Lessons on Personalization From a Big-Box Bookstore

In 2015, I did something, well, a little weird. I bought a Barnes & Noble membership. There is a store just minutes from my house, and I realized that I'd been spending a lot of time and money there during the past year-whether on tea in the cafe or on books-and if I had a $25 membership, it would have more than paid for itself. (Members get discounts on pretty much everything.) I finally caved when I found a new John Irving hardcover on the shelves. Usually, I wait for paperbacks, but as a longtime Irving fan (who had been struggling through some books that weren't exactly page-turners), I just couldn't wait.

The store near my house is a pretty active place. I wrote most of my forthcoming book (Inside Content Marketing, which will be out in May 2016) in the cafe there, and I got to know the regulars by sight, if not by name. There were tutors meeting with students, a man with lots of fancy equipment teaching photography (or, more likely, postproduction techniques) to a group of women, and a wedding planner who met clients there. There were book groups and writers groups and people who met there to play board games. There was always a decent crowd roaming the aisles and looking for books.

So when I saw a Slate article titled, "Big-Box Bookstores Don't Have to Die," I was intrigued-if for no other reason than concern for the lone surviving bookstore in my neighborhood. The article, by Stephen Heyman, explored why Britain's Waterstones is thriving, while Barnes & Noble continues to flounder. It's a long and complicated story involving James Daunt, Waterstones' managing director, who flipped the book-selling model on its head. Instead of having virtually identical layouts at each store and charging publishers top dollar for prominent placement, Daunt decided to give power back to the individual stores-allowing each one to cater to its clientele's needs and wants.

In essence, he gave each store the ability to focus on its clientele in a way that only small, independent bookstores have done in the past. It seems almost contradictory, right? After pushing many independent bookstores out of business, the chain stores (or, at least, one of them) are now turning to lessons from those defunct competitors to find success.

"Each Waterstones looks different and sells different books depending on the local audience and the business impulses of the shop's staff. In a way, Daunt has reanimated the lifeless body of the chain bookstore by infecting it, just a little bit, with the usually profit-proof sensibilities of an indie," writes Heyman.

The truth is, if I had a feasible alternative to Barnes & Noble, I would frequent it. In Connecticut, where I live, we have R.J. Julia, which is a fantastic-and kind of famous-independent bookstore. But it is about an hour from my house. Sure, I could buy books online, but I can't go wander amid its stacks on a whim-so Barnes & Noble is what I am left with.

Right about now, you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with digital content. You probably think I'm about to launch into an ebook diatribe, but you're wrong.

As I was reading about Waterstones' new success, I started wondering why Daunt's plan is working. At its core, this strategy is about personalization. Heyman writes, "What sold in working-class Gateshead wasn't the same thing that sold in affluent Kensington. In some stores, [Daunt] would discount. In others, he wouldn't." Brick-and-mortar bookstores may not have the ability to deliver targeted content at the individual level, but targeting each store to the neighborhood is possible-and it's working.

This is a lesson about the kind of renaissance that can happen when businesses understand their customers' needs and cater to them-and how it can solve an age-old problem. Heyman writes, "In a 1936 essay, George Orwell, a former bookstore clerk, complained about loiterers like me, who alight on bookshops simply because they are ‘one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.'" But Waterstones has proven that if you give those "loiterers" what they want, they are more likely to make a purchase.