COVID has sparked a book craze – and Barnes & Noble is cashing in

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Thanks to the pandemic, an amazing variety of customers are once again devouring books – in print – and Barnes & Noble cashing in.

The 125-year-old chain, which was launched by billionaire Paul Singer’s hedge fund Elliott management for $ 683 million over the past two years, posted double-digit gross sales on its books this year compared to 2019 as the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Even more breathtaking to skeptics who watched the chain wither in the face of Amazon’s rise, the retailer says teens and tweens are used to accelerate the surge. Sales of manga or graphic novels at Barnes & Noble have increased by up to 500 in some stores, where young adults crowd the aisles on Friday and Saturday nights.

Industry-wide, U.S. gross book sales this year to that point in August are up 12 percent compared to the same annual interval in the past – and 20 percent from 2019 over the same period, according to NPD Group, a market analysis -Companies.

CEO James Daunt says B & N’s gross sales have increased 6 percent since 2019.
Jon Enoch Photography

“There hasn’t been double-digit growth in books since Amazon,” Barnes & Noble chief executive James Daunt told The Post in an interview.

Such numbers are encouraging for Elliott, a fund identified to take massive positions in public companies and promote change: in this case, it bought B&N entirely as a fixer-upper. A vendor familiar with the matter says Elliott is halfway through – or could promote it to another non-public buyer – with its plan that could ultimately bring the bookseller back to the general public market.

Daunt, who ran Elliott’s UK-based book chain Waterstones before being selected for B&N, says he’s already seeing the fruits of his adjustments, along with an internal overhaul of the chain’s 600+ stores and a new management philosophy that helps locals. Bosses to make an additional selection of which books they have in stock.

Barnes & Noble is also moving away from its signature color scheme that dominates carpets, wallpaper, and even bookcase signage in older stores. Newly designed shops are brighter with ample ceiling lighting and an extra open ground floor.

Barnes & Noble’s total gross sales are up around 6 percent from 2019, Daunt said, and that with fewer stores – 605 compared to 628 in 2019. He declined to provide an exact amount of greenback for income or sales.

Elliott portfolio supervisor Paul Best, the agency’s European head of personal fairness, said Barnes & Noble is now “more profitable” than it was.

“It went through an extended period of decline in both revenue and profits – for at least a decade,” he instructed The Post. “Two years later, the team stopped the decline and now has a basis to increase sales and profits.”

Round exhibition tables are part of B & N’s new technology to aid search.
Barnes and Noble

B & N’s Daunt plans to open up to 12 new stores in February and March alone – having opened eight in 2020 and 2021 and closed some additional square-foot location, Daunt mentioned, including the chain can now get the same amount out drive out an 8,000 square foot retailer like a 25,000 square foot retailer.

“We are ready to open a lot of new stores,” he said.

A vendor familiar with the matter says Elliott is intrigued by the funding for the bookseller’s development and that the deal is paying off. It had gone through a “long period” of decline in revenue and revenue, the supply mentioned, but in the past two years under Elliott, the declines have halted.

Most of the expansion is coming from increasing in-store visitor traffic – not gross online sales, Daunt mentioned.

“I’m sure Amazon is doing very well and so are the independent booksellers,” said Daunt. “The cake is a lot bigger.”

The publishers are also noticing the trend reversal at B&N.

Paul Singer speaks on TV
Billionaire Paul Singer’s leadership of the bookstore chain heralded a wonderful comeback in gross sales.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

“We’re seeing the positive effects of better store layouts, recommendations, updated offerings, livelier merchandising and display, and operational improvements, all of which lead to increased sales,” said Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group, in an email.

The big question is whether gross book sales will remain robust after the pandemic.

“Everyone wonders if this is a permanent shift or how long it will last, but almost every category is open right now,” book publishing advisor Jane Friedman instructed The Post.

At B&N, massive rectangular tables with stacks of books – usually at low prices – have been exchanged for small spherical tables, which, according to Daunt, are particularly useful when searching – and shopping. (And the inexpensive books have been moved to the back of the store, revealing valuable property at the entrance.)

Once replete with non-book related items – reminiscent of batteries, Vera Bradley purses, and hot water bottles of Fiji water – stores are now being configured by managers who are expected to reflect the tastes of their home communities.

At the White Plains retailer in Westchester, that meant moving Spanish-language books from one corner of the new to enchanting the group’s huge bilingual group at the entrance to the store, retailer supervisor Sean Carroll instructed The Post.

At the Cortlandt Manor retailer, managers decided to maneuver recreational biographies – that have surpassed other biographies.

A Barnes and Noble café with picture windows
Despite the surge in book purchases in Barnes & Noble stores, increasing revenue from its cafes remains an issue.
Barnes and Noble

“If you’re excited about Julie Andrews’ new book, don’t look for anything about presidents, so we pulled all of our entertainment books from the other bios and put them in the film department,” said retail manager Allison Demato.

These adjustments would have been forbidden under the outdated B&N method, in which such granular edicts as the issuance of books and the place where they were to be displayed were passed down from headquarters. But it’s the kind of possession Daunt says he encourages.

Certainly Barnes & Noble has a ton of hurdles to overcome, not least the cratering of the café business and gross kiosk sales.

The gross sales of the magazines declined “slightly” from 2019, said Daunt, while the cafes struggled to keep all workers and customers, as the Delta variant makes sitting for hours in a restaurant much less interesting. Music is also a decreasing section, in tune with a person familiar with the matter.

“There is still a lot to be done and there are parts of the business that are not where they need to be,” said the person.


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