In the first of a new series of behind-the-scenes interviews with people who exemplify the Barnes & Noble College brand, we talk to Joel Friedman, Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer, about creativity in the workplace, social awareness and a love of history.
How would you characterize your role at Barnes & Noble College?
Creativity is probably one of the most essential qualities in any company, and I hope to be a motivator for my team — to help drive the creativity of the people I work with here — and to provide a vision that they can run with.
What was your first job?
Well, the first actual money I ever made was vending Cokes at the University of Maryland football games. I was underage, so I never knew if they’d give me a seller’s license for the day, but I’d earn $20 by the end of halftime, which was my secondary goal. That way, I could sit and watch the second half of the game for free, which was my primary goal. I was and still am a sports junkie, you know.
How do you think the merchandise function informs the idea of the college bookstore as a social hub for our campus partners?
A key reason why Barnes & Noble College is viewed as a credible retailer has to do with the strong emphasis we place on the collaboration and participation of the home office with our local store management. You walk into one of our stores and it doesn’t look like a corporate store. It looks like it belongs to the campus — which it should.
Why is a sense of social consciousness and responsibility particularly important for companies wanting to attract a Millennial audience?
I think it’s important for any company, but you’ve just got to be in step with who your customer is what their expectations are. You’ve also got to have the desire and ability to back it up with how you run your business; if it’s just a marketing tactic, then they’ll see right through you.
Do you see discernible shifts in consumer buying habits in favor of retailers or manufacturers who advocate fair labor or sustainability initiatives?
It’s not so much about their buying habits as it is about their perception that their campus bookstore is doing the right things and offering assortments and services that they can be proud of. Our constituencies take a personal attachment to how their bookstore operates.
Are there any specific global developments — living wages or environmental concerns, for example — that are likely to impact company supply chains, and consequently U.S. consumers?
Absolutely! But it also depends on the merchandise category being considered. In apparel, as an example, the world’s resources of water, energy, and labor continue to be a source of concern. And the consuming public has never been one to allow for much retail price elasticity in the apparel sector. That’s why we try and separate our assortments into what customers want versus what they need. If we are right with our assortments on wanted fashion and trend-oriented product, price becomes less of an issue — especially when we combine that with vendors who are positive examples of how they are treating their labor force and have a successful sustainability program to properly use the earth’s resources.
In what ways do you see the college bookstore evolving?
It has to be able to continually change and update itself. Nothing stays the same — nothing.
As both an online and in-store retailer, do you agree with those who suggest shopping on the web has peaked? Do you see a desire by consumers to return to the store experience and shop as more than a purely transactional one?
I couldn’t disagree more. The web business continues to grow at an accelerated rate for us. I don’t see that slowing for us anytime soon. But the fact that we can also fulfill from within our four walls creates a unique advantage for us. We can sell to anyone, anytime of the day, both locally, from a distance, internally, or externally while we coordinate a desired shopping experience in any of those formats. Having an online and brick-and-mortar presence is a tremendous advantage for us.
Biggest challenge in higher education today?
Not listening to the prognosticators. They’re usually one or two steps removed from the reality and nine times out of ten, they’re going to get it wrong.
What would you be doing it you weren’t doing this?
I’d be a chef, hopefully with my own restaurant somewhere. I just love to cook.
I read a lot of non-fiction, especially political history. I didn’t have the opportunity to read much as a kid, so you could say I’m making up for lost time.
Digital or hard copy?
Only hard cover. I have to touch and feel the pages.