Barnes & Noble Makes Mobile Device Act Differently While In-Store

Once upon a time there was in-store and online, and each played in its own distinct world. Then mobile materialized and retailers had to figure out how to handle an online device operating within a brick-and-mortar. On Friday (April 23), the 723-store Barnes & Noble added yet another layer: A mobile device that acts very differently when it happens to be inside one of the book chain's stores.

For this experiment, Barnes & Noble's Nook ebook reader will be able to read the full text of any ebooks in the chain's "more than one million" title electronic library while users are in a physical store. But there's a one-hour limit per book per day. In theory, a customer could sit with the device in a store and read books for free for 12 hours, as long as they don't spend more than one hour on any particular book.

Of course, this approach is nothing new; book-lovers have spent hours in bookstores reading dead-tree versions free all day for decades. As a practical matter, most readers will decide within 20 to 30 minutes (or less) if they like a book and will probably stop reading and either buy—or not buy—the book within that timeframe. That suggests the one-hour limit per ebook is quite reasonable.

But the Barnes & Noble concept is truly clever on several levels. First, it does something that store general managers have been trying to do for years: Give customers a concrete reason to come into the store.

Second, it gives the Barnes & Noble ebook reader some functionality that truly sets it apart from rivals such as Apple and Amazon. And with stores in all 50 states, that could prove to be a non-trivial differentiation. Third, it provides an easy one-click way to purchase ebooks the instant the customer wants, leveraging the payment card data and customer name that is already associated with the Nook. (Yes, the chain retains payment card information for faster transactions. Barnes & Noble is taking a scary risk, but it will deliver convenience to customers.)

But the most interesting potential opportunity for Barnes & Noble is data harnessing. From the perspective of a book chain, how valuable is it to be able to quantify customers' browsing habits? The retailer will know every book a customer flips through and, more importantly, how long that customer spends with each book before making a purchase decision. Do most people stop reading within five pages? Does something happen for many readers on page 11 that makes them suddenly either stop reading or make an immediate purchase?

Before this experiment—which the chain logically calls "Read In Store"—ebooks could detail everything a customer bought (of course). But the ability to give the Nook unlimited browsing capability should deliver quite a return in actionable customer-specific data.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble is almost in print-versus-electronic equilibrium, with the chain claiming 1.2 million physical books and "more than 1 million but less than 1.2 million" electronic titles.