June 26, 2013

Barnes & Noble’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad quarter/year/future


That… pretty much sums it up.

Barnes & Noble’s long decline continues. Yesterday, the embattled public restroom released its quarterly earnings report and, as pretty much everyone expected, it was horrible.

In the fourth quarter of 2012 (you know, the quarter that has Christmas in it) B&N’s digital business sales plummeted 34% (!!!!!) compared with the fourth quarter a year ago. Its annual digital sales fell by 16.8%. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Trachtenberg surveys the damage:

Nook revenue for the fiscal fourth quarter sank 34% to $108 million, while losses before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization widened to $177 million from losses of $77 million in the year-earlier quarter. Losses for the quarter, which ended April 27, included $133 million of inventory charges.

Weaker Nook sales also hurt results at Barnes & Noble’s retail store business, where sales fell 10% in the quarter and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization dropped 24%. Overall, the company’s net loss more than doubled to $118.6 million, or $2.11 per share, from $56.9 million, or $1.06 per share in the year earlier quarter. Revenue fell 7.4% to $1.28 billion.

Barnes & Noble shares fell about 15% to $16 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

One major factor in the company’s decline: its repeated, desperate price cuts on Nook tablets. According to its report:

Nook EBITDA losses were $177 million for the fourth quarter, which include an additional $133 million of inventory charges as the company adopted more aggressive promotional strategies given the shift in strategic direction. Nook EBITDA losses were $475 million for the full year, primarily driven by cumulative Nook inventory related charges of $222 million.

As a result of this shellacking, Barnes & Noble has announced that it will no longer produce tablet devices and will instead transition into a “partnership model” on color tablets—per Trachtenberg’s piece, the company will sell “co-branded devices made by third-party manufacturers.” As Publishers Weekly’s Jim Milliot reported yesterday, the company is hoping that cutting its losses with tablets will go a long way:

CEO William Lynch repeatedly stressed that the emphasis in the year will be on cutting Nook losses and pointed to the $26 million in expenses it cut in the unit in the fiscal fourth quarter which he said came from reductions in marketing costs, lower headcount, and other savings initiatives. Lynch acknowledged that the losses in the Nook group were “much higher than expected.”

But, while Barnes & Noble is throwing in the towel in the tablet game, it hasn’t completely given up on the hardware business. The company will still produce black-and-white ereaders and Lynch talked a good game about the company’s future with ereaders:

“We plan to continue to innovate in the single purpose black-and-white e-reader category, and the underpinning of our strategy remains the same today as it has since we first entered the digital market, which is to offer customers any digital book, magazine or newspaper, on any device.”

Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but I’m pretty sure “innovate” and “black-and white ereader” contradict one another. Nevertheless, these black-and white ereaders have been one of the few successes in Barnes & Noble’s disastrous attempt to find success in the digital market—Lynch acknowledged yesterday that they are the company’s “primary customer acquisition vehicle for content” and that the majority of Barnes & Noble’s digital sales came from simple ereaders, rather than tablets.

The Nook’s incredible failure wasn’t the only piece of bad news in Barnes & Noble’s report. Its retail segment, which consists of its physical stores and website, also had a disastrous quarter. Previously, B&N had used retail sales to offset losses incurred by its commitment to the Nook. Of course, the Nook’s, well, incredible failure was partly to blame for this poor showing as well. Yesterday, Laura Hazard Owen provided this overview of B&N’s retail failings:

Retail revenues fell 10 percent for the quarter, to $948 million, and fell 5.9 percent for the year, to $4.6 billion. Even here, Nook played a role: “Fourth quarter comparable bookstore sales decreased as a result of lower NOOK unit volume and a stronger title lineup in the prior year.” One bright spot: for the fiscal year, retail EBITDA was up 16 percent to $374 million, “as the sales decline was mitigated by a higher sales

Barnes & Noble’s college segment did slightly better: revenues were up $252 million, or 10.7% from a year ago. Still, to borrow the words of the Peaceful Warrior Jerry Garcia and his faithful steed Robert Hunter, every silver lining’s got a touch of grey: full year EBITDA for Barnes & Noble’s college stores declined on the year 3.9%. According to the report, the decline was the result of “new store growth and continued investments in digital education.”

After years devoted to tablets and Godiva chocolates and board games and ridiculous tchotchkes, Barnes & Noble is running out of options and time. It’s tempting to say that the company should regain its identity as, well, a bookstore. But, as Dennis wrote back in January, “B&N’s scorched earth policy of the 1990s has ultimately left us with, well, scorched earth” and, hey, you can’t repeat the past, no matter what Jay Gatsby says.

As Barnes & Noble makes a costly and embarrassing retreat from the hardware game, the 90s seem like they happened a long, long time ago. The Nook’s time has passed; we’ll see if Barnes & Noble will follow it into the dark.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.