Barnes and NobleDear Mr. James Daunt,

Congratulations. I understand you have taken over as CEO of Barnes and Noble booksellers following its recent move to go private. I know you’re busy rethinking the store and plan significant changes to make it more profitable. I wish you all the best.

As a writer and a frequent visitor to my local store, I do want to offer one thought about a practice in need of reconsideration – the practice of prompting customers to join Barnes and Noble’s membership program.

I do get it. These frequent buyer programs save money for frequent buyers as well as being good for the company. They encourage people to buy more, and if they don’t, you still get the membership fee the same way gyms make money on memberships to people who never quite find the time to visit the gym. I understand there are corporate directives that require sales staff (or associates or whatever euphemism B&N uses) to prompt customers to become members, just as the in-store Starbuck’s cafes are instructed to always ask the customer if they want to upsize from Grande to Venti “for only 50 cents more!”.

Alas, the actual logistics are often problematic. The salespeople/associates/booksellers at my local store seem not to remember they have made this same query to me on every one of my frequent visits over the last 6 months. I understand that B&N has a lot of customers and perhaps I’m not that memorable, but by now someone in the store should have some vague feeling they’ve seen me before. Especially since I’ve signed copies of my books there. This suggests you’ve employed automatons rather than book or coffee sellers. But even this lack of recognition isn’t the main problem.

Today I was accosted – and while I do mean that figuratively and not literally, accosted seems to be right level of insistence – by a sales associate I’ve spoken with at least half a dozen times in the last several months. I’m familiar with her enough to know she’ll enthusiastically offer the “become a member” spiel. Today she was particularly annoying, to the detriment of Barnes and Noble.

As I was perusing a book in the history section she approached and asked: “Is there anything I can help you find today?” Always delighted to have someone offer help, and often being so queried by staff at B&N, I pleasantly responded “No, not today, I’m just browsing. Thank you.” So far so good. I expected the usual and appropriate response, something like “Okay, let me know if you need anything,” followed by the associate leaving to help other customers.

But without missing a beat this associate asked me if I was a member. “No, I’m not interested. Thank you,” I replied, then lowered my head to continue scanning the title page of a book I had open before her arrival. It looked interesting and I was considering the purchase.

But wait, she was still talking.

“No, thank you,” I said, looking up briefly to interject into her monologue, then returned to continue reviewing the book I had in my hand.

And yet she continued talking. Not conversational talking, but a rehearsed speech that I had heard dozens of times before. She went on for another 10 or 15 seconds after I had made clear I wasn’t interested. Fed up that she was still trying to sell me something I’ve told her I didn’t want, and not feeling the necessity of telling her for a third time, I kept looking at the book I had been engrossed in before she accosted me. Eventually, after droning on for way longer than any sentient being should have droned, she left and I continued my browsing, although now highly annoyed and unlikely to be buying anything today from this particular establishment.

It struck me that her initial offer to help me find something was entirely contrived – after all, I was flipping through a book in hand when she approached. Clearly she was simply looking for an excuse to engage so she could go into her sales spiel. I assume that associates get some sort of commission or bonus from membership sales they initiate, but in this case she did more to lose the book sale I was already considering than gain any benefit for her or the store. To me, this is the worst kind of associate, someone who seemingly cares little or nothing for the customers and everything for her own sales commissions or bonuses or however associates are rewarded for selling memberships or Venti Frappuccinos.

While I understand the requirement for associates to promote memberships and would expect it by the café and bookstore cashiers upon checkout (when “you would save an extra 10% on this purchase” means something), it is completely inappropriate and counterproductive for associates to go into hard sales spiels within the stacks and tables. Especially when associates fabricate the pretense of offering help – clearly unneeded at the time – in order to corner potential customers for the pitch.

So, Mr. Daunt, my one suggestion in your in-box full of ideas of how to make B&N better is to dump the automatons and hire booksellers who love both books and book buyers. The sole advantage independent booksellers have is that the sales associates get to know the customers and the local authors. When asked whether they need help finding something, the customer knows the query is sincere, not a pretense to barrage them with sales pitches. If Barnes and Noble can combine honest customer service with the greater selection larger stores offer, I have to believe it would increase B&N’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Oh, and also have more book signings and lectures by local authors.

Thanks for reading this (at least in my imagination). While I understand B&N has a daunting task ahead (no pun intended), I’m pulling for you. As I said, I’m a frequent visitor to my local B&N (the oatmeal raison cookies and Grande [not Venti] Frappuccinos are delicious, thank you) and would love to continue to do so.

Best regards,

P.S. Apropos of nothing, during my several years living in Brussels I was a fan of Waterstones.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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