Monday 20 December 2010

Barnes & Noble not finished

In February this year, investment analysts Stansberry and Associates recommended short-selling booksellers Barnes & Noble (BKS). Less than 5 years ago, the share price stood at $46.25; on Friday it was at $14.30. More recently, Stansberry has explained how doomed B&N are, what with their debts and the impact of new technological alternatives.

I sometimes wonder what American business could achieve if all - or even half - the talent that went into stock trading and analysis, finance, banking and law were diverted into actually making things and running businesses.

"Retail is detail", so the adage goes. Please bear with me for an anecdote: I recently idled away some time on a little sim game by Armor Games called "Coffee Shop". You have a sidewalk coffee stand and only one product. All you can change is the recipe, your inventory and the price. Simple enough, and after setting these parameters and running the simulation I ended with a few tens of dollars profit. Isn't business easy?

Then I looked at the high scores - several were over a thousand. What I hadn't thought to do was change the variables according to the forecast weather. So instead of trying not to go broke, I doubled the price, strengthened the mixture and multiplied my final score.

That was without being able to increase my range of products, investing in advertising and marketing, researching locations etc. Macdonald's does, and has turned a hot meat sandwich into a global empire.

So imagine if Barnes & Noble were a sim game and someone let you see the high score beforehand - let's say a mere 13% compound annual growth, which would beat their previous high within 10 years. If you knew for certain it could be done - had been done - don't you think you might find a way?

According to this 2007 article in the Washington Post, Americans read on average 4 books a year. Yet in still-poor, workaholic China the average is 7 - and 25% have read an e-book.

Books increase mental power. Stalin and Mao were huge readers, which helped them dominate their unfortunate fellow man. On "The Long March", Mao was carried about in a litter as he continued to stock his mind with his reading; in his case, it should've been called "The Long Carry". 50 years ago, President Kennedy was concerned that US rates of literacy and scientific learning were falling behind those of Communist competitors; we need to re-visit this issue as our youngsters give themselves eyestrain with PCs, partial hearing loss from cranked-up iPods and repetitive strain injury from thumbing their DSs.

You could argue that B&N aren't done yet. They may have come late to the e-book party, but their Nook e-reader has been out for a year and done well - Amazon are now in the position of playing catchup with a 3G version of Kindle (which I've just bought) - and we've yet to see the impact of the new Nook Color.

That's not to say that the dead tree press is finished, either. Allowing for the 25% of Americans who don't read books at all, the per capita read is 7 books a year and B&N's 1,352 stores therefore have a potential customer base of maybe 150,000 adult readers each. One extra book per year = 14% growth.

There's also the fact that we read products in different ways. I'm enchanted with my Kindle, which I can glance at as I drink my tea without the cover flipping over and losing my place; but although it is good at marching you through a novel, it's not so good for the skimming, riffling through and back-and-forthing I do when I read a newpaper or magazine. It's great if I know what I want to find and download; it's not so great at the serendipitous finds you make browsing through a good shop. And it doesn't serve me a coffee, a doughnut and a pleasant smile.

Did paperback kill hardback? The car, the bicycle? The movies, radio? TV, the movies? No: but the market developed, and some of those that made their money in one invested most profitably in the next (remember when IBM made comptometers? Nor do I).

When I say invested, I mean got involved. It's all very well quoting the debt load, the tight margins and all, but perhaps you'd agree with me that the real driver of success or failure is quality of management. Here in the UK, Philip Green (now Sir Philip) took over the failing BHS store chain 10 years ago, grew it an estimated 600% and built an empire. Short, stocky, shirtsleeves rolled up, he got his hands dirty and a billion-plus (sterling) into his wife's Monaco account.

When America (and even more so, poor benighted Britain) gets back to minding the store, instead of boosting its executive perks and playing beggar-my-neighbour with fellow short-term investors, the country will get back on its feet. Don't play the funeral march just yet.

DISCLOSURE: Not trading. 100% in cash.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog.


RichardYa said...

Are you kidding? They're finished. A business does not need to lose 100% of it's customers to be in big trouble, 20% could sink them. It's also the avid readers who are getting ereaders, not the 1 book a year people. Tablets are growing exponentially as well.

A better analogy than yours would be did streaming kill blockbuster.

Sackerson said...

Hi Rich, and thanks for your comment. It may well be that debt is sinking B&N, but good management would do something about that - whether B&N's managers are up to it I don't know. I gave an example from over here about turning failure into success but it takes a very focused, committed (Philip Green put his skin into the game) and skillful manager to do it.

When an airline goes bust they don't scrap the planes and I believe there is still a business to run in bookselling. Yes, the new delivery systems are on the rise, but although they may reduce they won't necessarily wipe out the demand for physical books, and newspapers and magazines.

But I've also suggested that B&N (or whoever takes them over) can get into the new world - the nature of their business will change.

Of course, one way out for them is to go bust, in which case they'll be under a different trading name. But there's still demand for what they do - and in my own case, an e-reader is simply increasing my reading as I get access to stuff that's out of print.

And how about the copyrighted backlist material B&N own, which acounts for about two-thirds of their sales? Big asset there.