Saturday, January 23, 2010

Opinion: An open letter to Waterstone's management
Written by Andrew Hayward in BookBrunch
Thursday, 21 January 2010

Waterstone’s is a great company with tremendous potential, writes Andrew Hayward. Here is what I would do

Dear Simon Fox and Dominic Myers,

I hope you’ll forgive my presumption in sharing my thoughts on the future of Waterstone’s. I know it is not my place to tell you how to run your company.
I write this because:
a) I have had a great business relationship with Waterstone’s for 20 years;
b) I care passionately about Waterstone’s.
Having spent the last 25 years with Penguin and Constable & Robinson, I think my comments are, at the least, worthy of consideration. A sign of my seriousness is that I have even given up my Saturday afternoon at the rugby to pen this missive.

First, Waterstone’s is a highly recognised brand in the high street: I do not know what the recognition factor is but I would reckon it to be about 70%, which is an impressive indicator of how far the chain has come since 1982. And Dominic will know how much greater it has always been than Ottakar’s, Books Etc, and indeed the recently deceased Borders. In my view the big problem of the last four or five years has been that Waterstone’s has allowed itself to be dragged into competing with the supermarkets, trying to reach the mass of C1s and C2s, with the result that all that you have done is to alienate the core Waterstone’s market.

I can think of 15 people, long-term Waterstone’s supporters, who since last summer have given up and who now buy their goods elsewhere. This is partly because of problems with the hub and partly because the chain has got rid of good booksellers and replaced them with people who have no knowledge of the book world and no affinity with books.

Knowledgeable booksellers were one of the big advantages that you held over Amazon. Indeed, at the IPG conference in March the head of Amazon UK agreed that this was their Achilles heel.

People argue that the very presence of bookshops on the high street is under threat. As the person who a few years ago, at a BA conference in Dublin, disagreed with the American business guru who argued that high street booksellers were dead, and that the future was in out-of-town retail centres, I say again – rubbish! Yes, of course bookshops are under threat from Amazon, but they offer so much more than Amazon.

First, they offer instant gratification: I want a book, and I want it now. On a day off I love to wander around a book shop, make my choice and then go off, buy a coffee, and settle down for a good read.

Secondly, bookshops are a great place to browse and to find hidden treasures; you cannot really do that on Amazon. Book lovers love to feel and indeed even sniff their books.
Thirdly, bookshops have windows onto the high street - what a wonderful place to advertise your wares and to tempt people in. I am sorry, but “recommendations from Amazon lie flat on my laptop screen, and if my eye is caught I cannot just pop in and open the actual book, as I can in my local Waterstone’s”. That last comment was made by my 16-year-old godson, who is aiming to study science at university.

Fourthly, a point I have already touched on: bookseller knowledge. People want advice; they want to know the forgotten name of the book that they read about in the Sunday papers; or, as I witnessed this morning in a local bookshop, they might be going abroad – this person was visiting Austria – and wanting the best travel guide. Years ago, in the Waterstone’s Hampstead shop, a friend of mine, a history graduate working as the history buyer there, gave such good advice a customer in the final year of his history degree at UCL that the student ended up getting all his books at the Hampstead shop.

I worry that I sound like an old fogey, but I honestly believe that customer service and a wide range of stock are your USPs. You are the nation’s booksellers, and you have to get across the message to a very wide section of the population who are book buyers that you are the shops for them. An advertising campaign might promote Waterstone’s as offering the genuine bookshop experience. Get people such as Stephen Fry, Alan Davies and Will Young to front it, and you win credibility with a very wide audience.

The loyalty card and the Waterstone’s internet buying site are both great ideas. I have a loyalty card, and several times I have been in another bookshop and about to buy a book before thinking I would hang on and buy it in Waterstone’s. Crucially, however, I very rarely hear from your internet site, whereas I often hear from Amazon. I would prefer to buy from Waterstone’s, but I need to be reminded that you are there and that you have offers.
Also, Waterstone’s should use its mailing list to email customers about upcoming events at the shops. Following on from that last comment, you should seek to have more events in the bookshops. It is a great way to build footfall and a customer base. It is also a free and effective way of getting your name in the local press. If you want to see how effective it can be, just look at Robert Topping and his shop in Bath.

I would also offer a wrapping service. It will not bring in much money, but it is an extra income stream. Likewise upmarket fountain pens: you would be surprised at how many people, if they are going to write rather than email, will use good, stylish pens.

I’d give more power to the individual bookshops and to the managers and their teams. This should be reflected in a really good bonus if the shop does well. Also, I would suggest that the shops look to interact more with local communities. And Waterstone’s could do with a better media profile. We don’t just want to hear about the chain when it is failing to make its figures. Waterstone’s should initiate debate, not only follow.

Waterstone’s has a presence throughout the British Isles. There has to be some advantage in being in that position. It also has a great reputation for stocking a wide range of books for children, and you have some great children’s departments in your stores. The point being that if you get loyalty from a child, he or she is likely to stay with you through school years, university years and so on. Finally, I have heard of some very exciting and positive proposals from your own frontline staff, and they know the realities of being on the shop floor day by day.

I think you are in a very exciting position with a great deal of potential, and I am sure that this year will give you strong growth.

Andrew Hayward was previously Commercial Director at Constable & Robinson

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