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A Review of Barnes & Noble In-Store Recommendations

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 03/14/2012

It’s March, which means gift-buying season at the Tincher household.  We have three birthdays in eight days – four if you count the cat.  My wife is a fan of the classics, so I bought her The Count of Monte Cristo at Barnes & Noble.

As I went to wrap it the next morning, I noticed something new in the bag – a little slip printed on receipt paper saying “You may also like…” recommending five books based on the three in my shopping cart.  As two of these were gifts, the grouping of recommendations were a bit odd, as you can see here.

Recommendations are powerful, providing social proof and motivation to buy more.  I spoke in this post about the need for retailers to bring their website content into stores.  It appears that this is exactly what Barnes and Noble is doing, utilizing the same recommendations as their website.  Since Amazon estimates a 20% lift from their recommendations engine, this strategy makes good sense.

But the current implementation is not ready for prime time.  Several issues with the execution include:

  1. The cashier made no reference to these recommendations.  They were presumably printed with my receipt, but the cashier did not point it out – I did not even know I had the recommendations until emptying my bag the next day. His sales training presumably called for more than this.  I was the only customer, so he did not need to hurry me along.   It is difficult to know whether this is an execution or training issue, but something was missing.
  2. The Point of Sale is too late.  Even if the cashier does reference the recommendations, the shopper is unlikely to return to the store for further shopping once the payment is made.  I realize the POS may be the only option for printing recommendations, but then it needs to be executed differently.
  3. The recommendations include only the book names, and some of these are cut off. How would “Great American Short Stories: From…” possibly entice me to purchase?

This is hopefully just an early experiment, and B&N is still actively developing this value proposition.  In that spirit, I offer my suggestions as to how to improve this experience:

  1. Encourage the cashier to make his/her own recommendations. The slip should inspire – not replace – the cashier-customer interaction. No slip of paper is as powerful as a fellow reader’s suggestions. Encourage the cashier to call out and comment on the recommendations, particularly if they are familiar with any of the books.  Even with my somewhat-wacky recommendations, any cashier can find something to say about Peter Pan.
  2. Place similar recommendations by the books. The time for recommendations is while the customer is still shopping.  Select a handful of popular books, and place the recommendations near them. recommends The Compound to those considering Hunger Games.  Place that recommendation in-line, perhaps with a small shelf liner.  Consider dual-merchandising the book next to The Hunger Games, as well.
  3. Use Member’s past purchases in the recommendations. These seem to be based off of the three items in my current purchase.  But since two of these were gifts, that presents an unlikely set of recommendations. Amazon makes recommendations based on my total history of purchases – Barnes & Noble should do the same, with an emphasis on the current purchase if feasible.
  4. Tell me why I should buy these books.  Five might be too many recommendations, particularly when printing on register tape.  Instead, use this same space to tell me more about two or three recommended books and why I should buy them.  Give me a teaser, tell which of my purchased books led to the recommendation – anything to get me excited!  If B&N expects that I not will read the recommendations until I get home, consider a promotion to lure me to buy it online. More of a call to action is needed if they want to unleash the power of the recommendations.

Barnes & Noble has the core of a great idea – utilize their knowledge of books and reader preferences to recommend an additional time their customers will enjoy.  Unfortunately, in the current state these recommendations are unlikely to create action.

But by engaging their staff to join in, using the recommendations earlier in the shopping process, using past purchases to improve recommendations, and providing a more pointed call to action, the company can use this capability to improve the customer experience, rather than simply throwing another sheet of paper in with my bag of books.

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