Can Barnes & Noble's Black Friday 'secret weapon' reverse the chain's slumping sales?

Barnes & Noble will be offering 500,000 copies of signed works by major authors to kick off the holiday shopping season. But will it be enough?

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Hillary Clinton greets fans at a Chicago Barnes & Noble. Clinton's latest book will be part of the special Black Friday promotion planned by Barnes & Noble.

It's being called Barnes & Noble's "secret weapon" for Black Friday: The struggling bricks-and-mortar bookstore chain has worked secretly for more than seven months to acquire 500,000 signed copies of the latest works by 100 prominent authors – including a US president, celebrity chef, and a beloved comedian – for sale exclusively at their 650-plus stores Friday through Sunday, the traditional kickoff for the holiday shopping season.

Among the authors taking part in the promotion are George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Patrick Harris, and Amy Poehler, on the non-fiction side. On the fiction side, shoppers will encounter signed copies of books by Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult, and Donna Tartt. The full list of authors and their works is available here.

“It certainly is an in-store traffic driver,” Mary Amicucci, the company’s vice president of adult trade and children’s books, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “We learned if we create something unexpected, that’ll be a key driver."

Barnes & Noble has struggled for years to compete with competitors like Amazon, which can offer lower prices and convenient online shopping. Due to fierce competition, sales have slumped at Barnes and Noble in recent years.

The bricks-and-mortar retailer has closed more than 20 of its stores since the summer of 2013. Its e-reader Nook will be spun off into its own company next year. As the Journal reported, same-store sales have declined for seven straight quarters, and are expected to drop again in the next two quarters, according to data from Retail Metrics. And holiday sales at Barnes & Noble have slipped during the last two holiday seasons, dropping almost 7 percent in 2013 and nearly 11 percent in 2012.

The signed-books promotion is an effort to stem slumping sales and bring customers away from their computer screens and into stores.

Its clear the retailer is trying to think outside of the box.

In addition to the 500,000 signed copies promotion, it is marketing itself as a destination for all kinds of gifts, not just books. Its list of 10 “most inspired” gifts includes a craft beer kit and a USB turntable, according to reports.

But the question remains – will it work?

Slate's Alison Griswold seems to think so. "[I]t's a pretty obvious ploy to get book lovers off of Amazon and into Barnes & Noble's physical locations, but it also seems like a savvy one," she writes. "After all, if you come in to snag an autographed copy of "The Goldfinch" or "The Polar Express" – the kind of thing you can't just download onto your Kindle – you might also decide to pick up that copy of Pride and Prejudice you'd been meaning to get instead of ordering it online."

“It’s a good idea and a way to differentiate themselves,” Retail Metrics President Ken Perkins told the Journal. “But I’m not sure it will move the needle in a meaningful way.”

By the end of Black Friday weekend, Barnes & Noble will have the answer to its anticipated experiment.

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