I’ve just reminded myself that The Bookseller published an earlier blog from me, which arose from a splendid July day at the Chalke Valley History Festival. It went live while we were away, and it’s a bit more mellow than some of my industry overviews – mind you, I’m writing a presentation for Frankfurt at the moment, and the scope is overwhelming.
But we’ve got a little breath of Indian summer in Middlesex this afternoon, so here is an opportunity for you to read the piece.
This from My Retail Media this morning:
The gist is that ‘retailers are going to have to put emphasis on “sound, ambience, emotion and activity” to tempt the customers into physical stores so that they may be seduced into the idea of parting with their hard earned cash’.
The premise is that TJ Hughes, Habitat and Thornton’s have all failed (no, hang on, Thornton’s is still in business) because they haven’t provided retail theatre. The exemplar of retail theatrics quoted through the article is, of course, the Disney store.
I am not convinced that the article properly distinguishes between a “good retail experience” – which may be the food hall at Harrods, James Smith‘s umbrellas, or a great little hardware store, according to taste – and theatre (I’m trying not to write “retailtainment” again). Retailers succeed on value, range, location and service, but they can only flourish briefly on novelty.
The Disney Store is not an exception to this rule, but it has a particularly strong niche – a self-renewing target customer base. The merchandise in a Disney Store is targeted at a narrow age range, which is susceptible both to the brands on sale, and the theatrical presentation and service the stores offer. For parents, Disney does the job, selling exactly the toys, plush and costumes that their children want – and the kids can let off steam a little too.
However, you will soon tire of the Disney Store if you’re outside the target customer range*. Imagine having to shop there, once a month for the rest of your life. But for Disney, its customer base churns at a rate of, what, 20% a year? And providing the studios carry on delivering the hits, Disney is a good business. (Imagine it in the days before Beauty & the Beast, Lion King and Pixar. Not so good.)
No one else has achieved this, because no one else has the intellectual property. Remember Warner Bros Studio Stores, with their more ironic take on their aged cartoon characters? For one season, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam teeshirts were as ubiquitous as Superdry is today, and then, pooph! the dream was over.
The article wheels out further usuasl suspects – Anthropologie (living wall!!), Abercrombie (topless men!!), Apple (customer service!!) and Nike (tailor made shoes!!). Three of those four brands are suited only to major cities with strong tourist traffic; Abercrombie’s over-branding could yet take them the same way as Bugs Bunny, and Anthropologie sells different and interesting clothes and homewares in exciting store spaces – but you only need to see a living wall once, and so the stores are as good as this season’s collection. [Apple is only the top brand in the world – and they happen to run very good stores.]
Reader, I know whereof I speak, for once I too was in retailtainment. We provided range and service in a quality environment, selling a products everyone wanted – books, CDs, videos etc. Then history overtook us; we couldn’t format out of products customers didn’t want to buy any more, couldn’t afford to pay big store rents and charge Amazon prices. Average dwell time was 45 minutes, but average spend was too low. We piled on the retailtainment, but the novelty had faded, and the customers drifted away. Curtain.
I always try to shop at places that give me a little extra in terms of range, ambience and service. I try not to be ultra-picky about price – I’d rather buy less, and spend more per item, but that’s my choice. All good retailers understand the balance they have to achieve in order to satisfy their target demographic. TJ Hughes and Habitat (not exactly targeting the same customers) couldn’t do it any more. But the argument is about retail first principles, not retailtainment.
*I speak here of the general public – as a retailer myself, of course I find it endlessly fascinating.
Photo: Disney Store – families.com
Then We Came To The End: Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown (New York), 2007; this edition: Penguin, 2008
Something a little more contemporary. This is lighter (and better) than “The Unnamed”, with plenty of dark humour – the story of an ad business slowly failing, and how this plays out among employees. A great, pertinent read with a style we really got into.
OK, fine. That footballer, that actor, and so on, allegedly. Now we know.
I started using Twitter earlier this year, as a network-building tool to disseminate this blog. I also reactivated a Facebook account, although that’s more of a friends’n’family thing (though my teenage daughter and I have a pact not to befriend each other – some privacy is still essential).
I’m no expert on WordPress’s site stats functions – a total readership count works just fine for me. But here’s what appears to happen:
- I add a new post – automatic emails to subscribers, and an automatic Twitter message. I add posts to Facebook manually, and decided against peppering LinkedIn with my every tweet and post – it was all just too much noise.
- Post-tweet, I get an immediate spike in readers, presumably among those who aren’t working for businesses that deny access to social networks in company time – ie all the sensible ones, outside of journalists, PR people etc, whom one would reasonably expect to stay alert to trends. And then there’s the self-employed, sitting quietly at home, looking out the back window, prey to the temptations of 85 NEW TWEETS! (Zadie Smith says, never work with internet access enabled, which I guess is fine if you’re an author, less practical if you’re doing business.)
- Once my subscribers’ message and tweet have gone “below the fold”, though, the impact has largely gone, and blog readership thereafter is steady. I know there’s a group that checks me out once a week, because I get a big Saturday spike, even if I haven’t posted since Wednesday. They read Front of Store at leisure, like the weekend newspapers. And Google (and Google Alerts etc) keeps the old stuff alive, particularly if I insert a few names of movie stars here and there.
As far as social networking goes, though, I’m a bit of a dull old stick. Business tool, information source, occasional spontaneous chat, but I’m not a “Crowded train girl opposite looks like J-Lo” or “here’s a photo of my cat” kind of messageur. Nevertheless, the messages pour in, from retailers, journalists, publishing houses, miscellaneous commentators and even more miscellaneous pals. Treating it all like an email Inbox, carefully reading and noting each message, would lead to an early grave, but still… I don’t want to miss anything.
About half of those messages are trying actively to sell things to me – books, movies, digital devices, tickets to Leonardo at the National Gallery, and the services of other excellent industry consultants. Because I’ve self-selected the accounts I follow, these are pretty well tailored to my interests – but most of them fly straight over my head as I scroll past them. As marketing devices, Twitter and Facebook are failing to reach this user.
I think there are two issues here. The first is that, historically, I go shopping when I’m the mood to shop (or when I have no alternative). This applies in physical shops, and it applies online. So all those messages from dozens of different commercial entities are – almost invariably – hitting me when I’m least interested in them – too busy, memory like a sieve. And remember, I’m in my home office, much more open to marketing distractions than payroll workers.
The second is that I like to browse, rather like my Saturday Front of Store readers. This applies whether I’m doing a dull compare’n’contrast across tins of soup, or selecting my holiday reading, or buying a new camera. Both US Borders and Apple’s iBookstore have created “virtual bookshelves” online, which is a start – I’d certainly be happy to buy soup this way.
However, online marketing tools need to be more eclectic, to support serendipitous browsing, so that the consumer enjoys that “go on, surprise me!” sensation that is delivered by strong and imaginative retailers. But also – wanting it both ways – I want the retailer to be attuned to my eclectic interests. What am I hovering over? What am I “picking up and looking at”? And how quickly can the e-retailer discern my browsing propensities, as opposed to my necessary purchases – just because I’ve bought a book about how to sell my house, for instance, wouldn’t mean I had any further interest in this category. And recommendation sites like Lovereading are very click-hungry.
Neither the timing problem or my desire to browse is satisfied by Twitter “mailshots”, or by grinding my way around different e-commerce sites, whether they’re run by retailers or by primary producers. I know how long it takes to build a database of Twitter followers (please, no cheap shots about the quality of the content). There are certainly e-retailers out there who are creating a novel experience, but not one that I’d return to again and again – novelty wears thin. And there are plenty of efficient sites out there, where I can build my profile in Persil and Duchy Originals – but again, not a satisfying browse.
E-retailing now has a big slice of the consumer cake – around 10% of total retail sales in the UK. But it’s still very immature, very price/convenience based, and with much more to deliver before it comes close to the pleasure of a good, leisurely stroll around the shops.
iPad: Apple. Cat: author’s own
Whaam! Random House UK has released Q1 figures, showing that sales of eBooks under its imprints have increased ten-fold since the same quarter last year. RHUK has sold 2m eBooks in total, and the category now delivers 8% of total group sales, with customers of all the key genres (and thus, one assumes, a broad spread by age, sex and location) participating pretty much equally.
It looks as though the UK is running along nicely in the US’s wake, in which case what odds would you give against the UK Q1 2012? Simon & Schuster has just reported its global (largely US) Q1 numbers, and eBooks represented a whoppping 18% of total sales.
I am still not wholly clear how all of this is being marketed, save through a carefully nuanced focus on “if you liked this, you’ll love that” – shades of the Book Army. Something that I find extraordinary is that, having personally exited day-by-day involvement in the book trade, I no longer have much clue about what books are being published, and when. This is despite:
- Keeping up to speed with The Bookseller
- Registering for all the publisher Twitter accounts I can find
- Visiting bookshops a couple of times each week (more if I have a project on)
- Living in London and making full use of the tube network (if there’s a poster campaign, that’s where it will be)
- Reading the “quality” press and studying the book reveiws at the weekend
Most of the time, my book trade synapses are doing their stuff – but every trip to a bookshop finds another cluster of surprises – I didn’t know this this was being published, I had no idea that was available in paperback, etc. So, although I am bright and alert, the marketing is failing to get through to me as effectively as I might wish.
A couple of weeks ago, Waterstone’s manager Martin Latham wrote a thoughtful piece for the Bookseller about paperback availability, noting that – as booksellers have long decried – most of the marketing and publicity surrounding a book takes place many months before the edition that public might actually buy (ie the paperback), is published. Even Booker prizewinners and acclaimed debuts just slide surreptitiously into the stores, leaving the punter in the bookshop staring at titles and trying to remember which one he’d mentally clocked nine months earlier when Claire Armistead or Erica Wagner was so keen to draw it to his attention.
If it’s hard to know when physical books are published, how much harder will it be to find out, once eBooks are the dominant format? The answer, I guess, lies in sophisticated marketing program(me)s, wherein the customer can supply a list of her interests and favourite authors, and can perhaps allow some Big Brother app to assess her Google traffic and Twitter follows (“says she likes George Eliot, but seems to spend more time thinking about Angelina Jolie”). Recommendations (aka adverts) will duly follow.
But if you’ve never read a hard-to-pigeonhole author like Howard Jacobson or Margaret Atwood, let alone identified an up-and-coming author whose first novel gets passing coverage at best, and the showrooms (bookshops) have dwindled and closed (yes, I know I’ve made this point before), how in the eWorld are you going to find them in the future? I keep asking publihers this question. Either there is a brilliant (but currently top secret) plan in the works, or they don’t really seem to know. Marketing Lee Child or James Patterson to eBook customers probably isn’t too difficult. Breaking this decade’s Longitude or Eats Shoots and Leaves, or getting traction around the Costa First Novel shortlist, is going to be more challenging.
WH Smith in Bath, making books special.
Sometimes I wrap my head in wet towels and stare at the suburban landscape in a fever of uncertainty. EVERYTHING IS CHANGING! OLD PARADIGMS NO LONGER APPLY! How can any of us prepare for anything in an uncertain tomorrow?
I turn to my favourite old management books (Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization still #1 after all these years) and I calm down, reminded of a salient fact. Technology may change, but human nature remains fundamentally the same – sure, perhaps we have shorter attention spans in this generation, or the population is carrying more poundage round the middle than it should, but, beneath all the neophytism, is good old human nature.
So, as it’s Friday, let’s return to the eighteenth century, once again courtesy of Judith Flanders. Today, our subject is tea, which was once as exciting as smartphones and windpower, and caused a far-reaching ruckus in Boston harbor – in the 1770s, around 10% of all expenditure on food and drink in England went to tea and sugar.
Tea had not conquered the market on its intrinsic worth alone. From the late eighteenth century, it was heavily advertised… [with] many advertisements centred on competitive pricing: one merchant was “determined to sell tea at such low prices as the public have a right to expect”, another, heroically, aimed “at profits only sufficient to defray expenses, wholesale and retail”. Many claimed to be selling tea more cheaply than anywhere else; others advertised reduced prices for bulk purchases…
Some used the “loss-leader”, selling sugar at below-cost prices with the purchase of full-price tea; others gave a lottery ticket free on the purchase of a pound of tea; some offered customers “a new treatise on tea”, available, not by coincidence, with the purchase of tea; still others advertised money-back guarantees if the customers were dissatisfied; some promised to match wholesale prices, or even to undercut them…
Edward Eagleton of the Tea Warehouse in Cheapside advertised reduced prices, fixed prices for cash, mail-order sales… and sold entire chests of East India Company tea to small shopowners with only a 1% mark-up… Tea was packed and marked with the “Sign of the Grasshopper”, with a money-back guarantee and the motto “Taste, try, compare and judge”.
Image from www.food-info.net
* * * * *
Back to the twentieth (yes) century… the Guardian carried a farewell to second-hand bookshops on Wednesday. A profound change has taken place to our towns, mostly unremarked, mostly on the margins, and greatly missed.
* * * * *
And (finally) back to 2011, and Len Riggio’s keynote speech to the AAP. An address both upbeat and uplifting, he makes the interesting observation that, if the mass market for fiction moves markedly to digital formats, mass merchants will “downsize or abandon their sale of books”. Books are no more “core” to Wal-Mart or Tesco than VCRs or Walkmans, and if the profit-per-shelf-metre on books drops below a critical level, supermarkets’ commitment to books will fall exponentially.
* * * * *
I am reading: Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders (Harper Perennial) – link above
I am listening to: Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2
I am watching: the Japanese tsunami, suddenly and shockingly, as I write this
Quote of the Week: Uncertainty about the economy has left Britain like a “country waiting for its exam results” – Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of JLP
It’s all been Borders, Borders, Borders for the past few days – I’ve written further on the topic for Publishing Perspectives, which you can read here.
So, today, without straying too far from our appointed texts, I want to look into the future, and ponder the retail cost of an eBook.
As I have previously written (and I’m far from alone, see Boyd Tonkin at the Independent), there is a battle going on between those who want to maximise the income they can derive from eBooks (which is understandable), and those who find so much of interest online that is free, that any attempt to charge them for content must be a big fat rip-off (this is also understandable).
This creates interesting philosophical questions around the value one applies to a product that doesn’t physically exist, and that, moreover, gives a single beneficial use before becoming largely redundant.
Paying for physical goods is a very different to paying for intangible services. I might pay more than I can afford for a picture on the wall, or less than I morally should for clothing from a cut-price store, but I least I have the thing, the object, with a value upon it, and I hold myself accountable for the price I paid.
Intangible services are different. Take something dismal, like insurance. Unless I claim, this product is useless, a waste of money, and a source of grievance each year when the premiums come around. And when I do need to make a claim, it’s hardly straightforward, but I have to buy the product, and that’s that – “you can’t put a value on peace of mind”.
And now, we have intangible goods. These have tended to be:
– relatively cheap, like iTunes
– expensive, but the product keeps on coming, like satellite TV subscriptions
– paid for by someone else – the company pays for those subscriptions to online professional journals, not the user
An eBook, by contrast, looks quite expensive, and in most cases (ie most narrative content), will be used (read) just once. My 99p iTune gets 20 plays before I get tired of it, whereas my eBook gets read once.
Now, I am in the Tonkin camp – I think books are too cheap, and I believe that society has been taught to under-value them. But we are where we are, and I am fearful of the next race towards the bottom.
Let’s assume that there is a right and fair price for a physical book, and let’s assume, to keep it simple, that it’s £10.
If I purchase this book from a chain bookstore, then (keeping the numbers round), the publisher gets £5, and the retailer gets £5. The publisher pays the author, the paper merchant, the printer and the distributor; pays for their own infrastructure and covers their marketing costs. The retailer pays for premises, staff, their infrastructure, and their marketing costs. (There will have been much horse-trading between publisher and retailer on marketing costs.) Both hope to make a few bob profit from the deal.
So, eliminate the retailer, and let’s assume that the costs of creating and maintaining digital content aren’t dissimilar to the cost of printing and distribution (a low proportion of the total value anyway). So the retail cost of the eBook should be £5.
However, and this is where we reach today’s thesis, how does the reader find out that the eBook exists? Book marketing has always been relatively low-cost. A launch party and review copies to drive press and media coverage. Advertising on the transport networks and in targeted magazines. And the holy grail, word of mouth recommendation.
The inventiveness of book marketing and PR, on budgets that wouldn’t keep Procter & Gamble or Unilever in paperclips for a week, is remarkable. Books are interesting, but they’re rarely glamorous, and they don’t generate much gossip fodder. (Even when Martin Amis flares up, it’s only really of interest to those in the know.)
But books have had one great marketing tool – national chains of showrooms in every town, that have enabled the online buyer, supermarket shopper or eBook reader, to browse as many titles as they like, read whole chapters, photograph the covers, note down the ISBNs and then purchase elsewhere. These showrooms (also known as “bookshops”) are now closing down across the western world, and their numbers will fall much further over the next couple of years.
So, if the showrooms close down, how will the publisher alert the reader to the existence of new downloadable content? “Social networking!” say the youngsters, but I don’t see this as a substitute for bookshop serendipity. My Facebook and Twitter pals flood my devices with a welter of messages, and I ignore at least 90% of them. Furthermore, while my pals are typically people who share my background or taste, they aren’t me. They don’t know I might be harbouring new interests, and that I might be susceptible to republished 1930s novels, or accounts of the Franco-Prussian War. And because my daughter browses Amazon more than me, Jeff Bezos thinks I’m mostly interested in frocks.
Bookshops have been a remarkably efficient tool for matching the right reader to the right book, because the reader is prepared to invest time in bookshop browsing. Online sellers have tried every which way – “You Might Also Like”, “Look Inside” – but these tools often just take the reader round in circles. People who bought Our Kind of Traitor also bought Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Great, but I’ve read that, and anyway, I’m done with le Carre for the time being, thanks.
If the established publishing houses are going to continue to bring us variety and innovation; if they are to support new authors, experimental authors, foreign authors (bones of contention all), then finding the readers for these eBooks is going to require a substantial increase in the volume, reach, quality and cost of marketing.
Quite how this will be done without my allowing Google to flog my search details to any third party (please don’t), or by having me fill in lots of online forms about my interests, or by me having to scour the Twitter feeds from every publisher, every day, to understand what will work for me, I don’t know. Whatever the approach, it will cost money, and it will require sophisticated consumer targeting.
What I do know is that bookshops sold books – sold books online, sold eBooks, sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Without these showrooms, the process of alerting consumers to new titles, and keeping old titles alive, is going to be a very different and challenging prospect.
Amidst the sector’s well-publicised travails, hard-working store teams continue to open their doors and invite the public in. I popped into my local Waterstone’s yesterday, and was reminded about what bookstores do well – and how different the process of consuming literature (“the process of consuming literature”? – what a revolting concept) will be once everything has been digitised.
Chains and independents do different things, or different versions of the same thing. Waterstone’s has to deliver a corporate offer, and I thought the suite of promotions installed for February was pretty much spot-on for the market.
Three promos, none of them rocket science:
1. The Valentine’s offer – mandatory to every retailer this side of Kwik-Fit. An informed selection of appropriate titles, literary enough not to disgrace the brand, supported by a handful of sensibly priced DVDs, cards and other gift items. An on-brand Emma Bridgewater gift bag completes the offer. Some good, loved-up POS to support the offer, though perhaps the product could have been merched (“shrined” as we used to say at Borders) together to better effect. 14th February this year is a Monday, which, given the British Male’s aptitude for forward planning, should make for a great retail weekend.
2. Reading Group favourites – absolutely the right time of the year for this promo; the customers have got all those “new year/new you” concepts out of their hair, but the evenings are still dark – time to reanimate the reading groups. Nice title selection, a combination of the tried-and-tested and some less obvious stuff. Multibuy, of course. Are reading groups encouraged to contact each other through Waterstone’s (this branch is too small for them to meet in)?
3. Sebastian Faulks on Fiction, the lead title plus a core stock selection of the characters discussed in the upcoming BBC Two series. The media coverage will be excellent, and there are always good reasons to promote Becky Sharp, Sherlock Holmes or John Self to new readers.
Three good, strong chain bookstore promotions. The bigger and busier the shop, I hope the greater the opportunity for booksellers to recommend, promote, face-out, table-up and hand-sell their favourite titles, in addition to the centrally-driven promos.
The service in the store was great – cheerful, helpful, informed but not pushy. The customer feels that they are among friends. Result – I bought four books, having gone in without any one title in mind.
And, returning to my first paragraph, what other strand of book retailing can do this? Anyone can jump on a promotional bandwagon, and an online bookseller can add whistles and bells to Faulks, for instance, by drawing my attention to every Jeeves title, rather than just the 1-2 that the bookstore has in the core promo. Sometimes, though, the choice online is stifling – my brain can’t handle so much variety, so I’ll stick with what I’m most familiar with. The serendipity of the bookshop is difficult to replicate.
As bookstores start to go the way of coaching inns, I’ll return in future posts to “what bookstores do well”. Looking forward, I’ll acknowledge that online, digital and supermarkets have their strengths too. They’d better have, if they’re going to deliver all my future literature consumption process needs. Watch this space.
Tip of the hat to Mark Schneyer for inadvertently inspiring this post.