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.
A scintillating day yesterday at the FutureBook Conference at the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.
2011 has been the Year of Change, with digital content and eReading becoming established across the sector, thanks to the explosive success of the Kindle and (to a lesser extent) the iPad. The potential of smarter and more versatile devices, allied to social networking in the very broadest sense, has got people like Stephen Page rethinking the whole publishing paradigm – and it was great to see experienced but independent leading publishers like Page, Rebecca Smart and Kate Wilson being recognised for picking up the old business models and giving them a damned good shake. It was also refreshing to see more young and/or independent delegates, who will reshape the face of publishing over the next 5-10 years.
Dominique Raccah, CEO of Chicago-based Sourcebooks, kicked off:
Ereader users believe they are purchasing more titles. The evidence suggests, yes; but the industry still lacks a reliable eBook “chart” in the UK and the US, and Amazon/Apple are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to sharing their data.
Ereader users believe their overall spend on books has risen. As overall spend (eBooks + pBooks) has fallen, this is hard to prove.
Ereader users believe they’re reading more. Again, ths is unproven, though there may be a link to “dual screen” use, whereby the user browses a device (most typically, an iPAd) at the same time as they’re watching TV.
A snapshot of the Top 85 Kindle charts in the US: 66% of titles were published by “traditional” publishers; 18% were self-published; and 16% came from “non-traditional” (ie digital) publishers. nb for the traditionalists, this compares to about 95% (my guess!) trad publishers in the average print bookshop.
Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury divided the audience with his “hardcover + eBook” proposal (he’d charge a 25% premium for the bundle, which presumably would include a VAT element). Personally, I’m gung-ho for this idea, particularly as Evan reminded us of the difference between “books” (objects that deliver permanence and permit display), and “reading” (which is all about content).
I sometimes chuckle at the “convenience” argument around eBooks. Is it really a whole lot more convenient to carry an eReader than a single book? (Do you remember, in the dim, dark days before Kindle, when you used to say “I’d love to read more, but carrying a book is so inconvenient“?) It’s the enhanced convenience of carrying lots of books, and being able to purchase when you wish. These are great qualities, though perhaps they encourage the grasshopper mentality of the dual-screener? (Research suggests that 26% of Kindle users do this.)
Meanwhile, while the take-off trajectory of eReaders has been, and will continue to be, spectacular; though bear in mind that 76% of book-buyers have yet to buy any kind of eBook and – according to BML research – over 50% of those aged 35 or over don’t at present intend to do so.
Finally – I think this was an AT Kearney stat – European eBook sales currently break down as follows: 52% of all eBook purchases take place in the UK. Germany – where Thalia’s Oyo is making the running – delivers 28%. After that, France is at 7%, Italy 3%, and the rest of the continent 10%.
This brief run-down of stats doesn’t give the reader any real flavour of the optimism, enthusiasm and boundary-breaking that characterised great ideas and discussion from William Higham, Valla Vakili, Charlie Redmayne, John Mitchinson and many, many more. But we need to press on…
OK, let’s talk about bookshops
It fell to me to wave my accustomed bucket of cold water around the Fleming Room, and to remind the Conference that this once-in-300-years reshaping of the industry is taking place during the worst consumer downturn, and the worst set of economic forecasts, for many, many years. New devices, formats and ideas are being launched into the teeth of last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, which promised austerity beyond the next election, and a return to 2001 living standards in – 2017? 2020? Providing the Euro doesn’t implode, of course – then things will be much worse.
So, book people need to be thinking not just about how to reshape their industry in such a way as to preserve copyright, encourage new talent and stop Our Friends in Seattle (or, more broadly, the “GAFA” group*) from dominating commerce and innovation; they need to embed that change at the same time as Joe Public is devoting his dwindling income to candles and tinned food.
I was chairing a discussion panel that brought together Kobo vendor relations manager Cameron Drew, Hive development manager Julie Howkins, Middle East bookseller/publisher Jeremy Brinton, Retail Week Knowledge Bank director Robert Clark, and Leo Burnett marketing strategist Dr Alan Treadgold. Here are some of our key points:
The UK pBook market has consoidated to one specialist (Waterstone’s), one generalist (WH Smith) and one website, which between them meet most of the needs of committed book-buyers. (Of course, there are also three participating supermarket chains, though they aren’t specialist by any definition.) This represents a real narrowing of the market – but perhaps that market will now start to broaden again, driven by feisty and more self-confident indies, the arrival of eReader alternatives to the Kindle (specifically Kobo), and an expanding reach (devices, channels, formats) from the Stephen Page-defined world of broad publishing.
However, no one has yet resolved the “showroom” conundrum: once its sales have fallen by around 20%, a physical bookshop becomes untenable, and has to close. Bookshops can move to cheaper premises, can sell a broader range of products (toys, coffee etc), but unless they are actively participating in eBook sales, their market share will be eroded beyond recovery. This will leave those 50% aged 35+ who don’t intend to buy an eReader for Amazon to scoop up into their search-excellent, browse-lousy world.
The panel recommended some solutions to this problem:
Ereader manufacturers that partner with retailers can encourage consumers into a bookshop relationship without committing them to a non-transferable, Amazon-type scenario. Hive-affiliated bookshops (currently about one-third of serious indies?) can sell eBooks in multiple formats, and share in the revenue they generate, as well as creating local incentives for their customers. And Kobo’s retailer partnership model (WHS, Fnac, Indigo etc) clearly has legs.
Physical bookshops must use their websites to drive store footfall. One of the UK’s most consistently successful retailers, Richer Sounds, has a strong eCommerce site, which nevertheless acts primarily as a driver to get customers into personality-saturated stores, where they can test the product and take advice from trained staff. There’s a bookshop model here.
Click-and-Collect is growing swiftly as a preferred distribution channel for many customers. 26% of Argos’s business is Click & Collect, and M&S, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are among the retailers investing heavily in this service. Click & Collect allows the customer to pick up their goods at a time convenient to them – and of course exposes them to personal service, and many more buying opportunities.
Social networking through eReaders (Kobo Vox) can bring reading communities together, and could be curated by bookshops who currently support reading groups. Events and literary festivals not only bring together readers with shared interests, but underline a bookshop’s specialisms. (And deliver healthy book sales to boot.) In short, community runs through good bookselling like the words in a stick of rock, and good staff matter more in bookselling than perhaps any other retail sector.
Everyone in the world of books – publishers, authors, retailers, analysts – needs to be focusing more on their end customer: the person who buys the book. Historically (ie until a few months ago) publishers tended to view retailers as their customers, with (as John Makinson has noted) a B2B mindset at odds with the creation, marketing and selling of consumer products. Book trade people need to be aware of retailing best practice, and to understand how consumers and retailers are behaving in sectors far away from their own. We cannot integrate ourselves into 21st century lives while still behaving at one remove from our readers.
Finally, there is a common retail trend running through all sectors – fashion, homewares, electrical etc – and that’s a trend for fewer, better shops. We certainly have fewer bookshops than we had five years ago, and it seems likely that the number will continue to fall. Those that are left must be digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement.
*GAFA: Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon. Each is developing a vertically integrated suite of services and functions, as follows:
The walls around each of their gardens vary in height.
Not a great deal of action on the Front of Store blog in the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been out on the road a lot, assessing stores, formats and catchments. Plenty of news in the retail sector, though, with the end of the Best Buy brand in the UK, and the sale of Comet for £2 (with a £50m dowry); as the Observer comments on the electricals sector this morning:
Amazon’s small overheads and Tesco’s huge scale have enabled cheaper products to eat away at the specialists’ profits. So far they have resisted the fate of the book and record stores swept off the high street by online rivals. Could the worsening economy now push yet another retail category into the virtual universe?
It has been a difficult autumn across most retail categories, with the continued mild weather slowing down sales of winter fashion and precipitating a series of one-day events at the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams. Recent results at Next and Marks & Spencer both illustrated how challenging the middle market is, even for the best-run businesses, and WH Smith unveiled lower sales and higher profits for the nth successive quarter – Nils Pratley has commented astutely on this. (Nationally, book sales are poor, running 12% down on 2010 last week.)
There are just 41 shopping days left until Christmas, and though the streets of Staines were busy yesterday afternoon, there’s still a lot more window shopping than actual commerce taking place. Consumers are well-versed on tough Christmases now, and the question is not “will prices fall?” so much as “how early will the sales start?”. There’s already plenty of red-and-white in the windows, as hard-pressed retailers seek to liquidate stock and free up cash.
London’s West End tourist boom continues, with Crown Estates announcing that there will be fewer, larger stores in Regent Street in the future; Westfield Stratford has welcomed millions of customers (I’ll be back there on Tuesday) and has indicated that the old Whitgift Centre in Croydon could be next for the Westfield treatment. But London has never been as disassociated from the rest of the country, in retail terms, as it is now.
It’s going to be a difficult Christmas, with every sale a small victory against consumers’ tight purses and low levels of “feel-good” (despite that “Capracorn” John Lewis ad). Online will grow, device sales will soar (Best Buy may be dead, but Wireless World is Carphone’s focus now) and new retail formats will emerge on the shoulders of the old.
On a lighter note, here are a couple of stores positioning themselves for the future of the book trade:
Welcome back to the second part of the Front of Store Westfield tour…
Sticking with the Lower Ground Floor, we emerged from the phone shops into a world of children’s specialists. Build-a-Bear, Lego and upscale clothes stores like Polarn O Pyret and Atelier de Courcelles are already in evidence; Mamas & Papas will follow on a higher level. (Observation: upmarket children’s stores have foreign names. JoJo Maman Bébé would be another. Whereas the mass market has clunkier, English names.)
So, The Entertainer. The six-day toyshop is a staple in many shopping centres, and this was a pretty standard store – reasonably fully stocked, but many popular brands had been allocated limited space or were unstocked, and generic product took their place. Putting all the rollerblades in “Boys Toys”, including the pink ones, summed up a rather formulaic experience; staff stayed firmly behind the tills (including those wearing “can I help you?” sashes), which rather defeats the experiential joy of a good toyshop. We left, feeling a bit flat, and crossed the mall to Mothercare. Here, shopfit quality has been lifted (attractive light woods and pastels), and roomsets show off nursery furniture to advantage, but again, there were no staff on the sales floor. The customer may have sought assistance with car seats or buggies, or wanted some show-and-tell in the curiously unbranded Early Learning section at the rear, but all staff were again coralled behind the tills.
Retailing isn’t easy at the moment (you may have noticed), but it does seem curious to under-staff your most important new stores within a week of opening. If you can’t throw some payroll hours at converting new customers to your brand, and you don’t have a high-concept store design or radical new products, how are you going to get your store to stand out from 300 others at Westfield?
Pausing to admire the publishers’ pack-shots on the Foyles hoarding (opening next month), we headed into one of Westfield’s biggest draws, the John Lewis store. And our initial impressions were… oh dear. This has all gone badly wrong.
The Partnership has built a large store that feels small. Perhaps the escalator cut-out is too big, but where M&S is spacious, JLP is cramped and tight, particularly on Lower Ground, where the juxtaposition of menswear to the right and kitchenware to the left feels absurd. The shopfloor has been segmented using fretworked screens and other devices which only serve to further cramp the feel of the place – the aisles are tight, and the product juxtapositions frankly bizarre. And the severed hands hanging from the ceiling are downright creepy.
Things improve on what Westfield calls the Ground Floor, and JLP calls First (women’s fashion, accessories and beauty), and things are as they should be here and on First/Second (furnishings and fabrics). The top floor is strong, with the best toy offer we’d seen all day – at last, someone carrying all the brands, facing the plush towards the customer, and keeping the offer clear. But the top floor also contains a big fat compromise of a space, which may explain why the bottom floor is such a dogs’ dinner. A huge London 2012 shop sells every imaginable take on Olympic mascots and logos, complete with a viewing gallery offering a sensational panorama of the Olympic park. This must take up over a quarter of the total retail space on the floor, so you have to conclude that several categories will exit the lowest level and move to the top in due course – but not until autumn 2012.
An aside – isn’t it about time we stopped treating the 1960s as the pinnacle of British grooviness? Routemaster buses, Concordes and original Minis barely exist in modern London, and are surely irrelevant to our image of a 21st century cosmopolitan capital city. At least red phones boxes and beefeaters still exist, but we need better, more modern icons.
Back to the shops, but before we leave John Lewis (after a reliable lunch at The Place To Eat) I should note that customer service was as exemplary as ever. There’s nothing unfixable about this store, but it wasn’t delivering the experience we’d come to expect.
What makes John Lewis more profoundly disappointing is the quality of Marks & Spencer. M&S has created a proper department store in a free-standing building that provides a sense of occasion on every level. I haven’t seen the prototype fit at Kensington High Street, but this was a classy, well laid-out and very shoppable offer. Menswear (complete with a tailor running up alterations, and much clearer definition for brands like Blue Harbour) was simply the best I’ve ever seen in an M&S; home and furnishing were strong, and a delightful top-floor cafe offered treats that the customer could also buy from the Foodhall. I’ve written recently about the challenging legacy of old stores that M&S has to deal with; by contrast, in a brand new space, they are creating some of the best retailing in the UK.
Clinton’s has made a bold attempt to update its image. The orange and purple trialled in St Albans is much in evidence, but some of the shopfitting was cheap, and the juxtaposition between a funkier feel and some of the granny-targeted merchandise was jarring. Service was excellent, though; Clinton has too many shops, many of them desperately old and tired, but there’s a place afor a mid-market gift/card chain, and one hopes that the new management team can move the business forward.
Timothy Melgund at Paperchase has often asserted he runs a fashion brand, rather than a stationery shop, and the new store is on the prime fashion pitch, beautifully presented and ideally sized. Cards can be generic things, and Clinton/Scribbler/WHS are subject to constant price comparisons with the supermarkets; Paperchase overlays some quality and product uniqueness, and lifts itself well clear of the fray.
A few years ago, a vast HMV would have taken dominant space in a new mall like Westfield. Not any more – a smaller unit on a side aisle has to suffice. The CD/DVD offer is what it is, slowly and inexorably declining (though it doesn’t look as though anyone has told the buyers – stock density is extreme); games appear to have been circumscribed, and the technology offer – pitched to save the business – hasn’t noticeably moved on from the Islington protoptype. This was very disappointing; Apple, Currys/PC World Black, and the upper end phone stores were displaying better tech on better fixtures, with dangly cables under control, and staff to explain and sell. HMV offers MP3 players, boomboxes (archaic term, sorry) and accessories, but it’s hard to see for whom this store would be first choice for this product. Execution of these ranges will have to be more stimulating if they’re to offer any real hope to HMV.
Next time I visit Westfield, I look forward to seeing more stores trading – there are still a lot of “under constructions” and “to-be-lets”. I’ll rope in a teenage daughter and we’ll take a proper look at fashion. However, I also wanted to understand where the customers were coming from. Great play has been made of Stratford’s connectedness – two tube lines, Overground, DLR, national rail and direct links to the Continent, plus an adjacent bus station. You can reach Westfield directly from any of these, but plenty of people are entering on foot from “old” Stratford.
Old Stratford compares very badly to Westfield and the Olympic Park, reminding the visitor of how deprived parts of our capital can be. A one-way system encircles the old Stratford shopping centre, so that most foot traffic passes through a dingy mall and across knackered highways to reach Westfield. Display boards promote upcoming public realm improvements (clouds on sticks!), but it is hard to see how this sort of surface flim-flam can improve the residential and commercial environment.
Stratford’s old mall is big, dating back to 1970s planning models that brought whole town centres under one roof (think Camberley, Eastleigh). The interior is dark and crowded, stinks of cheap disinfectant, and is full of the crowds you can see on the bridge above, pushing their way through and past the old shopping experience and on to Westfield.
Massive regeneration will surely help the area, creating jobs and housing. A masterplan was signed off by Newham Council at the end of last year – just five years after the successful Olympic bid. Serious thought needs to be given to local shopping provision – presumably the duplicate chains in the old scheme will be seeking to exit, leaving market stalls and pound shops behind them. A decent, modern supermarket would be a good start, but at present, the contrast between Westfield and its immediate surroundings is too stark. The number of shoppers in Westfield suggests long-term success (though, as I indicated in Part One, the Olympics need to come and go before retailers will have an objective picture of their performance). To the south, Canary Wharf’s wealth has largely failed to trickle out to its immediate surroundings, beyond the gated apartments and highways. A scheme like Bluewater – turn left off the M25 and head for the quarry – has little integration with Dartford and Gravesend. Westfield and Stratford City, on the other hand, are in the heart of the deprived East End, and can – must – do better.
Photos: Telegraph, Design Week, Mail/Getty
I published a piece on Saturday about the unprecedented expansion of our major chain stores in the 1930s. Despite its ups and downs, one of the strongest survivors from that era is Marks & Spencer, and no sooner had I finished waxing elegiac than this story arrived from My Retail Media. Having invested around £2 billion in capital improvements under Stuart Rose, M&S is going to have to pump in another £600m to keep up, as Marc Bolland seeks to make stores “more inspiring”.
In large part, this is a legacy of those stores of the 1930s, built to a plan that no longer provides the flexibility that today’s retailers need. Updating what was state-of-the-art eighty or more years ago is heart-stoppingly difficult. There’s no better example than Selfridge’s total store revamp on Oxford Street. Freed from Sears Group, the store tore a hole the size of an apartment block out of the middle of the store, and installed the escalator banks that Selfridge’s had always needed, west, centre and east. The remainder of the store was reconfigured around these new axes.
But that was just one shop. And M&S’s ageing estate is still rife with difficult and expensive challenges – escalators clinging to walls (are they still up-only in some locations?), low ceiling heights, level changes in floors, and a too many vertical columns in the absence of today’s long, load-bearing steel beams. Some of this can be exploited charmingly in more exclusive boutiques, but it hampers M&S significantly. And the company still has too many city centre sites that are just too small, or suffer from having the offer split across more than one location (the Greenbury Littlewoods acquisition…).
Visit a new-build M&S, on a retail park such as Hayle in Cornwall, or Parc Fforestfach in Swansea, and you’ll be struck by the difference. Space, flexibility and ease of navigation are all hugely improved, and the store experience is somehow much more informal and – in a sense – less “Marks-and-Spencery”. M&S still carries a great deal of legacy baggage which – sometimes problematically for management – can be well-loved by shoppers for whom M&S is part shop, part institution.
I’m looking forward to seeing M&S’s latest iteration at Westfield Stratford (retail boys’ day out next week). However, having read that Waitrose has just spent £15m upgrading a single, relatively modern store, I suspect that £600m will not be the end of the company’s necessary capital investment.
Photo: Estates Gazette
For some weeks I’ve been absorbed in Juliet Gardiner’s account of The Thirties, an 800-page account of that “low, dishonest decade”. It’s a period that has always fascinated me – the novels, films, architecture and transport of the Thirties were all extraordinarily innovative. Politically, it was a dire period; Britain probably had a better 1930s than most, but the era can still be summed up as Slump/Abdication/Munich – little to reminisce about fondly, even if that nice Bertie did conquer his stammer.
I was on a train home on Thursday after a mildly bibulous evening in town, when I reached Gardiner’s account of chain retailing in the Thirties (pp 532-542). The world came alive with detail, which I Twittered keenly to whomever might be reading:
Boots Nottingham factory was opened in 1933 by the dowager Mrs Boot, smashing a bottle of eau de cologne on the staircase.
1000th Boots was Galashiels. 1st purchase (Bovril, Lifebuoy, Ovaltine, cod liver oil) was broadcast live to a lunch party in the Savoy.
M&S at the ’30s Pantheon flagship advertised its offer as “a forest of apparel”.
Bentalls of Kingston would buy up all the floral decorations from the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and recycle them instore.
That last message must have hit a sweet spot, as Bentalls themselves re-tweeted it and it bounced around on the social networks for several hours afterwards.
Almost as frequently cited as Auden’s quote about the Thirties is Priestley’s observation of “three Englands” – the depressed areas, built around old industry; rural England, pretty as a picture and poor as church mice; and the new England of by-passes, roadhouses, aerodromes and picture palaces.
Retailers like Marks & Spencer, Boots and Sainsbury’s were Victorian foundations; Woolworth and Burton were Edwardian; and WH Smith goes back to 1792. However, it was in the Thirties that all of these chains expanded spectacularly, adding stores in a manner unprecedented before or since. They played a significant part in the development of the “third England”.
Older shops were swept away, but I’d argue that, architecturally, the country benefitted. Without strict planning regulations, chain stores could tear down and build pretty much where and what they wanted, but – unlike most of today’s retailers – they built to last, with an eye to creating interesting architecture, as well as a clear brand statement.
Marks & Spencer, still lifting its image from the Penny Bazaar to the middle class home from home, employed establishment architect Robert Lutyens to create stripped-back classical/deco facades in white, flat-colonnaded stone. You can still see them in dozens of high streets today:
Splendid buildings, looking more than a little diminished by modern branding. But at least M&S still occupies a great many of its stores (of course, it was one of the last retailers to start using sale-and-leaseback).
Montagu Burton, the Fifty Shilling Tailor, exploded across the country between the wars, building faience-faced stores in prominent locations. Many of these have passed out of the company’s hands (now subsumed in Arcadia), but the legacy remains, sometimes sadly diminished:
The detailing on these buildings could be wonderful – take a look at the elephants in this picture of Weston-Super-Mare:
And the Tailor of Taste’s old logo is still visible across the country:
I recommend the Burton Deco pool on Flickr to those who want to see more of Burton’s superb detailing.
FW Woolworth took more of a “Queen Anne” approach to their shops, typically favouring brick finishes with stone detail:
It’s now nearly three years since Woolworths’ demise, but their stores live on:
Woolworth also built an extraordinary six-storey store in Blackpool, which might easily be mistaken for a Civic Centre, or the headquarters of Imperial Airways:
This was a bold era for chain retailers, who for the first time were able to offer a truly consistent national offer. Architectural distinction (about which you can read much more in this book) was one thing, but what excited the shoppers was what they found inside. Technical innovations like escalators and neon lighting were accompanied by a greater emphasis on self-service, and the opportunity for customers to pick up and compare products before they bought. Big stores boasted milk bars, palm court restaurants with waitress service and string quartets, and some extraordinary roof gardens. Montagu Burton built snooker halls above his shops – he was a teetotaller, and believed in creating places of alcohol-free recreation for his young male clientele. (And if they passed through the shop and made a purchase, it was good business too.)
The 1930s rate of construction and shop opening (Boots was opening two branches a week for years at a stretch) wasn’t to be repeated after the war. Although individual store groups continued to open new shops (particularly to replace blitz damage, and in the New Towns), there was less architectural consistency, and chain stores preferred to move into leased “anchor locations” in the precincts and shopping malls built by construction companies. There are still retailers – John Lewis, Selfridge’s – seeking to create stores that add quality and interest to the streetscape, but the unique chain surge of the 1930s is unlikely ever to be repeated.
Photo credits: bowroaduk on Flickr; jackdeighton.co.uk; budsby on Flickr; Philip Watson on Flickr; fadedlondon.blogspot.com; ross-on-wye.com; soultsretailview.co.uk; lancashireimages.co.uk