Barnes & Noble has risked a lot on Nook, and it’s not panning out. In fact, it’s hard to see how they can stem the fall of the retail giant.
Barnes & Noble Faces Steep Challenge as Holiday Nook Sales Decline - Leslie Kaufman
The results, covering a period that ended Dec. 29, are a sobering development for the nation’s largest bookstore chain. The declines occurred during what is supposed to be peak buying season. And the Nook unit’s sagging fortunes came despite a 13 percent increase in sales of digital content, suggesting that it is the tepid demand for Nook devices that is dragging down the unit’s performance.
Barnes & Noble has invested heavily in developing a tablet that can compete with offerings from media giants like Google, Apple and Amazon.com. Last April, in announcing a $300 million investment in Nook by Microsoft, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s chief executive, William J. Lynch, said the company wanted “to solidify our position as a leader in the exploding market for digital content in the consumer and education segments.”
A few months after that, the bookseller began breaking out the financial results of the Nook division, In October it completed its strategic partnership with Microsoft by creating Nook Media, a subsidiary and a signal that it was ready to ride its digital business into the future.
But while Barnes & Noble’s most recent Nooks have won critical praise, they have failed to gain significant traction with consumers.
Other companies do not break out sales of their digital tablets, but Amazonhas been saying sales of its Kindle Fire were strong. Analysts say Apple’s iPads also appear to be doing well.
“The problem is not whether or not the Nook is good,” said James L. McQuivey, a media analyst for Forrester Research. “What matters is whether you are locked into a Kindle library or an iTunes library or a Nook library. In the end, who holds the content that you value?”
For an increasing number of consumers, he said, the answer is not Barnes & Noble.
Though the company’s stock was down only slightly — falling 2 percent to $14.22 — the reaction in the financial world was unsparing. Analysts stopped short of saying that this was a do-or-die moment for the Nook Media division, but they acknowledged that options for a strong digital future were narrowing.
In a note to clients, S&P Capital IQ said, “We think this portends greater market share losses for the Nook over the medium term” and downgraded its recommendation on Barnes & Noble stock from hold to sell. Barclays said in a note that the Nook’s precipitous decline was “quite concerning” and “below even our modest expectations.”
Last month, Barnes & Noble announced that Pearson, the British education and publishing conglomerate, was taking a 5 percent stake in Nook for $89.5 million. Analysts said that cash investment was welcome and the partnership with Pearson, a major publisher of educational textbooks, might herald a strategy to move toward dominating an education niche market. Still, that would be a significantly smaller business.
My bet: Barnes & Noble will have to bail, even if Microsoft decides to increase its investment in the technology. (I doubt that Microsoft is ready to invest more heavily in a company building on Android technology, at least not until Ballmer leaves, and they bring in a new CEO who gives up on Windows.)
The Nook HD is based on the Android Ice Cream Sandwich platform and has a roughly equivalent hardware and software platform as the Kindle Fire HD. It’s slightly cheaper — like $30 — but Kindle has first mover advantage and huge capital resources. And any comparison to an iPad makes Nook look like something from a few years ago.
Maybe Texas Instruments — who make the chipset in Nooks — wants to get back into retail products? Not likely. However, Intel has been making motions to shake up their business model with the collapse of the netbook market, and the decline of PC/Windows sales, and with a market cap of over $100B they might have the money to take a run. But would they have to buy Barnes & Noble to do so? I wouldn’t buy that side of things.
Google’s another player who might want to play with Nook, but not Barnes & Noble, per se. But it would be interesting if Google decided to go retail with their own gear, as well as do something different in bookstore retail. Imagine, for example, if bookstores were reconfigured to be like gigantic Redbox machines, where you could type in any of millions of books, ten thousand of which are actually in the machine, and are delivered on the spot into your hands. All others delivered next day to your home. One percent of the staff costs. But I have no reason to believe Google is tending in this direction.
A 2013 prediction: Barnes & Noble with sell, spin out or shut down the Nook business. Pearson might be a fallback, with Nook becoming a niche educational tool.