Tepid holiday sales for Barnes & Noble

For Barnes & Noble, the digital future isn’t what it used to be.

Eight months after affirming its commitment to build its business through its Nook division, Barnes & Noble announced holiday sales Thursday so disappointing that it raised questions about its ability to pull off the transformation from its traditional retail format.

Retail sales from the company’s bookstores and its website, BN.com, decreased 10.9 percent from the comparable nine-week holiday period a year earlier, to $1.2 billion, the company reported. More worrisome for the long-term future of the company, sales for the company’s Nook unit — which includes e-readers, tablets, digital content and accessories — decreased 12.6 percent over the same period.

“They are not selling the devices, they are not selling books and traffic is down,” said Michael Shatzkin, the founder and chief executive of Idea Logical Co., a consultant to publishers. “I’m looking for an optimistic sign and not seeing one. It is concerning.”

The nation’s largest book chain has invested heavily in recent years in developing a tablet that could compete with offerings from media giants like Google, Apple and Amazon.com .

While other companies do not break out sales of their digital tablets, Amazon has been saying that sales of its Kindle Fire have been very strong. Analysts say Apple’s iPads also appear to be doing well.

“The problem is not whether or not the Nook is good,” said James McQuivey, a media analyst for Forrester Research, “what matters is whether you are locked into a Kindle library or an iTunes library or a Nook library. In the end, who holds the content that you value?”

For an increasing number of consumers, he said, the answer was not Barnes & Noble. Analysts stopped short of saying this was a do or die moment for Barnes & Noble’s Nook Media division, but they acknowledged that options for a strong digital future were narrowing.

Executives from Barnes & Noble were not available to discuss the sales numbers.

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