As of Jan. 23, Barnes & Noble (BKS) had 689 retail locations, as well as 674 college stores. "In ten years," chief executive Mitchell Klipper told The Wall Street Journal, "we'll have 450 to 500 stores."
That forecast assumes a closure rate of 20 stores a year, up from the average of 15 stores a year over the previous decade. Until 2009, the Journal notes, Barnes & Noble was also opening at least 30 locations annually. But the shift to digital books has reduced demand for bricks-and-mortar outlets, and development of new shopping malls has stalled.
Still, Klipper insisted, "it's a good business model," even after such a stark reduction in physical presence. "You have to adjust your overhead, and get smart with smart systems. Is it what it used to be when you were opening 80 stores a year and dropping stores everywhere? Probably not. It's different. But every business evolves."
Klipper rejected as nonsense the notion that mainstream booksellers are destined for extinction. "You go to Barnes & Noble to forget about your everyday issues, to stay a while and relax," he said, explaining the chain's unique appeal among retailers. "When you go to Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY), you don't sit down on the floor and curl up with your blender and your kid."
Some observers aren't convinced. "Anyone else feel the ghostly presence of Borders looming just behind your shoulder?" asked The Consumerist, which pointed out that the practice of not matching online prices "turns the entire store into a showroom that drives customers elsewhere."
The demise of Borders boosted Barnes & Noble in 2011, but holiday sales this year were down 10.9 percent at bookstores and online. Earlier in 2012, the company publicly acknowledged that its retail stores were benefitting "from market consolidation and strong sales of the Fifty Shades series" -- an ominous sign, given the ephemerality of blockbuster book trends.
A Barnes & Noble spokesman seemed to push back on the Journal's report without actually disputing the figures, telling Fast Company that the chain "has not adjusted its store closing plan whatsoever" and insisting that the new numbers "are consistent with analysts' expectations." The statement also spoke of retail innovations, noting that "Barnes & Noble opened two new prototype stores" in 2012 and "plans to test several other prototypes" in 2013.