Barnes & Noble CEO: The ‘real energy of good book stores’ lies with young adult readers

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss reading trends post-pandemic, creating an inviting store atmosphere, and how booksellers and other retailers are capitalizing on the reading revival.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: In a pleasant post-pandemic plot twist, bookstores are making a comeback. Barnes & Noble reversing a recent trend over the last decade plus, planning to open 30 stores next year.

Barnes & Noble's CEO James Daunt with us now. James, good to see you, sir. What do you attribute the reading resurgence to?

JAMES DAUNT: COVID, though we were rather terrified when it struck and our stores were closed, actually turned out to be a fantastic thing for booksellers. People rediscovered reading. Lots, lots more people buying books, and more importantly from our perspective, doing so in bookstores, and our sales have boomed since.

DAVE BRIGGS: As someone whose kids were raised in a Barnes & Noble, this does warm my heart a bit. Who is reading more now than prior?

JAMES DAUNT: I think always customers of bookshops have spanned all the ages. Obviously, you know, kids in buggies love a bookstore, as does the very oldest citizen.

The real energy within the stores at the moment is with what we call young adults, so teens and people in their early 20s. That's where there's been a real boom. But, you know, you can see from my gray hair I've been book selling for a very long time, and, in truth, that's always where the energy of good bookstores is.

And I think one of the things that's been going on at Barnes & Noble is we've just improved the bookstores, and it's made them more vibrant, more lively places, particularly coming out of the pandemic when people are looking for spaces in which to meet each other, enjoy being a social space as well as a place in which to discover books.

DAVE BRIGGS: Yeah, it's that experience economy that we're returning to, but I am shocked to hear you say it's young people. At least from this parent's point of view, social media was killing reading. What's been the impact?

JAMES DAUNT: No, social media has been our great friend. Instagram causes people to pour into our bookstores. BookTok, part of TikTok, has been sensational. Posts that have appeared on that have been seen millions and millions of times and actually driven the sales of literally hundreds of thousands of copies of individual titles. So it's been a fantastic boon to bookstores.

But the real question for us or answer for us has been that they want to do it in real bookstores rather than doing it online, which obviously favors us over our rather larger competitor from Seattle.

DAVE BRIGGS: Yes, you mentioned that rather large competitor from Seattle. You're actually opening in two stores that were formerly Amazon bookstores. It's been a fascinating dynamic. David and Goliath have kind of switched places. What do you make of that change in the storyline?

JAMES DAUNT: I think-- again, I point to my gray hairs. Retailing is a difficult trade whatever you're selling, but in bookstores, it's also complicated. You need vocational booksellers above all. You need a lot of intuitive as well as actually sort of professional detail attached to good bookstores. And I think they, frankly, weren't very good at it. They're exceptionally good online, but they weren't very good at the physical spaces. And I think, you know, that's our bread and butter. It's what we do well, us and independent bookstores, who are also thriving in this environment.

DAVE BRIGGS: And, James, how will these new stores be different than the Barnes & Noble stores customers have been accustomed to recently?

JAMES DAUNT: Much lighter, much brighter. You've got some photographs that are scrolling on your screens. They are very different from the serried ranks of cases that more or less resembled public libraries of the old-style Barnes & Noble. These are places in which we want you to come, want you to enjoy experiencing the physicality of books and the curation that we bring to them as well as being in a space which hopefully allows different age groups, different people to mix and enjoy themselves.

DAVE BRIGGS: James, everybody's running out, last-second shopping. Give us a couple of books to read for the holidays.

JAMES DAUNT: Oh my goodness. The sensation this year has been Bonnie Garmus's "Lessons in Chemistry." Anyone who hasn't read the novel really should do so.

And then, you know, one always tries to tailor for one's audience. The big business book is Chris Miller's "Chip Wars," which is sort of fascinating on the whole sort of dynamic with China and the way that microchips are dominating the way that business is evolving and particularly the conflict between the US and China over it. Fascinating book.

DAVE BRIGGS: Terrific tips. Wonderful to have you on. James Daunt, Barnes & Noble CEO, Merry Christmas, sir.