Barnes & Noble, Inc. has just released its “sales and earnings figures for its fiscal 2016 fourth quarter and full-year ended April 30, 2016.” And the predictably poor results point to one obvious conclusion: B&N should spin out or somehow jettison the entire Nook division.
As per the results release and the company’s own guidance, B&N is looking at flat comparable store sales figures, which “declined 0.8% for the quarter and were flat for the full year.” Full retail sales were “$850 million for the quarter and $4.0 billion for the full year.” However, “’core’ comparable store sales, which exclude sales of Nook products, declined 0.8% for the quarter, while increasing 0.4% for the full year.” And Nook sales, which include digital content, devices and accessories, were $42.0 million for the quarter and $191.5 million for the full year, decreasing 20.0% and 27.4%, respectively, due primarily to lower device and content sales.”
So, strip out Nook, and B&N’s core bookstore business is at least treading water. Nook itself is not contributing massively to B&N’s bottom line. But look more closely at the Nook division itself, and B&N’s whole e-book business area is shrinking by over one quarter year-on-year.
Just as a prophylactic move to help out its broader position, B&N should surely look at getting rid of Nook. It’s laughably obvious that the book chain has not worked out a way to maximize the value of the Nook platform. And the minimal impact of the Nook numbers on B&N’s broader trading position show how little difference abandoning Nook would make, at least financially.
One point to raise about this as well is that these figures don’t bear out the kind of doomy analysis in New Republic, among other venues, which warn of the impending collapse of Barnes & Noble.” Of course, the flat same-store sales don’t paint a brilliant picture. But they also don’t suggest that the business is on the rocks, especially without Nook dragging it down. In fact, B&N’s shares actually rose post the results release.
And if, as the New Republic report suggests, the publishing industry relies on Barnes & Noble” for big-volume orders to keep its wheels turning, the Big Five and B&N could stay locked in a mutually sustaining relationship for years to come. Cornering a static or even shrinking share of the market, perhaps, as e-book sales continue to leap ahead. But if B&N and the Big Five together can’t work out their own e-book sales and pricing strategies, perhaps they do need, as well as deserve, each other.
There’s one other scenario I can see happening that might keep B&N in the digital game: Amazon investing to keep the Nook division afloat. Sound crazy? Yet back in 1997, remember, Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple, at a critical time for Cupertino. If it hadn’t been for that injection, we might never have had the iPhone, the iPad, and all the other wonders Apple has since brought to the world – including, of course, the e-book anti-trust settlement.
Why did Microsoft do it? One speculation at the time was that this investment was to head off anti-trust investigations. By keeping its core competitor in the desktop OS space in business, Microsoft also kept accusations of a desktop monopoly at bay. Amazon could clearly be a candidate for anti-trust investigations in the e-book space. But if B&N still has Nook in play, Amazon has a fig leaf to shield itself against this risk. So it might not be beyond the bounds of possibility. And it would also keep America’s remaining big book chain in business. Either way, though, someone needs to find a new way to make the Nook niche – or the niche Nook – work. Because B&N clearly can’t.
Related: If Barnes and Noble collapses, then what?, by Chris Meadows.