Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher
 

A Barnes and Noble Failure Mindset

There are two basic reasons why companies fail: unwillingness to embrace the obvious changes of their day, and a smug rejection of customer feedback. Those two factors can be found in every company that once commanded its market, then lost the leadership spot: Ford, Motorola and IBM. Each thought it “knew what was best” for the consumer. And each was taught quite quickly that the customer is always right. It’s a lesson being learned by other industry leaders today – such as Barnes and Noble, and some of the biggest real estate brokers in the country. We call it the “Failure Mindset.”

Ford is the best historical example of the Failure Mindset: Where it once dominated the automobile industry, its “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black,” mentality led it within a few short years to a second- and then third-tier spot in the business. Other companies followed the same path. Motorola once held the largest share of the cell phone market with its popular Razr phone; then slipped into obscurity after its “we’ll stick to this model” formula left it out of touch with increasingly savvy younger customers. And IBM’s story is legend: From global pacesetter to near-bankruptcy in one generation, the stories of how “the IBM way” tried to rewrite its customers’ businesses rather than support them are basic reading for how not to run a corporation in the modern economy.

One might think that with such clear examples over the last century that modern businesses would clearly understand and avoid the Failure Mindset. Wouldn’t a constant policy of  innovation and customer responsiveness be the standard, not the exception, in the 21st century? Obviously not, especially in legacy industries like booksellers and real estate brokers.

Barnes and Noble is a case in point for the Failure Mindset. A simple anecdote explains it all. Yesterday I ventured into the bricks-and-mortar of the local B&N for the last time. Not just because I am a proficient consumer who does more than 50% of his shopping online already. But because the experience of the Failure Mindset was so pervasive that B&N might not even earn my online business in the future, either.

Browsing the bookstore on a chilly winter Sunday afternoon isn’t shopping; it’s a pass-time that used to involve sipping coffee while getting started on your new book. Except that I couldn’t find the book I wanted, because I had forgotten the author’s name. It was then that I encountered the Failure Mindset.

I expected to find no employees on the floor – razor-thin margins limiting staff these days. What I didn’t expect was a complete obliviousness to the modern consumer: There wasn’t a single computer anywhere I could use to search for the book I wished to purchase.

There were two computers on each floor, but both were unattended by staff. As a ’er, I attempted to access them anyway, but they were blocked by passwords. After looking around in frustration for another machine, I got into the checkout line. When my turn came, I asked if there was a computer somewhere I could use to search whether my desired book was in stock and where it might be located.

That’s where I experienced the Failure Mindset full force. I was told that there were no computers for customers to use. I had to tell the staff what I was looking for and they could look it up for me. When I replied that there were no staff to ask on the floor, I was smugly told that I was talking to one now. When I noted that it seemed silly in this day and age not to have a computer for customers to use on their own, I was informed that it wasn’t “how we do it” at Barnes and Noble. So either tell the clerk what to search for me, or move out of the way for the next customer.

What made the Failure Mindset even more amazing was that – as I walked away, having refused to comply with the smugly unfriendly process – there was a Nook kiosk off to the left of the registers. The Nook is an e-book reader that lets search and purchase electronic books and magazines anywhere using wireless technology. It’s so advanced that it’s better than the convenience of purchasing online. Instead of visiting the physical store or logging onto the internet from your home computer, can search and purchase from anywhere with unlimited 3G cellular internet access. It’s the of book consumption, powered by a friendly interface.

The Nook is not smug. And it’s not mired in “the way we have always done it.” The Nook is an example of the Success Mindset. And it was right there in the middle of the Barnes and Noble store.

Now I’ll admit that I didn’t purchase a Nook at that moment; I was too frustrated to think about giving Barnes and Noble any of my money. Yet I left the store wondering how it’s possible for a company to be so smart and dumb at the same time? There wasn’t a computer for customers to use – in this day and age? I had to tell a staff person what to search for me – like I was incapable of doing it myself? I had to wait in the checkout line – without anything to checkout – in order to talk to a cashier whose mindset was do it our way or move out of line?

Of course, this made me think of my own industry. Failure Mindset still occurs when consumers try to navigate the brokerage business – online or offline. We still have real estate websites that make customers register before letting they can search for homes. Agents smugly throw away online leads from customers who are “just looking for information.” Either make an appointment or contact me later when you’re ready. It’s still common practice to hold a bricks-and-mortar open houses on Sunday afternoons, a time totally inconvenient to busy Gen X and consumers. Because we’ve always done it that way.

And then I heard a beep, as my smartphone alerted me to a new message on my Facebook page. It struck me that I could ask my friends for the name of the author of my book – and they’d readily, quickly and pleasantly reply – plus refer me to other books I might enjoy. I could have searched for my book’s author using the smartphone’s browser. I could even have ordered it – from Barnes & Noble’s online competitor who didn’t even have bricks-and-mortar stores or an eye-rolling staff member. It was encouraging to think that some companies had learned the lessons of the Failure Mindset, and were actively pursuing the opposite.

It seemed paradoxical that Barnes and Noble would have such a poorly engineered in person experience for customers, within sight of it’s modern, wireless, customer-driven always-ready-to-search-and-serve product. If I do order an e-book reader in the future, I’ll probably order it from online. After checking with my friends in my social network for feedback. And probably from a website with friend chat-based customer service if I have any questions.

E-readers could finally close the doors of every remaining brick-and-mortar bookstore forever. They are products built from a strategy that listens to customer feedback and designs an innovative experience geared to the way the customer wants it to happen, not the other way around. They are even better than internet ordering, because you don’t have to wait for delivery. Some people lament that e-readers will eliminate an entire industry of traditional book – including the experience of browsing the aisles and touching the books.

From what I experienced of the Barnes and Noble Failure Mindset, perhaps they should.

  • Raymond

    Matt, don’t know what store you were in –>B&N sells the NOOK not the Kindle(amazon).
    B&N has a Kiosks with computers in each store. There is a manned Information desk which is in each store.
    You got to get your story straight!

  • Raymond

    Matt, don’t know what store you were in –>B&N sells the NOOK not the Kindle(amazon).
    B&N has a Kiosks with computers in each store. There is a manned Information desk which is in each store.
    You got to get your story straight!

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Ha ha! You’re right! I was thinking Kindle, but it was the nook… guess my astonishment got ahead of me!

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Ha ha! You’re right! I was thinking Kindle, but it was the nook… guess my astonishment got ahead of me!

  • My B & N’s don’t have computers for the customer to use but that has never bothered me because they always have people at the information booth in the middle of the store.

    I am also impressed that they had a Kiosk for the NOOK…we don’t have that yet in L’Ville.

    I don’t think that an eReader will close up all brick and mortar’s because there are people who no matter HOW techie, they still like the feel of holding a book, the paper…or it could just be me 😉

  • My B & N’s don’t have computers for the customer to use but that has never bothered me because they always have people at the information booth in the middle of the store.

    I am also impressed that they had a Kiosk for the NOOK…we don’t have that yet in L’Ville.

    I don’t think that an eReader will close up all brick and mortar’s because there are people who no matter HOW techie, they still like the feel of holding a book, the paper…or it could just be me 😉

  • Hmmm. My local Barnes & Noble store has computers to look up books. I don’t disagree with some of what you say, but I still love browsing bookstores.

  • Hmmm. My local Barnes & Noble store has computers to look up books. I don’t disagree with some of what you say, but I still love browsing bookstores.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Molly:
    Thanks for your comments. I’d just point out that I can still hold a book if I order it ONLINE – and at least I’ll not have to wait for someone to use the computer “for me…”

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Thanks, Tina, for your comments. I love browsing, too, but I think I’ll stick to browsing the used bookstores and antique stores – and order my new stuff online or wirelessly with a Nook… :>

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Molly:
    Thanks for your comments. I’d just point out that I can still hold a book if I order it ONLINE – and at least I’ll not have to wait for someone to use the computer “for me…”

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Thanks, Tina, for your comments. I love browsing, too, but I think I’ll stick to browsing the used bookstores and antique stores – and order my new stuff online or wirelessly with a Nook… :>

  • It makes me wonder why we don’t have a computer hooked up to a Plasma in our lobby for consumers to come in and search themselves in vivid HD color? Instead, we currently sit behind a desk with the computer facing us and then hand them listings, in black and white, on a piece of paper. So appealing 😉 If I wasn’t a Realtor I would use my i-phone to find listings as I drove around.

  • It makes me wonder why we don’t have a computer hooked up to a Plasma in our lobby for consumers to come in and search themselves in vivid HD color? Instead, we currently sit behind a desk with the computer facing us and then hand them listings, in black and white, on a piece of paper. So appealing 😉 If I wasn’t a Realtor I would use my i-phone to find listings as I drove around.

  • Hey Matt,

    Head on over to Borders. Computers all over. Can’t go 10 feet without a friendly empoyee asking if they can help you find something or help you with the computer search. Free Wifi, good coffe and lots of good conversation with people. You know actually talking to somebody!!! not texting. Met my last customers there for a chat, actually developed some idea what they were really like and what their needs are. Hang in there buddy.

  • Hey Matt,

    Head on over to Borders. Computers all over. Can’t go 10 feet without a friendly empoyee asking if they can help you find something or help you with the computer search. Free Wifi, good coffe and lots of good conversation with people. You know actually talking to somebody!!! not texting. Met my last customers there for a chat, actually developed some idea what they were really like and what their needs are. Hang in there buddy.

  • Very well written, Mr. Ferrara. I always feel a little smarter after reading your blog. Wish the feeling would last a little longer. Hey, since I was born in 1965 and on the edge of Baby Boomer and Gen X, can I claim Gen X so I can be one of the cool kids?

  • Very well written, Mr. Ferrara. I always feel a little smarter after reading your blog. Wish the feeling would last a little longer. Hey, since I was born in 1965 and on the edge of Baby Boomer and Gen X, can I claim Gen X so I can be one of the cool kids?

  • Muffie in Dover

    Wow, there are computers at Barnes and Nobles here and all are accessible with no password, I am surprised at your experience. There is even a special kiosk desk in the middle of the store with usually 1 or 2 folks who will look things up for you if you are so inclined.

    My library has a cool computer feature; we can search the index of books locally and at libraries for statewide lending. There are links to B&N and Amazon to get more info – although they don’t say these are web accessible. That’s good because their expanding banks of computers for the web are always in use!

  • Muffie in Dover

    Wow, there are computers at Barnes and Nobles here and all are accessible with no password, I am surprised at your experience. There is even a special kiosk desk in the middle of the store with usually 1 or 2 folks who will look things up for you if you are so inclined.

    My library has a cool computer feature; we can search the index of books locally and at libraries for statewide lending. There are links to B&N and Amazon to get more info – although they don’t say these are web accessible. That’s good because their expanding banks of computers for the web are always in use!

  • I love reading the comments and not be able to think that most people have missed the the point. Is not about B&N is about the new consumer and how we as an industry better start listening. I totally aggre with you that the industry has changed from broker centric to consumer driven. Great article and most defenetly will share it with my agents

  • I love reading the comments and not be able to think that most people have missed the the point. Is not about B&N is about the new consumer and how we as an industry better start listening. I totally aggre with you that the industry has changed from broker centric to consumer driven. Great article and most defenetly will share it with my agents

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Dan: Some of the most interesting offices I have been to have EXACTLY that – which engages and entertains and informs consumers. Best of all it let’s the consumer do the “driving” which is really important to Gen X and Y.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Dan: Some of the most interesting offices I have been to have EXACTLY that – which engages and entertains and informs consumers. Best of all it let’s the consumer do the “driving” which is really important to Gen X and Y.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    I agree – I shop Borders a lot, which is why I was AMAZED that Barnes and Noble was operating as if it were a PUBLIC LIBRARY not a BOOKSTORE!

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Your “Generation” is a mindset, not your physical age. And since i know you so well, I’d say you’re DEFINITELY an X’er! :>

  • Matthew Ferrara

    I agree – I shop Borders a lot, which is why I was AMAZED that Barnes and Noble was operating as if it were a PUBLIC LIBRARY not a BOOKSTORE!

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Your “Generation” is a mindset, not your physical age. And since i know you so well, I’d say you’re DEFINITELY an X’er! :>

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Well, Muffie, I’d be happy to hear that this Barnes and Noble was an EXCEPTION but nonetheless, it was still a shocking and unsettling experience.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Well, Muffie, I’d be happy to hear that this Barnes and Noble was an EXCEPTION but nonetheless, it was still a shocking and unsettling experience.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Thanks, Miguel!! You made me cheer HOORAY when I read your comments. Yes, indeed – the story is a metaphor or example of how Gen X and Gen Y react when they encounter “old school” business practices.

  • Matthew Ferrara

    Thanks, Miguel!! You made me cheer HOORAY when I read your comments. Yes, indeed – the story is a metaphor or example of how Gen X and Gen Y react when they encounter “old school” business practices.

  • Guess they didn’t read Raving Fans, by Ken Blanchard – one of my favorite books and a new employee requirement here in my office. Amazing how different the story could have been……..”Sorry sir we don’t have computers available to customers however that is a great idea and I’ll pass it along to management. In the meantime I’d be more than happy to assist you.” After finding your book he could also recommend another few he’d read just like it…….then 2 or 3 sales would have happened and we’d all be hearing about what a great place this is to shop.

  • Guess they didn’t read Raving Fans, by Ken Blanchard – one of my favorite books and a new employee requirement here in my office. Amazing how different the story could have been……..”Sorry sir we don’t have computers available to customers however that is a great idea and I’ll pass it along to management. In the meantime I’d be more than happy to assist you.” After finding your book he could also recommend another few he’d read just like it…….then 2 or 3 sales would have happened and we’d all be hearing about what a great place this is to shop.

  • Love the comments…I spent 25 years of my professional life working in and around servicing bookstores…Including Barnes & Noble….I am proud to say that all of the superstores in MA and in fact, all of New England, New York and New Jersey were customers of mine at one time or another. Interestingly enough, it has been a cliche in the industry for at least a couple of generations, that technology would supplant the bound book for the consumer. While there have been amazing changes, such as books on demand, electronic readers, and of course, eBooks there is still a very hard core of consumers who want the tactile feeling of holding a book. Leonard RIggio startled the retail world (in lots of ways) by introducting the book store as a destination instead of a place to buy a (unique) commodity and that has proven successful. Amazon, of course, made book buying easy, cheaper and less hassle with their model…Both are doing well…However, you and your readers comments make me think that the industry is alive and well; since so much discussion is centered around the “book” At my bookstores (I tend toward the Indies, but still hang in the big box stores) I see ALL generations of consumers…it gives me hope.

  • Love the comments…I spent 25 years of my professional life working in and around servicing bookstores…Including Barnes & Noble….I am proud to say that all of the superstores in MA and in fact, all of New England, New York and New Jersey were customers of mine at one time or another. Interestingly enough, it has been a cliche in the industry for at least a couple of generations, that technology would supplant the bound book for the consumer. While there have been amazing changes, such as books on demand, electronic readers, and of course, eBooks there is still a very hard core of consumers who want the tactile feeling of holding a book. Leonard RIggio startled the retail world (in lots of ways) by introducting the book store as a destination instead of a place to buy a (unique) commodity and that has proven successful. Amazon, of course, made book buying easy, cheaper and less hassle with their model…Both are doing well…However, you and your readers comments make me think that the industry is alive and well; since so much discussion is centered around the “book” At my bookstores (I tend toward the Indies, but still hang in the big box stores) I see ALL generations of consumers…it gives me hope.