Waterstones’ store refurbishments

The Bookseller has rounded up some of the press commentary that followed Monday’s announcement of Waterstones’ new relationship with Amazon.  Speaking to The Guardian, James Daunt stated that  Waterstones’ owner Alexander Mamut is putting “tens of millions of pounds” into the store refurbishment programme, which will see roughly 100 of its stores refitted this year.

Some of those refits are already completed, and they merit your attention.  I popped into the Twickenham branch yesterday afternoon.  This was opened as an Ottakars in about 2005, and has run with that brand’s cherrywood fixtures and green carpet ever since.  (Photo below shows a typical Ottakars interior: ageofuncertainty.blogspot.com)

The new Waterstones look has been delivered on a carefully managed budget, but the feel of the shop has changed totally.  Gone is the clutter of over-bearing fixtures and narrow aisles, and in its place is a cool, classic/modern shop.

The most immediately noticeable changes are as follows:

The front two-thirds of the store are uncarpeted, and now have exposed floorboards.

As this photo of the front of store demonstrates, the overall appearance is clean and classy.  That “gateleg” table can only carry so much stock, and is clearly not designed to have understock rammed beneath it.

Cards and other impulse items are right at the front (the entrance is immediately to the left of the photo).  New books merchandising is subtle – too subtle?

But it’s the wooden floor that makes the real, immediate difference, reminiscent of Waterstone’s in Hampstead back in the 1980s.  It exudes authority and class.

Twickenham isn’t the most flexible of retail spaces – it’s a long, narrow “bowling alley”, with a two-foot jump in height in the rear third of the store.  As you can see, there’s a plain carpet in here; lighting is a combination of directional spots and “domestic” lampshades, and fixtures are a mix of new (all black) and refurbed Ottakars (cherry with affixed black surrounds).

Tight ceilings here, so the tops of the bookcases abut the tiles.  Unless you’ve got nine-foot ceiling heights, this always induces a slight claustrophobia.  The front two-thirds of the store are much airier.

So, this is an attractive, sensibly sized store with the right level of sophistication for its suburban/professional customer base.  I enjoyed browsing through the store, though I’d like to be surprised a little more often by the title/range choices, which mostly feel safe and generic.

Three concerns:

1.  When the Kindle tie-up goes live in the autumn, how much space will it require, whereabouts in the store, and with what effect on the overall experience?  I’d hazard that the new shopfit has fewer shelves than the old, but I may have been deceived by the general decluttering – practically all spinners, dumpbins and other detritus have been consigned to the skip.  With the exception of a few book tables, everything (cards, toys etc) sells from bookcase carcases now.

2.  It’s often a feature of newly remodelled shops, but the feel at present is pretty sterile.  The store needs more imagery, and more opportunities for the Twickenham team to share their enthusiasm with their customers.

3.  Waterstones has always struggled with merchandising children’s books properly.  This bay is adjacent to the central aisle; a concession has been made to tumbling tots in the form of a mat on the timber floor, but the overall effect is still one of children’s books displayed for adults to select and buy without undue lingering.  The PoS is old here, so there may be a makeover in the works, but children need a safe space that is clearly merchandised for them, and becomes a place where children want their parents to take them.  This was an area that (Tintin obsession notwithstanding) Ottakars tended to get right, but Waterstones still gets wrong.

Of course, children’s publishing is being supplanted/enhanced (you choose) by iPad apps and other digital media, but I’d contend that the children’s printed book category is a whole lot more robust than paperback genre fiction.  Particularly after Amazon has taken up residence in the shop.

And Amazon-to-come is now the spectre in the corner of every branch of Waterstones.  Monday’s hysteria is slowly giving way to a more measured response to Waterstones’ new partnership.  More measured, but no more comprehending or enthusiastic.

I’m a lover of bookshops large and small, and of course, like everyone, I understand that it’s no longer possible – no longer rational – to have  pbook stores without a complementary and first-class ebook and online offer.  I was very interested in this story in this morning’s Publishing Perspectives, which describes the creation in South America of an alliance between Grupo Planeta, Telefónica and Bertelsmann to create an “Airbus” to challenge Amazon’s “Boeing”.  Quite what shape this project might take is unclear, but – as I argued last week at the World E-Reading Congress – publishing and bookselling can only enjoy a future that doesn’t result in total Amazon subsumption by working together – and, in the process, ensuring that a few decent bookshops survive.

And, as of next month (and notwithstanding WH Smith), Waterstones will be Twickenham’s only bookshop, as independent Langton’s closes after over 60 years of bookselling.  It’s good to see Waterstones investing in its physical future, but that investment combined with an independence from Amazon would, I guess, have been even more welcome.

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2 Comments on “Waterstones’ store refurbishments”

  1. Judy Astley says:

    I live in Twickenham and am sad to see Langton’s going. But.. for some years now they have been reducing the number of books on sale, giving most of the space to a coffee shop. They used to have lovely events, particularly for children but these stopped a while back. Also – and I think this is a huge mistake – they became quite sniffy about popular fiction. My feeling is that if you are too snobby to stock the books people actually want, then trade will suffer. A no-brainer surely? Waterstones should also take note of that. Their shops may look tidier now the 3-for-2 tables full of chick-lit, genre fiction etc have gone, but popular fiction is called that for a reason…

  2. openbytes says:

    I look at some of these idea’s of Waterstone’s as great. I think it would be impossible to entice online customers to a store, however the same can be said for store customers to online…there are some people who want the physical experience of shopping and reading the books. The shame is (in the interests of the later) that the physical purchases are no longer seen as desirable to many, ergo lack of interest. What Waterstones needs to do now is maybe offer an experience in store which the traditional customer will enjoy and not be disturbed by, but also entice the online shopper.

    I think the best way to do this is with concepts (some currently being used) such as coffee shops, book reading sessions, signings and maybe even local literary competitions and involvment in school projects. Make the store a unique interactive experience and I believe you will get the online customers interested in visiting too.

    I think the key to working with Online (when you have a traditional store) is to further extend the online purchase with interaction, services and promotions that can only be achieved by visiting the store. If you can tap into that then you can have the best of both worlds…

    I completely agree with Judy when she says:

    “My feeling is that if you are too snobby to stock the books people actually want, then trade will suffer.”

    And I think in these hard financial times, companies can not afford to be “snobby” and fussy….those that are will find themselves gone very quickly as a transient customer base will move to the companies that will provide the material they want.