Barnes & Noble: Playing the Digital Game All Wrong

By now, many of us have forgotten that Barnes & Noble attempted to compete against the likes of Apple and Amazon in the e-reader/tablet market with their ill-fated Nook. Barnes & Noble invested significantly in R&D and actually produced some great devices, so why did they fail? In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Barnes & Noble was playing the digital game all wrong.

At the turn of the century, Barnes & Noble found itself at the intersection of two industries primed for digital disruption: brick & mortar retail and books. Instead of ignoring this like many other companies did, Barnes & Noble met this challenge head on. While they were never a first mover, they did embrace the potential of digital much quicker than incumbents in other categories. For instance, they launched their online bookstore in 1997, only two years after debuted, while the online book sales market was still small. Similarly, Barnes & Noble released its first e-reader, the Nook, in 2009, again just two short years after Amazon launched the Kindle.

Since then, Barnes & Noble has invested heavily in the Nook, even securing a $300MM equity investment from Microsoft in 2012. In total, they have released nearly 10 different generations of the Nook and racked up numerous strong reviews from technology critics along the way. Despite this, sales of the Nook continued to struggle year after year with the retailer eventually announcing its plan to separate its failing Nook division in June 2014.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Nook failed: Barnes & Noble was investing in single-function hardware in a multi-purpose software game.

In late 2009, when Barnes & Noble first launched the Nook, consumers were looking at these devices squarely as e-readers. In this world, it was logical to compete on things like screen size, weight, and price.  Barnes & Noble was successfully gaining market share against Amazon by focusing on these attributes. However, as soon as Apple launched the iPad in 2010 consumer expectations were forever altered. From that moment on, if a device looked anything remotely like an iPad it would ultimately be compared to it. Apple has shown us again and again that it’s not just about the product but it is also about what you can do with it that consumers really value.

It was immediately clear from their respective responses to the launch of the iPad that Amazon understood that the rules of the game had changed but Barnes & Noble did not. Barnes & Noble quickly followed the iPad with the release of its NookColor.  At the launch, Barnes & Noble chose to play up the new reading benefits of its full-color, back-lit device and essentially ignore the fact that it ran on the Android OS. They waited another 6+ months to release a software update that would finally unlock some of the extended features of the tablet such as web surfing and receiving e-mail. On the other hand, when Amazon launched its full-color, back-lit, Android-based tablet, the Kindle Fire, in 2011, the company positioned it as a multi-purpose device from the very beginning. Amazon made sure that consumers knew they could use the Fire to read, watch TVor movies, play games, listen to music, and browse the web for even less money than they could read books on the NookColor.

From this point on, while Barnes & Noble was busy releasing incremental innovation after incremental innovation to its e-reader/tablet – making small tweaks to the physical appearance, technical specifications and user interface – the customer needs were continuing to evolve drastically. Apple and Amazon knew that their tablets were only as good as what apps were available on them and acted accordingly. Barnes & Noble was able to only offer a small fraction of the content, making their devices less appealing to consumers, which in turn made their platform less appealing to developers. Barnes & Noble wasn’t able overcome this virtuous cycle and could never create enough value through their hardware-focused innovations to lure customers away from Apple and Amazon.



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Student comments on Barnes & Noble: Playing the Digital Game All Wrong

  1. Very interesting post

    I wonder what would have happened if they had positioned it as a multi-purpose device from the beginning the way Apple and Amazon did. Would it have succeeded then? The logic of the post suggests so… But it is an interesting thing to contemplate because perhaps it was doomed from the start no matter how B&N marketed it. Would consumers have wanted to buy cutting edge technology from B&N rather than Amazon or Apple, assuming all else equal (i.e. same price, etc.)? Or would that feel like buying a piece of art from a grocery store? Maybe B&N was not the right ambassador for the tablet given its brand in consumers’ minds.

    1. I agree, Merritt. I think B&N was always playing a losing game here. Their expertise is books, definitely not hardware (or the corresponding software component). It is quite hard to convince a consumer to purchase a tablet device from B&N while bypassing an Amazon or Apple produced one. At the same time, I admire their decision to move into the space and try to compete the best way that they could. I wonder if they hadn’t come out with a Nook at all if they would have gone the same way as Borders and while the Nook was ultimately not successful, maybe it saved them from obsolescence.

  2. Very thought provoking! I also think it’s interesting to take a look at what Barnes and Noble has (or hasn’t) done in digital innovation since the failure of the Nook. As far as I’m aware, the company hasn’t done much to significantly push the digital needle forward and is being further eclipsed by superior digital players like Amazon. Barnes and Noble’s failure to really even test in the digital space is concerning and makes me wonder about the long term sustainability of the company.

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