Barnes & Noble uses COVID-19 shutdown to refresh stores

During COVID-19-mandated shutdowns, bookstore chain Barnes & Noble used its down time to make some significant merchandising changes at 350 of its 627 stores—including its Indianapolis, Carmel and Greenwood locations. It’s part of a chain-wide revamp intended to mimic the financial revival of a Barnes & Noble sister company.

Employees at the local stores moved fixtures; changed how their books are grouped and displayed; and added a greater variety of titles. Stores reconfigured narrow rows of shelving and tossed out some of their fixtures to create more open “rooms.”

“If you knew the store before and you go into it today, you will do a double-take,” CEO James Daunt told IBJ.

The chain’s Greenwood Park Mall store, for instance, moved several of its book categories, including reference, religion, self-help and journals, to new locations. Its new fiction and non-fiction releases are featured in a “room” marked by eye-catching signs at the front of the store.

It’s the first step in Barnes & Noble’s larger goal of giving local store managers more autonomy to make merchandising decisions that suit their customers’ tastes and interests.

Traditionally, Daunt said, most store-level merchandising decisions have come from Barnes & Noble’s corporate office—though he admitted that stores have not always been uniform in following the standards.

Now, Daunt said, the goal is to let store managers make more of their own decisions about what to carry and how to display it. “They had some autonomy, but nothing close to what they’re going to get now.”

For instance, one manager might decide that a biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson fits best in the store’s U.S. history section, while another manager puts the book in the “biographies” section. Stores in LBJ’s home state of Texas might view the book as a local-interest title.

“We’re a very diverse country,” Daunt told IBJ Wednesday. “My view is that, frankly, what they think in Manhattan may or may not be what they think in Indiana.”

The stores are also adding a greater variety of books, and putting a greater emphasis on older titles, with the goal of improving the customer experience. “The reality is that we were missing a lot of books for all sorts of reasons, Daunt said.

Barnes & Noble won’t make significant changes to the number of items it carries, Daunt said. Instead, it plans to stock fewer copies of bestsellers and new releases, with an eye toward adding titles the stores hadn’t previously stocked.

All of these changes were in the works anyway, spurred by the New York City-based chain’s acquisition last summer by United Kingdom-based Elliott Advisors Ltd. But the recent pandemic-related shutdowns gave Barnes & Noble the chance to make much faster progress on the project than it otherwise could have, Daunt said.

Elliott also owns the UK’s largest bookstore chain, called Waterstones.

Waterstones went through a similar transformation several years ago which was “fantastically successful,” Daunt said.

When Daunt joined Waterstones as managing director in 2011, the chain was losing money and in dire need of a turnaround. “We were quite far underwater,” Daunt said.

The chain began implementing the same changes now being rolled out at Barnes & Noble, and it regained profitability in 2015.

While sales haven’t yet recovered from the shutdown—many stores are operating with reduced hours and a limited staff—Daunt said the company is looking forward to a strong fall season, when many postponed book releases will hit the shelves.

The stores that didn’t get makeovers during the shutdown, including its Plainfield and Noblesville stores, will eventually see similar changes, but the pace of work will slow now that all of the chain’s stores have reopened.

In other news this week:

— The Patachou family of restaurants’ newest concept, Apocalypse Burger, opens today at 115 E. 49th St. The restaurant takes the spot formerly occupied by another Patachou eatery, Crispy Bird, which closed in January 2019. Apocalypse Burger is a carryout-only restaurant that offers a limited menu of burgers and sandwiches (including a fried mushroom sandwich), sides like fries and macaroni and cheese, wine, beer and sodas. Hours of operation are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Enterprise Car Sales is opening its second Indianapolis-area location on Monday at 8315 E. U.S. 36 in Avon. The new facility will also feature an Enterprise Rent-a-Car office relocated from 8100 E. U.S. 36.

The Avon site is the 141st location for Enterprise Car Sales, which also has a dealership at 1704 N. Shadeland Ave. on the city’s east side.

— The optical chain America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses has opened a store at Hamilton Town Center in Noblesville. This is the fifth Indianapolis-area location for the company, which also has three stores in Indianapolis and one in Greenwood.

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