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Surviving Barnes & Noble in an Amazon World

If I was William Lynch, I too would focus the earnings call on Barnes & Noble College. It's the bright spot in the Barnes & Noble family. Unfortunately, you can't count on that segment to flourish, and I will explain why.

How long do you think it will take before the majority of schools are using tablets instead of books? The transformation is already beginning. There should be no question in your mind that digital books cost less. No shipping, distribution, printing, or binding is required, and Barnes & Noble is part of distribution.

The way content is delivered is changing, and the half-life of physical paper books is probably not much more than five years. Why buy a physical copy of a college book for $125 when you can buy the same text in digital form for $70? I'm sure some will prefer the paper version regardless of cost, but isn't a model you want to invest in.

Some colleges include books as part of tuition. You can count on colleges to be keenly interested in the cost savings of issuing one tablet versus the current costs of physical books. As content delivery shifts to a digital format, what value does Barnes & Noble add that justifies anywhere near the current margins enjoyed now? What will stop professors and other authors from selling directly or when a publisher is employed, having the publisher sell directly?

The company reported Barnes & Noble College full year comps decreased 1.2%. As an investor, you should anticipate continued revenue and margin contraction. Even if they can hang on to their niche, the only way you can believe the margins won't get squeezed is to bet on Amazon (AMZN) not aggressively competing for sales. Digital content delivery makes it easier, not harder for competitors to enter the space.

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