Commentary

Barnes & Noble Would Rather Talk About Its New Hire Than Layoffs

Barnes & Noble is laying off workers following a dismal holiday season but it has hired a new chief merchandising officer and appears intent on focusing on streamlining and revamping for the future.

“Barnes & Noble would not give specifics on the number of employees affected, the types of positions that were cut or the markets that were impacted. But CNBC, citing sources familiar with the matter, said that lead cashiers were among the workers to lose their jobs, with many employees learning they’d been laid off when they showed up for work Monday,” writes Charisse Jones for USA Today.

“Although consumer spending was generally strong this holiday season, not all retailers reaped the rewards. At Barnes & Noble, 2017 holiday sales fell more than 6% to $953 million, compared with the year prior. Same-store sales fell 6.4% for the holiday period, while online sales dropped 4.5%,” CNBC’s Lauren Thomas and Lauren Hirsch report in that story.

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“The New York-headquartered retailer has increasingly faced pressure from the likes of Walmart and e-commerce behemoth Amazon, which have managed to steal a larger share of the books market. Walmart is planning to make a massive push in selling e-books and e-readers on Walmart.com later this year. Meanwhile, Amazon is opening up more of its own bricks-and-mortar bookstores,” they continue.

Quartz’s Thu-Huong Ha comments that “last November, Barnes & Noble said it would pivot to books and rely more on trusted human booksellers to bounce back from meh performance. That strategy is not going as planned.”

All the company would say, in a statement, it that it “has been reviewing all aspects of the business, including our labor model. Given our sales decline this holiday, we’re adjusting staffing so that it meets the needs of our existing business and our customers.” 

It did announce, however, that Timothy Mantel, who has been chief merchandising officer at nutritional supplement purveyor GNC and is a 21-year veteran of Target, is joining B&N in the same capacity and “will be responsible for driving sales and profitability in all areas of merchandising including books, toys & games, gift, newsstand and music and entertainment.” 

He will report to CEO Demos Parneros, a former Staples executive who became the company's fourth leader in four years last April.

At GNC, Mantel “led a $2.6 billion product portfolio and helped relaunch the company’s business model. He also successfully streamlined and reinvigorated GNC’s owned brand portfolio positioning it for sales and margin growth now and in the future,’” according to the release.

“The future of Barnes & Noble has come under greater speculation over the past few months, with top investor Sandell Asset Management urging a sale,” Casey Quackenbush writes for Fortune. In November, as the Wall Street Journal's David Benoit and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg reported, Sandell “proposed a transaction that would take the bookseller private with the help of current shareholders and a hefty dose of borrowings, an effort that could face formidable obstacles.” 

One obstacle was B&N's reaction. "In a statement, Barnes & Noble said it doesn’t consider Sandell’s proposal ‘bona fide,’ noting the investor only owns $7 million in common stock,” Benoit and Trachtenberg continue.

B&N isn't the only “bookseller” tightening its belt.

“Amazon is laying off hundreds of corporate employees, a rare cutback for a company that has spent most of the last few years in a frantic growth spurt,” reports Matt Day for the Seattle Times

“The layoffs, underway now, will fall on several hundred employees at the online retailer’s Seattle headquarters, along with hundreds more elsewhere in Amazon’s global operations, one person familiar with the cuts said. The layoffs are primarily focused on Amazon’s consumer retail businesses, according to two people familiar with the matter,” Day writes.

Amazon, Day points out, has grown from 5,000 people at its Seattle headquarters in 2010 to more than 40,000 today. And its “global workforce stood at 566,000 in December, up 66% from a year earlier, the company said when it reported quarterly earnings this month.”

Those who were laid off are being encouraged to apply for other positions in the company which is, as you know, expecting to add 50,000 new employees at a second headquarters. (That “might not be as easy as Amazon and local officials perhaps believe, and certainly not in every city Amazon is considering,” writes Jeffrey J. Selingo in a piece for the Washington Post.)

Back at the Manhattan-based “competitor,” CNN Money’s Danielle Wiener-Bronner offered “5 things Barnes & Noble can do right now to save itself” recently. They all boil down to downsizing and focusing on what will work going forward. Perhaps hiring Mantel is the start. Again.

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