What I learned at Barnes and Noble

Current readers of my blog know that I learn a lot about marketing and sales from my barnesexperiences as a consumer.  Last week I was at Barnes and Noble and learned something selling.  Here goes.

For me, books have always been my happy place, in a slightly obsessive way.  Not like, “I like to read for 15 minutes before bed and on the T” but as NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan puts it, “It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others – even my nearest and dearest – there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.”

When mrDiva says, “you’re having a tough week, go do something fun for yourself, I don’t think “spa” or “gym” or “girlfriends”, I think “bookstore.”

So last week after a bout with a nasty flu, when I was supposed to have a relaxing week while babyDiva vacationed with my parents, and instead I had a Love it or List it marathon while I moaned, alone, on the couch, I decided a trip to Barnes and Noble was in order.

I have had beef with Barnes and Noble in the past – the real estate they dedicated to the Nook impinged on my browsing area, and I still resent that.  But this time when I went to the store, I lucked out – there were several books on the first few curated tables (“New fiction” “Must-read non-fiction”) that caught my attention, and I happily struggled to the checkout with my armful of treasures.

Enter the Barnes and Noble Members’ program.

The Members’ program is not a bad deal – for $25 you get extra discounts every time you shop, and if you buy a lot of books, there’s a pretty good ROI on that.  Except I don’t want to be a member.  Because reading and buying books is a treat for me, it’s a luxury.  I want to go to the checkout and hand over a credit card and not think about the cost because I’m enjoying myself. I don’t want to feel guilty every time I order a book from Amazon, like I should instead be buying it from Barnes and Noble (I get it, that’s why the program exists).

But the cashiers are in violent opposition to my point of view – “Are you part of our Members’ program?” “Do you know how the program works?” “Would you like to join?” “You’d already save $9 today!”  That is not a sampling of the kinds of things they say – that’s one set of encouragement I got at one visit.

And it killed my mojo.  It made me feel less excited about my reward of buying myself some books after a tough week.  Suddenly, my book reverie was broken and I was back in the real world.  And I didn’t like it.

I have a friend who used to manage Marketing for a casual dining restaurant chain.  She said one of the trends in the industry was that their servers were being trained to “read the table” and look for signs that they fit the profile of people who (e.g.,) wanted to hear the specials, just wanted to order, were going to have a round of drinks before ordering, were going to order dessert, etc.  The chain had determined that they could increase the revenue per table if the guests were “read” correctly and offered the right things at the right times.

That’s what it felt like Barnes and Noble was missing.  The cashier was not “reading” my disinterest and instead was just following his script.  I’m not convinced that is in the best interest of Barnes and Noble – it makes me dread going to the cashier, which I can’t imagine is good news for a retailer.

Are we doing this for our customers?  Are we reading their cues to understand what they are open to and when to stop offering things?  How do we read those cues in an enterprise sales cycle rather than a retail environment?  Because I’m sure they’re there.  It’s something to aspire to.

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