Two's a Queue

Retail, eCommerce, usability, customer experience, service, technology...

Friday, 1 March 2013

Just keep swimming...offline selling in the digital age

Retail commentator Leon Bailey-Green wrote a few weeks ago about the influx of opinions since the demise of HMV on what should have/could have/was stupid not to do with the business in the face of a period of significant change within it's vertical. Everyone all of a sudden had an opinion on why HMV failed, what they should have done and how slow they were to do it. That's kind of fair enough - events in our industry stimulate conversation and I wouldn't want it any other way. Yet Leon was right in saying that it's rare that before the demise anyone has any helpful suggestions, is this because we feel more confident criticising after the fact? Or are we all bandwagon jumpers who just like the HMV management team equally didn't see the real stinng of digital coming? Leon suggested those who criticised HMV for being slow to change should make some suggestions about Waterstones (widely considered another dead-int-the-water thanks to Amazon retailer). I thought about this a bit, and here's mine.

I'm caveat-ing this with the fact that I genuinely know nothing about the internal workings of their business, and that no doubt there are 'ooh but that's not profitable', 'that's too much cash', 'that's not possible with their debt/organisational/store structure' grumblings out there even as I'm writing this, and I'm fully aware this is likely not going to save anyone from going under but hell.,...I'm having a go at being creative instead of (just) critical...maybe more of us retailers should give THAT a try.

Not sure where the fishing references sprung from ...potentially my four week holiday in NZ with a fisherman was SLIGHTLY too long :-)

H x

Constant press around the inability of retailers to complete with online shopping suggests that Waterstones is teetering on the edge of being the next victim. Like an innocent lemming following it's friends along with no idea where it's going, it's almost inevitable that it's about to fall off the cliff, and we're all going to watch and nod our heads when that happens, and say to each other that "there goes another casualty...oops. who cares about buying books anyway...they're just like CD's, part of the past...." But I can't help thinking Waterstones has a number of strengths against the likes of Amazon, and that there is something there worth saving. If I was in charge of the business I'd be focusing on these three differentiating factors:

  •  Hands on experience of the product - as any book lover will tell you, books have a smell, a feel, an emotion and buying them online doesn't always compensate for the joy of wandering around a bookstore touching and dipping in and out of books you might buy (get out of the big fish's pond)
  •  It's reputation as a retailer which knows and is passionate about reading (build your own pond)
  •  It's proximity to where people actually are, meaning ease, no delivery charge (get them in the pond (door) )

Get out of the big fish's pond (kinda)

Stop de-valuing books by trying to compete on price. Stop stacking them high and selling them cheap-  at least in store environments. Create spaces where people want to linger, and stock things they want to linger over. If you must give them ipads to linger on then FINE tick your omni-channel QR code box but for goodness sake do it soon. Shut down shed-like retail park stores if you have them, Focus on stores that are on the high street, in great locations, in University towns etc. Get everyone else online (that's the kinda bit). Make your store a brand space (NOT a showroom-  I hate that word), let people collect online orders there, let them order to their home their, use your stores as the foundations of your brand. If it isn't, get rid of it,

Pioneer the beautiful book - Mass produced, get it for 3 for £7 in Tesco, shiny paperbacks are never going to be the draw for someone to come to a book store (unless they're in the airport, or me... because I read so fast that those 3 for 2 deals are basically my life). What happened to the beauty of books? When was the last time you purchased a lovely hardback of your favourite novel? Or a signed copy of an author you admire? or gifted a hard backed copy of the Very Hungry Caterpillar to a newborn? Not for agea? Exactly. And where would you even get such a thing from? I resent the purchase of hardbacks - they take the same amount of time to read for me and then they take up room on my shelf, and you took £15 away from me for the pirvelege. but a lovely hardback of a Harry Potter book? Or The Shadow of the Wind? A limited edition? I'm there.....Books are a part of a person's home, their personality, their one stacks Kindle books on their coffee table.....(well that's physically impossible but you get my sentiment)

Support the industry  - Partner with some small independent publishers, who don't partake in the neon-tinted 800 pager. Find them, Start one. Get them on your shelves. Create difference. yes still sell the neon bricks (I for one love them) but start editing, curating, bringing wonderful words to your customer.

Build your own pond

Remember your strengths - I'm not sure if they still do it now but at one point Waterstones had handwritten reviews of books taped to the front copy of a new release or hidden classic, written by the staff themselves. This is a great opportunity to utilise thoseb ook club people or their own staff and really sell their knowledge and insight. Customers love to discover something new, but to feel confident about their purchase  - this is the perfect way to help them do that in a store environment.
Offer something more

Invest in staff - I am a true believer that as much as we love Amazon, we love the reviews, we love the speed etc - what amazon can NEVER do is give the type of one to one personal service that you get in a shop. And you might be thinking 'really? who would want that?'; but it's true - we have devalued shop work to a minimum wage, poor benefits  24/7 occupation which is absolutely in no way shape or form giving Amazon a run for their money on the one thing they cannot compete on. and maybe customers have stopped caring about that - but that's because we have let them stop caring. The French lady in Whistles in Blackheath was the only reason I ever used to shop there - she made me feel welcome in a store I'd never really been in before, helped me with styling and made me feel good about my purchasing. As someone who works in an online industry-  I'm telling you, that shit is pure retail gold, and almost impossible to replicate online. Invest in staff. Employ experts. Let them sell their passion to your customers.

Get them into the pond

Products like books lend themselves beautifully to being an impulse buy. People who read are generally quite emotionally attached to the whole experience of reading, and discovering a hidden gem is a real part of the literary culture. Those who aren't so passionate or not just in that mood today may find that actually once they're tempted inside price isn't a considerable difference when you factor in the wait and cost of delivery. Reasons to make your store a hub of literary activity are for me the key to being a genuine multi channel retailer instead of a website with some stores attached. 

I think sometimes we forget - most people are on (or on the brink of) the internet all day every day for work - essentially they're there anyway, they're not always on the high street. If they were, things might be slightly different.

Focus on Local   - Even if every local area doesn't have a famous author or part in literary history then there are significant ways the stores could 'personalise' their stock much more than they do now. The Richmond store for example if not only right over the road from our office but also near ebay, Paypal and Gumtree - there is a strong online community here and books which reflect the needs and tastes of the area would be perfect. Our town is also the home of the original William Curley store  - being able to get exclusive signed copies of the William Curley book would entice me into the door, ditto Petersham Nurseries is down the road and Lucy Boyd-Gray's book is just're getting my point. Play on those strengths. Stock those collections, expand those themes,., get those authors in - not just for a single signing but for presentations, readings, speaking gigs...make your website a hub for events, readings, exclusive content on new releases, authors etc....

Better coffee shops. -  Some stores I understand have Costa concessions inside them - which I can absolutely see makes sense when you're considering investing in something like this which isn't your core strength - and thinking that a concession situation means your store gets the benefit of the coffee shop without you needing to do any real graft or invest any cash. But in reality I find this type of approach a bit poor from a real brand point of view - who after all is going to bother to go into Waterstones (and upstairs in some cases) to get a coffee from Costa when there is probably one about 5 doors away on street level. I wouldn't bother. Also - and I know Costa has literary associations with their own book awards but as a somewhere I'd want to dwell and read it doesn't really work for me - I find those coffee shops are there for quick, speedy pickups of a Christmas coffee, with a bookshop I want to while away the hours, not grab a dry mass produced cake in five minutes flat. Seriously, why bother? What I would do is go to a cafe which is unique to my area and that space -  related to books, with books there to borrow and read while I'm browsing, or chatting with friends.  In fact - why not make it a bar, bring in evening trade, have evening events, get an alcohol licence. now I would definitely go to that. And KEY point is I'd probably buy things while I was there (especially if there was wine...just a thought).

Support the community - Book clubs are a huge trend in recent years - but other than with your close friends, where do you find a good place to go to one? This is a prime opportunity for Waterstones to be a hub of book clubs in the local area - in the same way that Sweaty Betty run Yoga classes in the evenings-  this is a great way to get people comfortable and familiar with the space, buying books (in bulk groups!) and producing content for your web site or digital media instore.
Just keep swimming
None of this is rocket science, not is it terribly high tech - despite what my LinkedIn profile may say I'm not capable of fixing some of the wider issues in retail via the power of a magic wand, but I am a customer and I do know what I'd like to see from a store environment trying to stay afloat in the sea of digital successes. Perhaps if Waterstones turned to their customer, instead of their critics they would do too.

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