I spent Monday with the Booksellers Association Conference at the University of Warwick, and wrote up my immediate reactions in this piece, published by The Bookseller.
I do believe that there is a robust future for the best independent bookshops. But they’ll have to evolve, and to stay ahead of their customers’ expectations rather than trailing behind them. I hope that bookshop owners, publishers and their trade associations can work together to ensure that there is still a role for these businesses.
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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.
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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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.
Following my New York piece in PP this morning, The Bookseller has published my regular column. This month I visit two stores in Dorset: Wellchester, the former Woolworths in Dorset that is now a successful independent store, and Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, the brand new indie opened by Wayne Winstone.
Pictures: Crosshatch pics; core.estatevue.co.uk
AFTERWORD: It didn’t work out after all – Wellchester announced its closure in July 2012.
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