By Steve Moran

This is an astonishing turnaround tale that has many many lessons for senior living. The original source of this idea is an article titled “What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Surprising Turnaround?”


Amazon came to dominate the book business, first with physical books and then with e-books. They killed Borders, and Barnes & Noble was at death’s door. B&N tried everything, including creating their own e-book reader; the death spiral continued until they did something very different.

It turns out that people still like physical books a lot. They like holding them, reading them, and shopping for them in a real store. Today they are thriving, and they have recently announced plans to open 30 new stores.

Copying Amazon was NOT the solution. Here is what they did:

  • They embraced being a bookstore.
  • They realized that people came to Barnes & Noble for books, not toys, greeting cards, calendars, and other stuff.
  • They were willing to acknowledge that their stores were boring.
  • They brought in a new CEO who had already turned around Waterstones, a struggling bookstore chain in Britain.
  • They quit discounting books, believing that books are not overpriced.
  • They stopped offering “buy two books, get one free,” believing it devalued their product.
  • Rather than letting publisher “deals” determine the books they displayed, they let each store manager and their staff pick the books they were going to display based on what they liked and what their customers would like. Big lesson for senior living here. 
  • During the pandemic they asked employees to take a look at every single book on their shelves and decide whether it should stay or be removed.
  • They decided to make shopping for books a satisfying, wonderful, magical experience.

Three Big Lessons

There are three big lessons for senior living:

  1. Leadership matters. The prior CEO almost killed the company when the world changed around him. The current CEO embraced the changing world, figured out how to pivot, figured out what would best serve the customers, and they are thriving.
  2. He loves his product. He loves books. He reads, he thinks, he learns. He created a buying experience that he would love. This is so critical in senior living. Every time I talk to a senior living leader who has become a consumer, they complain about how terrible the process of finding and moving a loved one into senior living is. It doesn’t count if you are the operator and move a loved one into one of your communities, because you can short-cut all the hassle.
  3. He trusts his people. He transferred many of the most important decisions to his feet-on-the-ground leaders, allowing them to create the right experience for their customers in their marketplace.