Barnes & Noble, retail and Z-degree

In brief
From the vicissitudes of Barnes & Noble, for a long time the largest bookseller in the world, a retail excellence was born for Z-generation

Barnes & Noble, which has long been the world’s largest book retailer, is one of the leading names in retail history. Now, after the acquisition by Elliott investment fund, it remains a success story of nearly $4 billion, twice the total amount of Italian book distribution.

The dramatic crisis that has affected the industry since 2010 has swept away the main players of the American market. This was the case for the Borders group, 600 bookstores and 20,000 employees at the time of liquidation, which occurred in February 2011. What are the causes? At that time, Forbes stated: “The market severely and promptly punishes delays in adapting to the new digital scenario”.

And yet, from the misfortunes of Barnes and Noble, a retail excellence was born, both in terms of business model and target audience, the so-called Generation Z. This group of consumers, which includes those born between 1990 and 2000, accounts for 40% of the country’s global sales, according to Vend’s estimates (one of the most important manufacturers of in-store devices and software).


Barnes & Noble College (BNC) operates on university campuses with nearly 800 stores, serving 6 million students. Generation Z is, by definition, digital native and in the view of many, very little oriented to physical stores. Even tough, almost 90% of young people regularly shop in the store.

What is so attractive about the BNC offer? Several things, each of them driven by the systematic integration of the wide offer on the sales channels.

First of all, there is the different characterization of each store. This varies according to community, college and academic needs. There is no standard format, reminding us what was reported last year about the restaurant industry case of Sweetgreen. BNC, later, has created concept stores with more than 75 brands, including Urban Outfitters and Lego.

The constant, in-depth contact with its users is one of the most accurate aspects. Periodic surveys and revaluations keep the stores in sync with the expectations of young consumers. Moreover, +3,000 events are held every year, tailored to the specific needs of each campus.


Experientiality is pursued through personalization. In this model, smartphone app is decisive: geotargeting, mobile portfolio, tailor-made promotions. The profile of young consumers set the customer journey both online and offline

2019, more than ever indicative and contemporary to the good performance of the physical network, resulted in a 15% increase of unique visitors on the website. It is thus natural that 60% of Generation Z students expect online chat and mobile communication in-store.

This omnichannel strategy provides major advantages even on holidays, a period of clear commercial distress.

With the expected “Apocalypse” on the headlines also in 2020, Barnes & Noble College’s events seem to design one of the best models for the global retail restructuring regardless the specificity of the business. With and without “e”.