How Barnes & Noble’s price policy is hurting retail bookstores – The Washington Post

I’m fond of a Barnes & Noble store that’s close to my house in suburban New Jersey. I’ve taken grandkids there to browse and buy, my wife and I have browsed and bought, the store’s staff is very good and very helpful. So I wanted to go there to buy “Principles for Dealing With the Changing World Order,” the new bestseller by billionaire Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates.
I try to patronize local businesses because they employ people in my community and pay rent and various taxes that help support it. Lots of physical stores are suffering from a retail apocalypse these days, and I want to do my bit to help keep it at bay.
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To make sure the store had Dalio’s book, I went to bn.com and saw that the book, with a publisher’s price of $35, was available at the store and was being sold on bn.com for $27.99. And that $27.99 would have included free shipping to my home, if I had wanted the book sent to me.
When I was checking out of the store, I was surprised to see that I was being charged $31.50 rather than $27.99. That’s the full $35 list price, less the 10 percent discount that I get from my Barnes & Noble membership.
When I told the cashier that I thought the price would be $27.99 because that’s what the website said, she asked me to wait for a few seconds. She did some checking, and promptly and cheerfully charged me $27.99. But if I hadn’t asked for that price, I wouldn’t have gotten it.
When I got home, I went back to bn.com and discovered to my astonishment that there was a pop-up ad from Amazon on the site offering Dalio’s book for $21.57 — more than 20 percent below bn.com’s price. When last I looked, the Amazon price on bn.com was down to $21.09.
(Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
I wanted to see whether Amazon undercutting the price of Dalio’s book with a pop-up ad on bn.com was a one-off fluke.
It wasn’t.
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I saw the same pattern on some other bn.com bestsellers, where the website offered a discount from the publisher’s price and an Amazon pop-up on the site was offering an even bigger discount.
Patricia Cornwell’s “Autopsy,” with a list price of $28.99, was $22.99 on bn.com but only $14.50 on the Amazon pop-up ad on bn.com. Diana Gabaldon’s “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone,” the ninth installment of the popular Outlander series, had a $36 list price, a $25.20 price on bn.com and a $21.70 price on the Amazon pop-up ad on the bn site.
I reached out to Barnes & Noble, sent a spokeswoman screenshots of the Dalio and Gabaldon Amazon pop-up ads on Barnes & Noble’s website, and asked her what in the world Barnes & Noble was doing.
Why was the company letting its online price undercut the price charged for the same book by my local store? And why was Barnes & Noble allowing Amazon pop-ups on bn.com that undercut bn.com’s prices?
In response, the spokeswoman sent me a statement from James Daunt, Barnes & Noble’s chief executive, who said the company is giving its individual stores autonomy.
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“We are giving responsibility for pricing books increasing[ly] to our store teams,” Daunt’s statement said. “The objective is for our booksellers to be able to price books in a way most attractive to their customers, rather than simply to follow a corporate instruction. This follows the same principle that now gives our booksellers complete autonomy for how they display books, and how they order their stock.
“Our booksellers, after all, should know much better than a corporate office in which books their own customers are most interested.”
I guess that makes a bit of sense, especially when you realize that if someone asks about the cheaper online price — as I did — that the staff matches that price.
What makes no sense to me — and what Daunt’s statement didn’t address — is why Daunt is allowing Amazon (and some other competitors I haven’t mentioned) to undercut Barnes & Noble’s website with pop-ups that offer lower prices on some bestsellers than bn.com is offering.
I asked that question twice more after getting Daunt’s statement but haven’t heard back from him. And I suspect, alas, that I never will, because it could be a bit embarrassing to explain why he hasn’t stopped his company’s website from undermining itself (and indirectly undermining its stores) by allowing pop-up ads from competitors that undercut bn.com’s prices.
I’ve got no financial stake in Barnes & Noble. But I’ve got a psychic and social stake in the survival of my local store. So I sure hope that Daunt figures out how to fix this problem so that I can keep doing business there.
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