Location, Location, Location
Location, location, location. That’s the mantra of what drives value in the real estate industry. However, the modern version might well be, “Location, just less of it.”
[Frankly, I'm not so sure it's digital books that are causing the problem so much as online purchases. Certainly, digital books are growing wildly, but off of a very small base--according to Publisher's Weekly, they amount to only about 1% of the market. So maybe not a short-term catastrophe, though it's certainly a future threat.]
Either way, the problem with Barnes & Noble is real estate. One of the key ratios by which they are measured is return on assets–and with their large number of expensive stores, the fewer pricey books they sell, the more the operating metrics plummet. It’s almost like reverse leverage.
For years now, booksellers have sought other means to drive traffic into their retail outlets, peddling music and videos, opening in-store cafes, offering reading areas, etc. All to generate a higher return on their store “assets”.
I have this strange feeling of deja vu.
Blockbuster (BLOKA.PK) now trades on the Pink Sheets for exactly the same reason. They too were fixated on driving traffic to their stores. They too operated under the assumption that their true competitive advantage was their locations, and they had to keep earning a return on those assets. This caused them to make some rather odd decisions, such as enticing people to drive to their stores just to fill up a media player with movies to take home. Meanwhile, Netflix ate their lunch shipping discs (and now simply bits) directly to customers.
Similarly, Amazon (and others) killed Toys R Us, who had a similar problem with too much real estate and the accompanying high overhead. Why drive your car to the crowded store (along with acquisitive children badgering you for every bright and shiny thing they see) when you could have Christmas delivered to your door? And cheaper too.
It’s really a shame, as I still enjoy browsing in bookstores. Checking up on favorite writers to see if they have something new. Finding an unfamiliar author to take a chance on. But there’s no question they are struggling.
Probably some private equity firm will buy Barnes & Noble, and turn it around, as was the case with Toys R Us. Perhaps even Blockbuster will survive. Stranger things have happened. However, one thing is for sure:
There will be a lot fewer locations.
Disclosure: I hold no position, either long or short, in any stocks mentioned here.