January 10, 2014

Barnes & Noble “pleased” with holiday sales, which were terrible


What is going on with that dash?

What is going on with that dash?

Barnes & Noble has had quite a week. On Tuesday, the embattled chocolatier shuttered its flagship location on 18th Street and Fifth Avenue. On Wednesday, the struggling public restroom named Michael P. Huseby CEO. And yesterday, America’s favorite car magazine showroom released its holiday sales figures. They weren’t pretty.

Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot breaks down the damage:

Holiday sales for the nine-week period ended December 28 fell 6.6% at Barnes & Noble’s retail segment and tumbled 60.5% in its Nook division. The sales decline in the retail division, which consists of B&N’s trade stores plus BN.com, was attributed to a 5.5% drop in comparable store sales as well as store closures. What B&N terms “core” bookstore comps–which exclude sales of Nook products–dipped 0.2%. Total sales in the retail division were $1.1 billion in the holiday period with the juvenile, gift, and toys & games categories the strongest performers.

These trends—so-so retail sales coupled with catastrophic Nook losses—aren’t particularly surprising: it’s a patter that we’ve been seeing for some time. (See, for instance, this from last September or this from last January.) But at Barnes & Noble, which my colleague Dustin Kurtz described yesterday as “the publishing industry’s favorite slow-motion explosion,” more of the same does not bode well for the future.

Retail CEO Michael Klipper was optimistic, however, telling Publishers Weekly that:

Husbey took twice as much soma, releasing a statement that said ““We are pleased with our holiday sales results.”

Of course, one wouldn’t exactly expect Klipper and Husbey to be reading from the Book of Revelation in statements about their disappointing holiday season. Coming as they do after a 10.9% drop in holiday sales last year, the figures paint a bleak, Bosch-ian picture of the retailer’s future. While the retail division is (comparably) robust, the strong showing made by “the juvenile, gift, and toys & games categories” suggests that the store will continue to deny the fact that it’s a bookstore by stocking more games and fewer books—especially fewer new books from smaller publishers. Despite the “flawless execution” from B&N’s 40,000 employees, workers will continue to be overworked and underpaid. (This is anecdotal, but every Barnes & Noble I visited in December was manned by a skeleton crew, with employees constantly being directed to assist other areas of the store via loudspeaker. It was like some sort of neoliberal version of whack-a-mole.)

As for the Nook? Let’s not even go there.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.