Barnes & Noble does business by the book and the NOOK. As the #1 bookstore chain in the US, it operates about 1,360 bookstores, including some 660 Barnes & Noble superstores and another 700 college bookstores, in all 50 states and Washington, DC. Stores range in size from 3,000 sq. ft. to 60,000 sq. ft. and stock between 22,000 and 163,000 book titles. It also sells books and other media online. The company's digital subsidiary, NOOK Media, develops, supports, and creates digital content and products for the digital reading and digital education markets. Heavy losses at its NOOK business led the company to announce plans to spin it off in mid-2014.
Despite its push into the digital arena, Barnes & Noble still relies on its retail bookstores for nearly two-thirds of its sales. Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, the company's growing college division, accounts for more than 25% of sales and operates bookstores at colleges and universities across the US that sell and rent new and used textbooks, including e-textbooks and course-related materials. The NOOK business, launched in 2009, accounts for just under 10% of sales.
Barnes & Noble's sales declined by 7% in fiscal 2014 (ended April) versus the prior year and the company lost nearly $50 million (although better than the loss of $158 million the prior year, still its fourth consecutive year of unprofitability). The results were due fairly evenly to lower sales in the Retail and NOOK segments; College sales also decreased, but by less than a percent. With fewer blockbuster titles like Fifty Shades of Grey and Hunger Games, same-store retails sales were 6% lower in 2014. In the NOOK business, the company saw dramatic declines in both device and content sales.
Lower inventory levels in fiscal 2014 had a positive impact on cash flow, however, with cash provided by operations nearly tripling to $320 million.
Barnes & Noble's ambitious attempt to compete with Amazon.com (the maker of the market leading Kindle e-reader), Apple, and Google in the e-reader and tablet markets, ended in July 2013 with the resignation of William Lynch, the company's CEO and architect of its digital strategy, and the announcement that the company will stop making color NOOK devices. While the NOOK business initially looked to be a big success, growing to capture about a quarter of the e-book market, it was capital intensive and led the steep losses by the company. In 2014 it announced plans to spin off the NOOK business into a separately traded company.
By reducing its dependence on the NOOK, which was the company's growth engine, Barnes & Noble appears to be returning to its roots as a bookstore operator, although one with far fewer bookstores. Indeed, the company says it expects to have just 450 to 500 retail stores by 2023 (down from about 660 in 2014). It expects the number of college bookstore to grow though.
Despite putting the company up for sale back in 2010, Barnes & Noble has yet to find a buyer. The lengthy search for a suitor by the #1 US bookstore chain reflects the uncertain outlook for bookstores.