Friday, January 5, 2018

Barnes & Noble (BKS)

I love books, and out of all the retailers out there in the past five, ten years, I've spent more time at BKS than anywhere else. It used to be Tower Records or J&R Music World, but now that they are all gone, BKS is one of the only other retailers that I actually enjoy being in (and, of course, some independent bookstores).

Bitcoint tangent
By the way, I don't care, really, either way about bitcoin, but did you guys notice something really interesting? The financial guys that really love bitcoin are some of the guys that either blew up or closed funds due to poor performance. The two most prominent fund manager bitcoin boosters are like that. It almost feels like they are so happy to have found their Hail Mary pass. And the most prominent guys that have good performance and didn't blow up tend to be the guys that don't like bitcoin and think it's stupid, a bubble or whatever.

Think about that for a second. Oh, and that former hedge fund guy, after bitcoin plunged put his new bitcoin hedge fund on hold (buying high and selling low?). Now wonder he didn't do well with his hedge fund; if you're going to be making decisions based on short term volatility like that, you are bound to get whipsawed and lose money.

This is interesting because we can never really understand and know everything. But it is useful to know who you can listen to and who you should ignore. Sometimes, this saves a lot of time!

Back to BKS
But what has been shocking to me, after having spent hours at BKS over the past few years, is how inefficiently run it seems to be. I am always surprised at how many employees there are walking around, or just standing there doing nothing at all. I'll call them floaters. Sometimes, desperate looking employees come up and ask me if I need any help as if they have to fill a quota on how many people they help.

Recently, even before the holiday rush, I saw two BKS employees leaning against the hand-railing playing with their phones. I went to look for some books, came back, and they were still there. Doing nothing at all; not even greeting.

And what about those 'greeters' at the top and bottom of those escalators? They remind me of the Japanese department stores in the 80's; those uniformed employees with handkerchiefs held against the escalator handrail, bowing to customers as they get on and off. Yes, BKS has the equivalent of that, in 2017!  Sometimes they stand so close to the escalator that it seems dangerous as it blocks people from getting off... I almost tripped when someone stopped right at the top of the escalator to ask a question. Last fall, I saw two people at the bottom of the escalator. Do we really need so many greeters? (and why are they all white?! Even in diverse Brooklyn, all of the employees are white, except for security guards and cleaning staff. Is BKS so old-fashioned to think that only white people have college degrees and are capable of working at BKS? This is 2017, not 1830. Come on!).

With 600+ stores, these greeters and floaters can be very costly. I can't imagine them making less than $15/hour. At 8 hours a day and 600 stores, one of those floaters (I call them that because they just float around doing nothing) can cost the chain $26 million/year. You get two of those, and that's $50 million/year.

To put this into context, the bookstore (excluding NOOK losses) had operating income of $91 million in 2017 (ended April 2017).

Of course, this may be a little too simple; not all stores will have elevator greeters etc., and operators will point to K-Mart/Sears as an example of what would happen if you cut too much in costs (and how financial people are clueless). But that's an extreme case, I think. It doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement at BKS. I know that they respect their 'booksellers' and want that community bookstore feeling with tons of friendly and knowledgeable employees to help people buy books. But it seems a little over the top and outdated to me. But I'm not a retailer so...

The other thing is that when you walk into a BKS, it's like walking into the 1970's; there is no technology anywhere. OK, there probably is in the POS system and in the back somewhere, distribution etc. But otherwise, the absolute lack of technology is kind of stunning.

Japan is not known for running efficient retailers (there are some good ones, like 7-11, Uniqlo, Muji etc.), but even in Japan there was this cool thing at a large bookstore:

It's a section where customers can search for things on their own. At BKS, when you ask someone anything, most of the time they go to a machine and do a search. I always wish they had one available for customers so we can do it ourselves. It would free up a lot in terms of labor.  Even the New York subways have huge touch-screens so you can find and get information.

Here's the other thing. I notice long BKS checkout lines and wonder why that hasn't been automated. I would think books, due to their relative uniformity, would be the easiest product to implement self-checkout.

And here's the embarrassing thing; even the public libraries have self-checkout now. I love the public libraries and don't mean to knock them, but you don't expect those quasi-governmental, non-profit organizations to be at the forefront of technology. Those self-checkouts are really great. I used to hate waiting in line to check out books at the libraries. Now it is very easy and fast. And self checkouts would mean noone trying to sell you anything! I used to always have this awkward conversation, saying no, I don't need a card, and no, I don't want you to have my email address or mailing address etc...

Also, most of the time when you see someone ask a BKS employee a question, it's "where are the cookbooks?" or some other thing. Any high school coding club could set up a touch screen floor-map of a store pretty easily. I always wondered why there isn't one of those set up by the front door, elevator and escalators. Technology is getting cheaper and cheaper. And BKS seems to be one of the best places to implement some of this stuff. They also have so much data that they would be able to use (just saving what is searched by customers would give a hint to buyers).

The other issue is pricing. Even if you are a member and get a 10% discount, the prices on most books are still much higher than on Amazon if you are a prime member (and get free delivery). Amazon built their business on the Costco model, but BKS memberships seems like a half-hearted attempt at that. There doesn't seem to be a real economic benefit to being a BKS member (if AMZN books are still way cheaper than BKS member prices, why bother?!).

If they are going to do it, why not jack up the membership rates and lower member book prices? Why not match online prices like Best Buy? (isn't that how BBY recovered?).

Anyway, I don't know. It's really frustrating to watch this ice cube melt as I really do like BKS and don't want them to go under. But if they keep their head in the sand and try to keep up with this, they are not going to survive, and that would be a bummer for me (where would I hang out in a mall or when I have to wait for someone when they shop?!).

There are a bunch of other things, like, why is their CD/DVD section still so big, and prices so high? Do people actually buy things there? Every time I see those sections, I walk through it and I don't think I've ever seen anyone in there. I saw very few people in there during the holiday season, but usually it's empty or one or two people at most... What's up with that?

I know retailers are dangerous for private equity and activists, but it just seems like there is so much low-hanging fruit there that I can't imagine someone not making money off of gaining control.

Having said that, I don't own any (and have never owned) shares, yet. It is definitely a melting ice cube so I would be careful. But still...