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.