Relay race

Cannon Street Station is a National Rail terminus in the City of London, bringing commuters into the financial district from south-east London and Kent via London Bridge.  It’s busy for an hour or two each morning and evening, but outside of these times, and at weekends, it’s dead.  In 2010/11, it served 21m passengers, which sounds like a lot, but compared to Liverpool Street (56m), let alone Waterloo (92m) it isn’t a big number – around 40,000 people each rush hour.

It’s recently been redeveloped, with plenty of handsome new office accommodation on top, but this somehow served only to emphasise how empty everything underneath was, when I visited at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.

Compared to other mainline stations, the retail offer is negligible, but interesting.  Cannon Street is home to the first Relay convenience store in a UK railway station.  It’s owned by LS Travel Retail, part of the Lagardère Group, which is a huge presence in travel retail in mainland Europe, Asia and America, but has only arrived in the UK this year with the Relay CTN and Watermark bookshop brands; they also operate Lonely Planet’s Manchester Airport store, and have multiple specialist fascias in their portfolio.

Relay is a brand consumers will have seen in dozens of European airports, so it looks familiar, but out of place.  The store is small (pretty tight, in fact) and neat, with the right ranges of newspapers, magazines, on-the-go food, confectionery and cigarettes, and small selections of grocery staples and books.  There’s nothing remarkable about the offer, but the shopfit is bright and inviting, the staff friendly, and everything is clean and well-ordered.

The tube network has many independent CTN offers, but mainline stations tend to be the province of the WH Smith Travel division.  It’s interesting that Relay secured this site instead of WHS…

…but not half as interesting as taking note of what WH Smith has done instead.

Smack-bang opposite the station entrance, on the north side of Cannon Street, there’s this:

Not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but take note: it’s clearly bigger than Relay, and it boasts two supporting brands in Funky Pigeon, WHS’s wholly-owned cards and gifts business, and Costa Coffee.  That coffee offer alone should be enough to get commuters across the road from the station – even though Costa Express means that you get self-service machines, rather than a smiling barista:

Plenty of room for customers too.  The store has a rear-facing dogleg, which permits a sizeable Funky Pigeon range, in addition to WHS’s regular Travel fare:

The timber floor, clean lines and bright environment all create a very inviting environment.  They also put one in mind of an old song:

There is no doubt that competition causes incumbents to up their game, and that’s certainly the case with WH Smith in Cannon Street.  Over to LS Travel Retail for the next leg of the Relay race…

Cannon Street image: 

The rich and the poor: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy…

…who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

The quote, of course, is Disraeli’s, and it was brought to mind after I read this piece by Marcus Leroux in Monday’s paywalled Times.

The gist of the article (for those of you without a Times subscription) is that 25% of non-essential retail spending takes place in just 3% of Britain’s shopping areas.  Of course, the crushing dominance of London – West End, City, Knightsbridge, Westfield – will help to skew those numbers, as London’s share of tourist retail is exceptionally high.  But forecasters CACI have reviewed 4,000 different shopping destinations, grading them from A to E, with anything below a C having questionable long-term viability.

The retail landscape has become more differentiated in recent years, as a combination of demographic polarisation, plus online, supermarket and out-of-town shopping, has caused the geography of the UK to divide more starkly between winners and losers.  I pondered this in a blog I published at the start of this year, seeking to identify 80 centres that I believed had future relevance; in Leroux’s piece, he notes that around half of Thorntons and Argos stores are in D and E banded locations.  And when stores close, which centres do you think will bear the brunt?

Well, here’s the good news (he said, a little acidly): the clone town will be a thing of the past.  No longer will there be identical parades and malls of the same jewellers, fashion stores, chocolatiers and gift shops, from Cornwall to the Highlands; instead, we risk a brutally stratified selection of pound shops, pawn shops and cheap booze in struggling towns and suburbs, while chi-chi boutiques and cafes overwhelm the rest.

I’m not convinced this is a good thing (I am a One Nation kind of guy); and I wonder if all of the government’s attempts to focus on local retailers (Portas towns et al) only takes us a short way down the road.  I very much support reducing business rates, slackening planning red tape and freeing up parking in order to revitalise a shopping district – but that revitalisation requires strong and solid national chains as well as entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Any smart indie retailer understands the appeal of well-known neighbours, preferably robust and well-managed ones.

There is a significant risk that squeezed, mid-market retailers will be closing in the top locations, pushed out by high occupancy costs and sophisticated online shoppers; and closing also in the poorer towns, where falling sales are precipitated by falling employment, collapsing aspirations and a general hopelessness.

We may need to move away from the purist “you can’t buck the market” view to a more nuanced standpoint that recognises that decent communities need a well-balanced high street (as well as good jobs, schools, healthcare, housing…), and that allowing high streets in densely populated areas to fail is akin to leaving broken windows unattended.  Of course, those retailers need to provide goods and services that their customers need – which of course is what mid-market chains have always delivered, tweaking their value offer as appropriate to local demographics.  But once “some quarters in the City” (Leroux) have prevailed on Argos et al to close their D and E locations, recovery in those towns will become just that little bit more difficult.

Blindingly obvious “two nations” photo: Cheryl de Carteret on Flickr

The first flagship

It occurs to me (following yesterday’s post) that the first example of a flagship store was also the first modern shop – Wedgwood & Byerley’s showroom on the corner of St Martin’s Lane and Great Newport Street, in what is now Covent Garden. (The enterprise later moved to the more fashionable St James’s.)

Wedgwood presented his stock in beautiful surroundings, and permitted browsing. Modern retailing was born.

You can read more here.

On Flagships

The Bookseller has published my monthly column, and this time around, Waterstones’ Piccadilly flagship has sparked off my train of thought.

In retailing, flagships tend to come in two forms – the retailer, and the brand.  Examples of retail flagships would be Marks & Spencer at Marble Arch, Top Shop at Oxford Circus, Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and HMV in Oxford Street.  These are the stores that define the chains, and that set the standards for the rest of the business to follow.

Plenty of retail brands get by without flagships.  Supermarkets don’t have flagships (they may have a current “future store”, but these things shift), nor do electricals or many retail park brands.

Brand flagships are different, and create a halo for fashion, jewellery, perfume and lifestyle brands that are sold through many different retail channels.  In London, Bond Street is the home of these flagships, and of course similar stores can be found in major cities worldwide.

It’s questionable whether either type of flagship always stacks up as an economic proposition, and many retailers and brands have had their fingers burnt by flagships.  Nevertheless, the “best of the best” is always seductive, and the new businesses continue to seek their flagship opportunity.

You can read The Bookseller article here.

What Do New York’s Bookstores Have that London’s Lack?

Publishing Perspectives, the American online journal of international publishing news and opinion, has published a piece I wrote following a whirlwind tour of New York City bookstores, complete with a neatly provocative title!

And indeed, Gotham bookstores do have some qualities that less apparent in London – and I’ve focussed on some of the best of breed.  Read on, and I hope you’ll track down some of these great shops next time you’re in NYC.

What Do New York’s Bookstores Have that London’s Lack?

A few pictures to whet your appetites:

Rizzoli – photo: store website

McNally Jackson: store website

Scholastic: author’s own

St Mark’s:

WORD: author’s own




Barnes & Noble 5th Avenue:

Barnes & Noble Union Square:

Barnes & Noble 86th and Lexington: author’s own

The new Canada Water Library at Rotherhithe

I spent some of my formative years in Rotherhithe, SE16, and returned there a couple of weeks ago to explore its splendid new library.  Big thanks to Pam Usher, Southwark Council’s Library Service Manager, for her hospitality – I’ve written about my visit in this piece in The Bookseller.

Plenty of good photos (interiors and exteriors) at this blogsite.

Русские идут на Пикадилли

Waterstones is opening a Russian language department at its Piccadilly flagship.  Called Slova, a full range of 5,000 Russian fiction and non-fiction titles will be sold from the ground floor mezzanine.  Russia is a society of great literature and voracious readers – and, of course, Waterstones now has a Russian owner.  You can read more in this article from the Independent.

Foreign language books have always been a wallflower department in English language bookshops.  Because English is the world’s lingua franca (joke), we’ve never had much patience with literature in other languages, however worldly and cosmopolitan we may be – and I’m talking about the US and Australia as well as Britain.   (Of course, I’m describing the population at large – I know that London’s literary lions devour books in Portuguese and Polish at their Tuscan pool-sides each summer.)

But compare the yards of English language fiction in any Dutch, Swedish or even French bookshop, to the sad couple of shelves we offer, often under the heading “Untranslated Literature”.   That’s “untranslated” as in “the job was unfinished”.  Worse yet, our Untranslated Literature often turns out to  the very obvious (Dumas, Simenon), or translated English (Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, El Codigo Da Vinci).

So, I salute the Mamut/Daunt initiative in Piccadilly, and very much hope that this is the start of something much bigger.

London, the World City, boasts a population drawn from every corner of the world.  The global village covers every demographic as well, from the bright young sandwich makers at Pret (where most of the staff were born outside the UK) to the old and the mega-rich in Chelsea and Belgravia.  Most of them shop and transact business in the West End – so perhaps Waterstones’ initiative could be just a starting point.

If we’re honest, the Piccadilly flagship can feel a little empty.  Two floors are given over to cafes and entertaining, and the circulation space elsewhere is huge.  The location has always been a little odd, in trade bookshop terms – Charing Cross Road or Bloomsbury feel appropriate, Oxford Street provides traffic, but Piccadilly…?

And now, suddenly, Piccadilly looks very well placed, however, if we recast it from being the biggest iteration of your standard Waterstones, to being a global bookshop, servicing a global clientele.  A Russian department is just a start – what about publishing from India and China, from South America, from France and Germany.  (And a dedicated Danish Crime section, of course.)

I’d be prepared to bet that sales densities would rise, and that Waterstones’ Piccadilly store could achieve new levels of world-wide fame.  Of course, a full global shipping service, easy transactions in multiple currencies, and access to the world’s pBook databases and eBooks files would also be essential, as would international events (with accompanying PR) and global village catering.  But I believe London could support a single, global book superstore – one that no longer defined itself not in terms of its UK customers.

Bookshops of the future, trading in a world where popular publishing is dominated by the eBook, will need to redefine themselves – typically by reference to their local communities.  Piccadilly’s community is the world – so, how about it?

Photo: ACDC Lighting