The Pandemic Roundtable Talks with Barnes and Nobles Krifka Steffey
Few retailers are more important to specialty magazine publishers than Barnes and Noble. The Publishing Pandemic Roundtable (Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, and me) met with Krifka Steffey, the Director of Merchandise for Newsstand and Media, to talk about the chain’s recovery in 2021, and the fresh, innovative product she’d like to see.
Since we last spoke, Barnes and Noble has closed two of their New York offices, the one on 6th Avenue and the 5th Avenue office where magazine publishers have been accustomed to go for their meetings.
The majority of the Barnes and Noble personnel will have their offices in the location above Union Square, along with new office space in Clifton NJ. While Krifka expects to be in the office many days, others she will work remote or from one of the stores.
She’s taken advantage of this time to visit the stores. While the chain was already moving in the direction of refreshing and customizing their stores by location, that change was accelerated by the temporary closings and shorter hours of the COVID lockdown. One of biggest changes Krifka finds is that the cookie-cutter approach of former years is now gone. Each of the individual stores in the chain are molding themselves into unique bookstores. The look and feel of the stores, the books set out front, the hand selling, the books recommended—all are now individualized.
Bo: I think the direction you’re taking is one hundred percent fabulous.
Krifka: It’s a work in progress, changing a direction that had been set for years.
Joe: What difference do these changes make in the product buying?
Krifka: For magazines, we’re still doing it the same; but, for example, with trade books, headquarters will do the initial distribution, and then there are district-level replenishment buyers and store managers who will make local decisions. When something is regionally focused, an author from an area, you’ll see it reflected. It’s a big shift to more local control.
Sherin: Where each store is operating almost as an independent bookstore.
Krifka: Right. On our newsstand, the way we’ve always bought has been individualized. Our work with magazines is highly curated. It’s nice that the book side is starting to mirror that.
Joe: Is store traffic increasing?
Krifka: Yes, overall. New York City has shown a slower recovery than elsewhere. But everywhere we’re seeing positive year-over-year growth week after week. We’re also comparing to two years ago and seeing positive trends even against pre-COVID sales levels.
Sherin: It’s the same with our products. The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Guide has grown dramatically. Comparing to 2019, we’re through the roof.
Krifka: Yes, we’re seeing nice growth in Home and Garden. And we’re seeing a switch from digital back to physical. Our customer likes the experience of print copies.
Bo: Are you seeing an influence from Book Tok?
Krifka: Anything that does well on Book Tok sells like crazy in our stores.
Bo: It’s at almost ten billion views.
Krifka: And they’re the right age group, young adults turning into loyal customers. Manga, for example, is huge, and we’ve got a great assortment. Outrageous food trends are big.
Joe: How are things developing in the magazine world?
Krifka: We’re not seeing a lot of surprises. Customers are following their former patterns, buying what we’d expect them to buy. There aren’t many new launches or big things pending. I’m seeing some missed opportunities. We should have seen some publications on outer space, that could have been big. Post-COVID, they’ll be a lot of people struggling to get back into new routines; where’s the product for that?
Publishers need to dig in, to ask, what are people going to need from us, what are they going to use? People are moving back into schedules. Hotel bookings are up, people are moving around more; we need to see those publications for drives, for traveling. There are holes in our assortments, and we need fresh, new, relevant product. I can get the customers back into the store, I can get the magazines out on the shelves, but if I don’t have exciting new product sales are not going to improve.
Sherin: This summer Yankee magazine is publishing 31 great things to do in New England.
Krifka: That’s great, Sherin! Talk to Yankee about drives in the region with local stops; also haunted anything is blowing up; also murder mystery stuff. Those are all topics that tie so nicely into regionality. I think some of these trends are going to keep going. People are planning travel.
Gemma: we just had our best issue ever of Road Life.
Krifka: Rolling Stone has had some fantastic issues; we’ve sold about a million dollars of Harry Styles product; music and entertainment is going to be huge with concerts, music festivals opening up. A release, a concert, an artist—all offer a bright spot on the newsstand.
Joe: On the flip side, what categories are struggling?
Krifka: Mostly ones that were already in decline. The men’s category is almost gone. Science spikes with specials but the category isn’t supportive of regular frequency publications.
Linda: How about the business category?
Krifka: We need more content focusing on entrepreneurial matters, how to run a business, how to start a business, how to turn a hobby into a business, how to do taxes for a business. Inc and Fast Company used to do that kind of thing a lot; it seems those publishers focused on digital and it’s driven the category down. We need good and trustworthy guides, maybe even in workbook format.
Bo: 80% of the public trust magazines.
Joe: I’ve been in some of your new, smaller-format stores.
Krifka: Each new store has a completely different layout. Each store is its own unique location. We have one that just opened in Connecticut in an old Restoration Hardware store. We’re looking at restaurants that have closed down as possible locations. It’s a lot more management for us in the small stores as we shrink from 2500 titles to 1000 or even 500. Square footage varies drastically, some are as small as 4000-6000 sq ft. Some won’t have a newsstand at all. We’ll be opening 10-15 new stores per year, and closing some of the larger format stores as leases expire.
Bo: How’s supply chain?
Krifka: Improving. We’ve had some issues with broken boxes but no crazy mis-ships. Publishers are now notifying us that paper supplies are becoming a huge problem. There are special issues that will not go to print because of this lack of supply. Additionally, I do expect to have delays and issues for the holiday season as the amount of packages in the system increases.
Bo: Our industry is having a problem with slow shipping and lack of drivers.
Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac is in the middle of it, shipping now. We’re finding that the market is really tight, we have to make all of our deadlines perfectly. There’s not a lot of leeway.
Krifka: We’ve had some delays with imports but nothing catastrophic.
Sherin: Everything is later, everything is slower. There are paper shortages, labor shortages; despite paying good wages and bonuses the printers can’t get enough people to fill the jobs.
Krifka: That seems to be true across all businesses. We’re seeing it in retail. But it’s an exciting time. We’re finally inviting people back into the stores; we’re offering specials, I’ve announced a Buy One Get One for the newsstand. I’ve been hearing that the fall publishing schedule for books is astounding. We’ll see two plus seasons of publishing all crammed in together. And any time there’s big news in books, it’s fantastic for the newsstand.