The Business Idea Store: a new retail concept

Could there be a place in every big city dedicated to the latest thinking on business ideas, a place where serious business thinkers would love to hang out? Consider what follows my business plan.

What got me thinking about this was a Ben Cohen article in the Wall Street Journal titled “That Cool New Bookstore? It’s a Barnes & Noble.” It chronicles how new Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt, who became successful as a bookseller in London, is changing Barnes & Noble to make it once again a place where local people might want to hang out, with each store featuring displays merchandised and designed by local managers and staff.

Daunt and the new Barnes & Noble recognize that the reader who knows what book they want is not going to take a trip to the local bookstore to buy a copy; they’re going to buy it online on Amazon or (or Barnes & Noble retail stores cannot compete on size and efficiency with Amazon. So instead, the idea is to make the local Barnes & Noble a unique, local, curated experience that’s ideal for its community, generating not just a friendly atmosphere but impulse purchases. I find it notable that the return rate (percent of unsold books sent back to the publisher) at B&N, formerly between 20% and 25%, is now down to 9%, and Daunt wants it down further (at Waterstones, the chain he ran in the UK, returns were only 3.5%). This is a great sign that the new B&N is a better retail experience.

What do you know? If you treat customers as humans, not buying units, they actually respond.

Designing the Business Idea Store

Think about the last few business books you bought. Where did you buy them? Your most likely answer is “online.” The buyer experience is simple: hear about it, decide to buy it, buy it online, get it in the mail (or on Kindle or Audible), and then consume it. There’s a reason that your local bookstore has so few business books, and that even in big general-interest bookstores, the choice of titles is so limited. Business book buyers aren’t perusing bookshelves to decide what to buy.

There is one other place where there is a collection of business books: airport and train station bookstores. But every book in one of those stores, outside of big bestsellers, is there because the publisher or author paid to put it on the shelf. Because they are small, their selection is limited (which is why they can charge for shelf placement). No one chooses to hang out in airport bookstores on purpose, so they’re not really a model for attracting visitors.

So let’s start with a different proposition: we want to create a physical place so packed with cool business ideas that businesspeople will want to visit it, just to expose themselves to those powerful business ideas.

What would such a place look like?

It would have a much larger selection, thousands of titles. This would allow it to include 300 titles on marketing, 500 titles on investing, 300 titles on small business, 1,000 titles on coding, 100 titles on manufacturing, 200 titles on leadership, and so on. You would know that whatever you were looking for, you’d have choices. (This is decidedly not true for business books in the average bookstore.)

Having created such a large selection, the staff could organize it in interesting ways. If I were managing such a bookstore right now, I’d make a huge bookshelf with nothing but books on AI: managing AI, writing with AI, designing AI, doing customer service with AI, the dangers of AI, the future of AI, and so on. Maybe there’d be a table next to it full of titles on Web3: cryptocurrency, the metaverse, NFTs, what comes after Web3, why Web3 is hoax, and the like. You could have displays on content marketing, they hybrid workplace, or B corporations. If Daniel Pink has just come out with a new book, you could include a table full of his other books, too. This is all in addition the usual organization with shelves on marketing, leadership, business narratives, personal growth, networking, and so on.

As with the airport bookstores, you could have paid placements as well. I imagine there’d be a Harvard Business Review Press section, and a Dummies shelf as well.

There are thousands of worthwhile self-published business books that never get stocked in local stores. But at a store like this, some of these titles might find a home. Titles published only through Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon) would be hard to stock due to distribution challenges, but those published through Ingram Spark can easily be distributed to any bookstore. Ingram Spark might even want to invest in this bookstore venture as a way to gain an edge in competing with Amazon.

Since you may not be able to find exactly what you’re looking for, there will be kiosks that let you search the inventory and find where specific books are shelved (and what ratings the books got from readers). The kiosks will suggest related books to what you’re searching for, as well.

And of course, there will be knowledgeable local staffers who know the business idea landscape. A college student majoring in business and looking to make a few extra bucks is going to get a lot more out of working at the Business Idea Store than the Gap. They’ll get instant access to the best business ideas and a chance to connect with leading business thinkers and other local professionals who may be hiring.

Are you ready to visit yet? Maybe we need to to do a little more to get you to come by.

Let’s have a small event space with room for about 50 people. So we’ll have business authors come by about once a week in the evening and do a presentation or a reading. This benefits the authors, or course, but it also reinforces that when it comes to business ideas, this is the place where you come to hear about them.

When the event space isn’t hosting an author event, the Business Idea Store will rent it out to local groups. The local small business networking group, ScaleUp group, entrepreneur’s club, advertising club, Young Presidents’ Organization, or business student association should be able to rent the space for a lot less than a local hotel meeting room. This exposes more businesspeople to the idea store and reinforces that it’s the place business connections happen — between people and thinkers, between people and ideas, and between people and other people.

Another revenue stream will appear: sponsorship. Local law firms, accounting firms, and marketing agencies will pay to sponsor the meeting room or the idea store’s website. If businesspeople are gathering here, they’ll be more open to the idea of working with local service companies that are supporting the space where they gather.

There is a natural affinity between such bookstores and events. Let’s say that a city is hosting an event like the Small Business Expo. Such events often have a bookstore, but managing the books and book sales at such an event is typically a pain in the butt for the event staff. So the expo works with the local Business Idea Store to stock books in a space at the event — books by the speakers as well as related books about small business. The local Business Idea Store handles acquiring books, stocking books, staffing the store, selling books, and managing book signings. They pay a share of each purchase to the event. And unlike most sales at events, these sales, since they go through a retailer, will actually count towards bestseller lists.

The ideal place to locate these stores is in business downtowns where people can pop in at lunch time or after work, in places like Boston’s Seaport District, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Seattle, and Silicon Valley. (Of course, there will be a cafe, since every bookstore has one now.)

Will I see you at the Business Idea Store?

Would you visit this store?

Would you like to join this venture? What skills do you have?

Would you like to invest?

Comment below. Add your own ideas. Or send me an email at josh at bernoff dotcom.

I won’t be running this: I’m no retail wizard. But I’m sure interested in making it happen.

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  1. I love Cohen’s article and this idea. I’m in.

    Browsing is underrated. Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger made me see the benefits of it over targeted searching.

  2. The best airport bookstore by far is the one in Omaha, although I’ve only been there twice and both times for the event. Business/investing books, authors, art.

    Love the salon idea or mega-idea.

  3. Great idea. Spinning it up may be an issue. Some of those benefits are already offered by co-working spaces. Perhaps they should consider a curated business library in one of their rooms – you could curate. Don’t know enough about the book business, but if you get 50 coworking spaces to sign up, that would be a nice-size initial order.