Barnes & Noble is kind of a Schroedinger’s retailer. Sometimes it can’t seem to decide if it’s living or dying. It’s been in the news a lot for the problems with its Nook division, including yanking it from its college bookstores and from the United Kingdom. But as for the store itself, is it also on the rocks? Will it be following in the footsteps of Borders and Blockbuster? Or does it still have life left in it yet?

Well, maybe. On Forbes, stock analyst Marc Gerstein takes a look at B&N’s recent performance and finds that things don’t look at all as bad as they might.

Gerstein notes that, while sales have been off since 2012, expenses are also down. B&N is debt-free, has no preferred-stock, a good cash flow, and still pays dividends. But what of the current tech environment and B&N’s customer service record?

First of all comes the e-book issue. Gerstein pegs the decline in sales of e-books to new e-reader buyers spending a lot to furnish their digital libraries, then dropping back to buying just a few titles at a time. But that doesn’t let B&N off the hook for its lackluster Nook performance:

$BKS never seemed to have had its head on straight when it came to Nook as it plagued its customers with a blandly-at-best designed web site, a horrifyingly inept book search engine, reputedly terrible customer service and questionable quality control. I used to pay every year for a B&N membership card that got me discounts on books. I called to ask if I could use this on my Nook app. The company said “no.” Seriously? Nook had its chances. $BKS blew it. And now, that business is likely past the point of no return.

That’s right up there with the gaffe of charging full bookstore price for orders made via for store delivery. Seriously, what was Barnes & Noble even thinking? Sometimes you wonder if it even knows it has a problem.

What can B&N do to redeem itself? Come up with some sort of e-book software-as-a-service subscription model? But too late, Amazon’s already there with Kindle Unlimited. Trying to concentrate on B&N’s coffee shops (as with adding liquor sales to them) would leave it at a disadvantage compared to coffee shops that don’t have all that bookstore square footage to pay for. Migrating to boutique toy and board game sales is also a possibility, but there are already plenty of other stores that do that. And B&N’s already spun off its education division, so that’s not going to help the main store branch.

As a stock analyst rather than a retailer, Gerstein doesn’t have any easy strategy advice to offer. But he does note that Amazon itself is getting into physical bookstore space, so there still must be some fertile ground there to till—and many of B&N’s current problems have been caused by recent leadership. With Leonard Riggio retiring in September, there’s a possibility that a new leader could turn the ailing chain around. In any event, the company’s stock is still doing well enough that it has breathing room while it tries to figure something out.


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