Initially I wanted to write a post about B&N losing its prime location in downtown D.C., a few years after it lost its prime location in Lincoln Center in NYC, both at lease renewal time (put another way, the landlord wanted more money than B&N wanted to pay). Then I dropped by my local B&N earlier today and it was once again a struggle to pay because the cashier pushed and pushed and pushed for me to get the B&N member card, which I had no intention of getting.
This has happened every single time I've bought something at B&N so one has to conclude it is not an issue with a specific cashier but a company-wide policy probably incentivizes the clerks' annoying (I'm tempted to write: harassing) behavior. Somewhere the Amazon.com executives are popping the champagne at how easy B&N execs are making their job. The fact is, many years ago I used to have the membership card and I stopped renewing when they started requiring a credit card and forcing auto-renewal. I'm not sure they reverted to the old way but I never became a member again and haven't looked back. The cost of a yearly membership is $25 or a hardcover a year. Focusing on getting membership money by default instead of letting people opt back in makes B&N petty and out of touch with reality.
This is where the fact that B&N lost its flagship store in D.C. comes in handy. Maybe headquarters should have put in more efforts in making sure that the Lincoln Triangle fiasco didn't happen again (I really miss that store) and fewer efforts in obsessing over membership money. Sure, given that B&N is a company - not a charity - it's probably priced at an amount that makes B&N come out ahead overall (many people probably get the membership but don't buy enough books to recoup their money in book discount). But really, one has to keep a sense of perspective. You have to sell a lot of membership cards to make up the revenue from the lost flagship store. More focus on leases, less focus on membership cards, please.
For those of you who want to improve their salesmanship skills, here is an overview of the sales spiel of today. The checkout clerk was particularly savvy because she asked me straight out for my B&N membership card number, not even asking if I had one, giving the feeling that of course I should have one, and then she opened her eyes wide and looked enormously surprised that I didn't have one and insisted in knowing why with shock still plain to see on her face. And I dodged because I wanted to give a truthful answer (I think B&N membership card practices are shameless and it is an outrage how they push the membership card when a customer is trying to pay for her purchase - do you prefer that I read the magazine in your store and leave it there?) but the day I do it I'll make sure there are a lot of other people in line so I have an audience while I give B&N a piece of my mind. I'm serious. So I dodged and the funny part was, the saleswoman had a high-pitched voice when she was asking for my B&N card number and then acting the surprise bit, but when she saw she wouldn't sway me her voice returned to a slightly lower register. I'm not sure if she realized that the change in voice gave away that she had been playing a role, but I felt sorry for her so I made a point of being extra polite and she was a whole lot less friendly when she handed me my purchase. I suppose being a B&N clerk is no fun.
Besides, I think the B&N membership card setup is profoundly flawed. Upfront membership fees for loyalty programs are outdated. Think of loyalty programs at fast-food chains like Cosi or Panera: the cards are free, when you visit enough you get a reward. This setup has been successfully applied by indie bookstores like Harvard Bookstore: once you have purchased $100 worth of books, you get a 20% discount on your next purchase. There is no expiration date for the dollars purchased. B&N should do something like that. Because customers would come out ahead (there is no downside for them because no upfront payment), it would show it is putting customers first, something that seems to be profoundly lacking from its current strategy. It would also give it an advantage over Amazon.com because the discount once you have reached the milestone dollar amount could be applied to any books of your choice (in that one purchase after you hit the dollar threshold), and Amazon.com doesn't give big discounts on all the books, so certain books could become noticeably cheaper at B&N when using the discounts.
Finally, let me end this post by suggesting ideas for what B&N should do regarding its brick-and-mortar stores. Since Amazon.com is opening physical bookstores, surely there is a future for brick-and-mortar bookstores. The problem with B&N is that people do a lot of browsing without buying and the inventory doesn't move much. So the big store with the big lease payments ends up being a book show room while the customer takes notes of what he will order on Amazon, now that he has seen what the book is like (and is further motivated by the desire to avoid interacting with the rude B&N cashiers.)
Maybe it's time to try something different - get a smaller store near one of the B&N warehouses and have it serve as a show room for the online store but rotate the inventory very frequently and have only a few copies at most of each book, so that people can't count on having a lot of time for making their mind. If the book really sells well, then fresh copies can come in with the next rotation from the warehouse the following week. For instance, the online best-sellers of that week could come into the store, people would discover books they may not realize are popular otherwise (if you've ever tried to find new ideas for book purchases by wading through Amazon's bestselling lists you know what a great help this would be) and they would use their free membership cards to accumulate points and later save money on a discounted purchase.
It would help, though, if more B&N clerks actually seemed to care about books. I've had a few rare good surprises but mostly the clerks don't seem to know anything about the books they sell. (This is also detrimental to the growth of programs like storewide bookclubs that could help position B&N as a pillar of the local community.) On the other hand, most of the clerks have tried hard to help me find a book when I asked them to, which is better than nothing. In my ideal B&N, there would be more self-service computers to find where a book has been shelved, self-service checkout stations like in the supermarket to avoid interacting with the cashiers who push the membership cards and some sort of tele-clerk you can call up or chat with on the computer if you need recommendations or don't exactly remember the title of the book you're looking for. At a broader level, I think brick-and-mortar bookstores should try to reinvent themselves instead of hobbling along and that doesn't necessarily mean putting more games and toys in the stores, the way B&N is doing.