In a keynote session yesterday at eTail West in Palm Springs, Calif., Fred Argir, vice president and chief digital officer at Barnes & Noble, discussed how a change in the company's mind-set is helping the bookseller to transform its digital commerce business.
The struggles of booksellers, Barnes & Noble included, has been well documented over the years. Hired in July 2015 to oversee Barnes & Noble's NOOK and e-commerce businesses, Argir had his work cut out for him from day one on the job. The company was losing money year after year, and the digital business was far from stable, with leadership defections commonplace. Argir knew he had to change the culture and mind-set at Barnes & Noble in order to succeed.
“It's about finding balance: awareness, strategy, simplification,” Argir said.
Awareness, Strategy, Simplification
For Argir, the awareness piece in that equation for Barnes & Noble meant identifying what the retailer knew about its online customers, when it knew it and then what it did with that information.
To simplify the business, one of Argir's first steps was to align the NOOK and BN.com businesses. Multiple teams — marketing, IT, merchandising, etc. — for each unit wasn't necessary, Argir said. In fact, it was counterproductive.
“How many reporting teams do we have? How many KPIs? Do those KPIs conflict with the retail side of the business? These are all questions that needed to be addressed,” noted Argir. His solution was to scale down to a single digital business unit.
And for strategy, Argir had an unpopular message for many at Barnes & Noble: it's not a technology company. It needed to get down to the basics of understanding its customers and making sure that they're winning every day. Argir asked his team, "What would they [customers] give us on a scale of one to 10?"
Argir defined a few strategic directives for his business unit — increase traffic and sales; build loyalty; combat Amazon.com — and set a time limit for each. To accomplish its goals, Argir stressed the importance of his team believing in themselves, and knowing that senior management believes in them as well.
Here are some of things that Barnes & Noble has been able to accomplish in the last year-and-a-half:
- executed 3,600 fixes since website launch;
- brought to market an affordable $49 digital reading device;
- completed a website refresh in October to improve the customer experience (it had been eight years since the last site refresh);
- established a digital steering committee to align three distinct corporate functions, working together with the company's CMO and CIO; and
- made the digital organization one business.
Argir noted that he followed a leadership road map to tackle the task of aligning Barnes & Noble's diverse digital business units into a single entity. Here are some of his beliefs:
- Inspire your team — you're going to be making changes on the fly.
- Trust your instincts.
- Coach by example, lead by direction.
- Be accountable, run to it, learn from it.
- Stay curious all the time.
- The price of education is sometimes painful.
- Ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do?"
- Don't lose your identity to your role.
- Challenge with reason; don't make it personal.
- Stay close to the perceptions of your impact as a leader.
- Ninety-nine percent of the time your team has an answer.
- Put yourselves in the shoes of your business leaders.
- Family, family and hobbies.
- Never forget that we all have development opportunities.