Sunday, September 30, 2007

Just a few thoughts

So, i've been in bookselling since 1984. I started in Bristol at a shop called George's Bookshop. It was spread over 6 different shops in Park Street, one of the main shopping streets in Bristol, and although owned by Blackwell's, sensibly kept the name it had started with when it opened in 1837. It was the only real bookshop in Bristol. I used to shop there when I was a little fella, and although I was a snotty, awkward and miserable 16 year old when I started working there, I loved it. I was on a YTS (youth training scheme), an initiative introduced by the Tories which meant that school leavers worked in places decided by someone else, earned £25 a week, and therefore didn't show up on the unemployment figures. I was lucky, because I found myself in an environment that suited me, but the majority of the other people on the scheme with me either worked on the tills in Supermarkets, or were used as cheap labour in various warehouses. Anyway, I digress. In 1986, a Waterstone's opened in Bristol. It wasn't big, and the bosses at George's ignored it. Then another opened on the University Campus, and things started to go very very bad for George's.
They started losing sales and were forced to close one by one of the shops on Park Street. What the big W was doing was listening to it's customers. It offered good service, interesting books and passionate booksellers. George's rested on it's laurels, thinking it knew better. It's since lost it's name and is now a Blackwell's trading from a single store. Waterstone's had landed.
I joined this exciting company in 1990, and back then Waterstone's was exciting. The staff enjoyed their jobs, were given responsibilities, the promotions were smaller and the customers appreciated the fact that there were 50 (50!) books in the shop that were 3 for 2. And there was a Book of the Month. This was introduced to promote a new author, or raise the profile of a book that wouldn't otherwise get the publicity. Books like 500 Nations, an illustrated history of Native American Indians was one of the more memorable successes. I can't honestly imagine a book like that being chosen nowadays!
Happy days (not I hasten to add, With the Naked Chef), and there may be a certain rose tinted reminiscing going on here. The thing is, what made working in Waterstone's exciting has all but gone (unless you have a very understanding area manager). The staff at Waterstone's 'look after' sections or departments, but this is to ensure that the supertier is faced out, or that the books are stickered 3 for 2. The flexibility to be creative, certainly in London, is almost non-existent, and definintely not rewarded. This year the 'in thing' at Head Office is Local Marketing. There's a competition to find the region that has the best local marketing. Points are awarded for adding books to a code on the computer which is monitiored at head office (it doesn't matter what the books are). Points are awarded for filling in an event feedback form and returning it to Head Office. Points are awarded for writing reviews and putting them on the Waterstone's website. Points are awarded for letting your area manager know if a customer thanks you for your service. You are encouraged to produce your own promotions in store, but only as long as you stick by the 'Brand Guidelines'. No points for this though.
This brings up a number of questions
1. What has any of this got to do with local marketing?
2. What does this say about the state of Waterstone's that it has to introduce an initiative to encourage creativity?
3. If you're closing 10% of the shopfloor space and close down branches like the one in Wood Green, how can you even think about understanding what Local Marketing really is?

Let me say at this point, there are also additional points available at the end of the year, where each region submits a presentation outlining what it's done to promote Local marketing, and there are also templates for newsletters and table signs (all maintaining the brand), which will give those branches with the staff who care enough a bit of help.

But, it's decision time up there in Brentford Towers. Waterstone's Head Office should work out what it's message should be. Isn't it time it bit the bullet, and admit that it's too big to be a local bookshop?
It probably is about time it left 'Local' up to the independents, who survive precisely because they understand the what Local means....but what do I know?


MarkFarley said...

Encouraging us to become and feel more independent is a good thing, Simon. Fortunately for us (as you know when you were here and gave us the freedom to do so), we have been concentrating on this very aspect for a number of years.

When I was first pleading with all above me a few years ago to do all the above before you came along, I was actively discouraged and I was even told off at one point for organising events. It's nice to know that they have eventually come round and realised that local marketing and events are the only way to stem the tide of the internet.

But the successes we have grown through an established local marketing programme was all down to you and the freedoms that you gave us at a time I know that the people above you were not as supportive as they thankfully are now.

I raise my large pile of 3for2 stickers and salute you.

Tim West said...

I echo Simon's feeling on how can Waterstone's justify a nationally controlled 'local' competition. The system for awarding points is biased towards the more prominent shops, the shops that have the greatest footfall and the most space and therefore can attract the bigger names (sometimes its just not possible to fit an author/event into your crowded little shop) Once you have filled up your windows and front of store with Waterstonesy stuff there simply ain't no room for your own creativity. Yes I know that 'local' marketing is not all about author events, but you can bet-yer-bottom-dollar that the region with the most events will win the prize.
This month, however, is the one month in the year when the stores with the big multicultural customer base get a chance to catch up. Yes, it's Black History Month. This Month would have made up about 30% of Wood Green's local promotions...... Too late now.

This Week is National Children's Book Week. I just checked out nothing. Hmmm, maybe they need a regional local marketing champion to point out their oversight.

I would like to point out that Simon was the 'Regional Local Marketing Champion' for the North East London region.

Rob said...

Didn't they also say at the Society of Authors' AGM that Waterstone's are all about decentralization now? I suppose the logical conclusion to this would be for each branch to behave exactly like an independent, local bookshop. The only thing better than that would be if every branch actually was an independent local bookshop.

I just discovered this blog a few days ago. I'll be watching with interest!

TG said...


interesting. I think it all depends on who your manager/area manager is- whether they enable their staff to experiment a bit, try things out. Our boss does and I know a few other branches where encouragement is given. But there are many as you've described. A very mixed company at the moment, is the W.

Tim West said...

Glad you like it Rob, and you're right a spokesperson from Waterstone's did make those comments at the AGM. However.....

Decentralization for Waterstone's is virtually impossible, for two simple reasons.
1) They have to protect their buying power. To allow all their branches to buy new titles or promotional titles off their own bat, would put too much off a strain on the margin.
2)They have to ensure that all branches are running the same promotions at the same time to make sure that any central advertising is relevant.

However (part 2) IS in competition with the high street branches, and IS running separate promotions. A fact that is actually publicised within the stores themselves. Imagine walking into your local independant to be confronted by posters? Make sense to you?

MarkFarley said...

Oh we totally realise that the other London region will win, Tim. Especially as we are being sent flyers promotiong the 'other side's' events in our region.

It's a fun journey though and it just means for me there is nobody breathing down my neck at what we are trying to do. That and I get to hold a sex talk and one about The Clash. Unheard of a year ago.