How Barnes and Noble Is Hitting Back Against Amazon—With Coloring Books

Invites shoppers to unwind in stores with an old pastime

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These aren't easy times for Barnes & Noble, the book seller that's holding its own amid vicious online competition from Amazon. Even if you don't shop in its stores, it's hard not to cheer the 142-year-old retailer on. After all, there's not a whole lot an old-line retailer can do to fight a company that Silicon Valley blogger Benedict Evans has called a "ruthless, relentless, ferociously efficient company that's building the Sears Roebuck of the 21st century."

But Barnes & Noble does have one obvious advantage that dot-com competitors don't, and that's spacious, comfortable stores—647 of them at last count—stores that the chain has gotten extremely good at turning into event spaces, most often for book signings with bestselling authors or celebrities hawking their latest tell-all tomes. But on Nov. 14, Barnes & Noble will be staging its most colorful event yet: All of its stores are inviting adults to come in, sit down and color.

Yes, as in crayons, pencils, markers and coloring books. Between noon and 5 p.m., anyone can wander in and regress to an activity lost to childhood. The company is calling it the All-American Art Unwind.

"We expect that it's only going to feed the coloring-book trend," vp of gifts Alex Perruzzi told Adweek. "People who haven't done it before will be doing it for the first time. This is just one of many events we do in our stores. We are excellent at it, and we continue to get better."

In case you haven't lifted your nose from your smartphone lately, adult coloring has become a hot analog trend in the last two years, with books like Johanna Basford's Secret Garden topping bestseller lists. U.K. illustrator Millie Marotta's popular titles—among them Animal Kingdom, which has sold over 1.5 million copies—will figure big into Barnes & Noble's event: Several of the nine different coloring panels to be given to attendees are from Marotta's latest book, Tropical World. Marotta herself will make appearances at the store's Upper East Side and Upper West Side anchors in New York.

Once attendees finish coloring their pages, they can submit them via Instagram or Twitter for possible inclusion in a huge mosaic that a computer program will create from thousands of expected submissions.

Those who feel like working on something a little more personal will be able to color greeting cards from Hallmark. Another legacy brand that's struggled in the digital age, it will dispatch a crew of house artists and calligraphers to Barnes & Noble stores in Santa Monica, Calif., Kansas City, and Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood to help adults get creative—and, if needed, stay inside the lines. (Those who feel like sharing their cards socially can use the hashtag #BNColoringContest, and they'll be eligible to win a year's supply of Hallmark cards.)

Perruzzi explains that Barnes & Noble isn't just latching onto the popularity of adult coloring books (which, of course, the chain happens to sell, along with a full array of art supplies). Rather, the company sees the event as a way to remind people that bookstores are a refuge from life's maelstrom of electronic distractions.

"It's a service to our customers to give them an outlet to unwind and rest," he said, "and get away from social media and the digital world." According to a recent article by Julie Beck in The Atlantic, the coloring craze appears to be "one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with."

Barnes & Noble's upcoming event also demonstrates that experiential marketing—to use the trade parlance—is becoming an increasingly important way for all brands to stand out amid the numbing sameness of the retail transaction.

Still, in June, Barnes & Noble reported a Q4 net loss of $19.4 million, while its fiscal 2015 consolidated revenues fell by 4.9 percent to $6.1 billion. Will a coloring-book event be enough to help reverse such a challenging economic picture? Meghan Labot, managing director of Spring Design Partners, says maybe. 

"Like many retailers, Barnes & Noble likely recognizes that sales are tied to people walking through the door and staying for a while. It's a logical solution and one that clearly the online retail cannot replicate." But Labot sees the coloring event as a "transaction facilitator" and thinks the chain has to do better, which means creating more lasting value. "It would be wise for Barnes & Noble to think about how they can truly re-image their brand experience, beyond adding a coffee shop or coloring station," she said.

For his part, Kevin Kelly is more optimistic. The international business speaker and bestselling author believes that while consumers will see the sales goal behind the event, inviting a bunch of grownups to come in and play with coloring books is still a pretty unusual thing, and shoppers will reward the chain for doing it.

"To develop friendships, you need to develop an intimate knowledge of your customer and deliver more than the traditional transaction," Kelly said. "On this basis, I think the coloring angle ticks all the boxes."

Or, at least, colors them in.

        Attendees at the All-American Art Unwind will color on panels from Tropical World.


        The Nov. 14 event will allow participants to color and then share their creations on social media.


        Complexity and patterns make adult coloring more of a "Zen" experience than what kids do. 

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.