association to consumers. And, no book retailer to day has shown the kind of imagination and ‘theater’ necessary to combat declining interest in reading and purchase migration to the web. Walk into any bookstore across the country and they all look the same: Flat top tables up front, shelves lining the walls and bookmarks by the register. The "outreach" to consumers is entirely passive with very little real engagement.

In their Union Square (New York) location, B&N has one of the finest retail footprints of any retailer. The store should be the chain’s flagship location, where they can build the kind of brand loyalty companies like Nike, Apple, Burberry and others have created. This requires a wholesale rethink. Walk into the Union Square store today and it is a mess: Books, games and outdated electronics. But what if the first floor – which has double-height ceilings, large windows opening on to Union Square and clear views from front to back – was a theater space? This vast space could easily be redesigned to feature frequent ‘scene’ changes and new “sets” ‘flown in’ from above (and below) like a theater in the round with books, characters and storytelling on stage.

I’d go even further by bringing an actual performance space to the ground floor and orienting a movable stage against the immense front windows which would – like the Saks 5th Avenue Christmas windows – grab the attention of shoppers outside the store. Moving the entry doors to the rear of the store would provide a real attention grabber and more ‘theater’ to the book retail experience.

Take, for example, African American History Month: Rather than an insulting and ill-considered gesture, what if B&N Union Square gave up the entire ground floor to the African American Museum of History and Culture? Working together with B&N brand and merchandise managers, what might B&N and the museum’s staff do with the space if everything on the ground floor was movable or reconfigurable? Rethinking book retailing can and should benefit from audacious and deep use of  authors, stories and characters in merchandising. Drawing on a wealth of African American history to create a month of engrossing book theater is a far better idea than those cynical and manipulative book covers. I am certain that the museum’s staff would be able to curate compelling retail theater around the celebration of African American authors, performers, celebrities and others which, for a month at least, would show reading in a fresh light and bring new perspectives to bear. And that’s the point.

Then what do B&N and other book retailers do for the other eleven months of the year? Clearly, most book retailers don’t have the space or financial resources to engage in reinventing the sales experience every 30 days. But it is clear there is room to fundamentally re-think the bookselling experience. Building on the inherent strengths of the publishing industry – characters, themes, genres and partnerships – with a little more imagination and design expertise, booksellers could provide a more experiential shopping adventure for consumers. A recent report from McKinsey notes that companies offering a high level of design and consumer experience grow revenues and shareholder return at nearly twice the rate of less inventive competitors. Retail theater should be second nature for an industry so based on storytelling and it is only shallow thinking and lack of imagination which both holds back the book retailing industry and resulted in those appalling book jackets.


Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at

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Enjoy that?  Here are my predictions from past years:

2020: Predictions 2020: War is Hell
2018: Predictions 2018: Somewhere Else
2017: Predictions 2017: Subscribe To Me
2016: Predictions 2016: Education, China, Platforms and Blockchain.
2013: Predictions 2013: The Death of the Middle Man
2012: Predictions 2012: The Search for Attention
2011: Predictions 2011: The Growth of Intimacy
2010: Predictions 2010: Cloudy With A Chance of Alarm
2009: Predictions 2009: Death and Resurrection:
2008: Predictions 2008
2007: Predictions 2007

1 comment:

MWGordon said...

As you certainly know, B&N is now owned by an investment group which acts by the three stages of BUY-IMPROVE AND PROFIT-SELL. Daunt limited pay increases at Waterstones. To think he might support any American History Month (Even British-American History Month) is contrary to the practices of most all investment groups.

B&N is indeed a mess, as I mention in my I can't believe they keep telling me my closest B&N stores are in and around Orlando, 130 miles away from my home (St. Augustine) and two miles from the St. Augustine B&N!