WHO AM I?

No, this is not a self-assessment form that you need to return to your psychiatrist. Nor is it a philosophical debate about your personality. The title of this blog refers to a recent strategic initiative introduced by Waterstones: the UK-based bookshop retailer.

Recent articles in the UK national newspapers allude to the fact that in recent months, Waterstones has opened three new bookshops in various towns in the UK: Rye, Southwold and Harpenden. The interesting observation here is that they are not named as “Waterstones Bookshop”. Instead they adopt names such as “Rye Bookshop, Harpenden Bookshop and Southwold Bookshop”.

Apart from a hand-written note which is posted in the bottom of the front window (which acknowledges that the bookshop is part of the Waterstones Group, there is no other attempt to link the shop to this retailer.

What are we to make of this development? Is it a case of selective memory loss? A deliberate attempt to dissociate the shops from the original brand? An attempt to mislead the general public? The newspaper articles explicitly accuse the retailer of the latter: one of deception. The tone of the respective articles makes it clear that there is something “shifty” going on here and that shoppers are being misled.

Let’s explore this view in more detail.

Those of you of course who have read chapter six of the text will realise that Waterstones is expanding its brand portfolio and is making use of separate names in the process. It already has a portfolio of physical retail stores trading under the name of Waterstones. Some of these outlets vary in terms of both size and content. For instance in later 2015 the retailer opened a store in central London which is larger than many of its outlets and contains two coffee shops, one cocktail bar, a “pop-up” cinema and space for holding small conferences or meetings.

In many of its smaller outlets it has employed a “back-to-basics” strategy, eliminating coffee shops and stopping the sale of e-books.

It has also expanded its online offering over the past two years.

What can we observe from the developments with the three new shops?

The shop in Southwold operates from a Grade II listed building and presents it’s offering very much in the manner of a small independent bookseller. It is small in size and is operated by friendly and local staff: thus reinforcing the sense of a small retailer operating in a local community.

What’s not to like about this approach? For many of us, the typical high street conveys an impression of a blandness and sameness. We find the “usual suspects” in the shape of charity shops, mobile phone shops, betting shops, Boots, and so on. Many of us bemoan the loss of the small independent retailer offering something different and original such as craft shops, specialty cheese retailers and so on.

Put simply the small independent retailer gets a bad deal in the UK. They are faced with expensive rents in prominent areas of the high street.

They are also crippled with a business rates tax which tends to favour the larger retailers. The amount that they pay is based on the rateable valuation of the property. It does not make any reference to sales or profit which is generated by the retailer. Out-of-town sites have clearly less value in terms of property prices and favours the chain retailers such as IKEA.

On the face of it, Waterstones would appear to be masquerading as a small retailer (hence the criticism from the newspaper articles). However does this warrant such negative comment or indeed is it fair?

A traditional bookshop (while not appealing to everyone) provides an attractive option when shopping on the high street. It blends in with the community and as stated earlier moves us away from the unrelenting gloom of blandness. Each shop in the case of Waterstones, has its own identify – through its name and the personalised nature of the value proposition.

Yes, Waterstones is in a stronger position to develop the concept of “the small independent bookseller” than say an entrepreneur or business owner trying to compete with the chain operators and the “Amazons” of this world.

For one thing Waterstones has much greater resources and scale of operation to sustain a number of such “non-branded” stores. It is in a financially stronger position to deal with rents and business rates.

They can also offer competitive pricing within a small independent retailing format. This is significant but in a negative sense threatens any other small independent retailer currently operating on that high street. It can be argued that the latter is not in a position to survive in the longer-term.

The approach allows Waterstones to widen its portfolio of formats in a way which is aesthetically pleasing on the eye.

How has the general public reacted? The feedback from the three stores suggests a positive view with sales being above targets.

One of the articles posted comments submitted by readers on the topic. Bear in mind that the paper concerned: the Daily Mail, is not necessarily representative of the population at large but probably attracts many middle-income readers who tend to shop on the high street and would be potentially receptive to the format introduced by Waterstones.

A perusal of the comments posted underneath the article (Waterstones is accused of sneakily opening new stores and disguising them as independent local bookshops. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4260340/Waterstones-accused-disguising-stores-independents.html#ixzz4ZtaBepFY.) raises some interesting perspectives.

This reveals that the readers are broadly positive and supportive of the initiative. They see the move as a welcome addition to the high street and a change from the “charity shops” syndrome.

Small independent retailers adjacent to the three “unbranded” stores in the three towns voice the view that it is precisely large chain retailers such as Waterstones who have forced up rents and business rates.

While they might be accused of bias and prejudice, there is no doubt that the scale of operations of the big retailers gives them a significant advantage.

Personally I like the approach adopted by Waterstones. Firstly it widens the variety and depth of its retail format portfolio.

It provides a distinct move away from the “big retailer” format that we associate with chain retailers in general and Waterstone’s typical format.

It plays on the “retro” or “nostalgia” dimension: something that is liked by many people who constantly hark back to the days when small independent retailers were predominant on the high street as opposed to the present – where they are conspicuous by their absence.

The strategy is less likely to antagonise the general public as retailers such as Tesco and McDonalds have done, due to their ubiquitous presence in every town and city centre high street.

The strategy is still likely to damage the prospects of the traditional small independent retail bookseller however. By “traditional” in this case, I mean that the shop is owner-managed and consists of a sole bookstore.

Critics perhaps have some justification in accusing Waterstones of deceiving and ultimately misleading shoppers with such a practice. Judging by the comments of the readers posted to the article mentioned above however this is weakened by the generally positive response.

What do you think?

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WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GOGO

Our old friend Amazon.com has been at the forefront of our lives for the pat fifteen years or so. It has changed the way many of us shop and has threatened the traditional retailers, long dependent on a physical store or premises to engage with us and more importantly to encourage use to purchase something.

A decade or so ago many retail commentators and academics predicted the demise of physical “bricks and mortar” retailing: we would see the end of the high street and those cathedrals of shopping: the malls or retail centres.

Nothing so dramatic has happened. Like many other predictions: the end of the world and the discovery of aliens on Mars, retailers still haunt the high street and the popularity of shopping malls, particularly in Asia and the Gulf, continues to grow exponentially.

Amazon is the one “constant” in all of this. It has continued to grow and prosper. It has also developed a number of innovations such as Amazon Prime and its on-going work on the use of drone technology to revolutionise the way in which we receive our items.

It has also reinvented itself. Having created a value proposition which is based on the ability to shop remotely, from the privacy of your own home, office or when you are on the go, it has returned “full – circle” to the concept of shopping once again in a retail store. In 2015 it opened a number of retail bookshops in the USA. This move would appear at first glance to challenge much of the core elements of Amazon’s original value proposition. A deeper assessment (see one of my earlier blogs) identified the rationale for such a move and saw it as a repositioning of its proposition in light of changes in the market-place and the way in which consumers engage with retailers.

This fascination with changing the way in which we shop and engage with retailers has now extended to the shopping experience.

In early December 2016, Amazon opened its first grocery store in Seattle. It called it Amazon Go. At the same time, showing some of its overall intent, it registered the name in the UK.

The business model and value proposition revolves around the following features.

The store is designed round 1,800 square feet of physical space. It sells many so-called staple items, such as bread, milk and ready meals.

It uses CCTV technology and sensors to track which items shoppers pick up and place in their shopping basket. It links this information to the shopper’s mobile and processes payment. This allows the shopper to dispense with that tedious routine of queuing up to pay at a check-out or even more (for me at any rate) annoyingly having to operate a self-payment machine. It is built on the principle of “walk-out” shopping.

Essentially it is an amalgam of technologies, featuring the following elements:

  • A powerful App (which has to be downloaded by the shopper), using location-based services
  • QR code ID
  • Integrated payment mechanisms
  • Multiple sensor technology
  • Artificial intelligence.

In essence it builds on earlier and more simplified systems that were introduced by retailers throughout the last decade. For instance Apple introduced an Easy Pay 2.0 product in 2011 which ultimately did not prove to be popular with shoppers and had a low “uptake”.

Self-checkouts have featured for a number of years in the US grocery market. Again shoppers, after initial uptake, have begun to move away from this technology. However it is growing in the European market. Some shoppers find them irritating: cash or monetary notes are not accepted easily by the machines and you have to re-insert them. It becomes also can be time-consuming when a shopper has more than a small number of items to process.

Amazon Go, at first glance, would appear to build on the perceived advantages of earlier self-checkout propositions.

From a strategic perspective, it is likely to take the consumer more fully into the “contactless” world of robots and technology, where there is little or no need or requirement for face-to-face contact.

Amazon should not necessarily be seen as a “trailblazer” in such developments. For instance Café X, a coffee retailer has created an automated coffee shop, replete with automated baristas to serve the customer. The response of consumers would appear to be positive, judging by its success to date.

The Amazon Go retail store in Seattle is presently open only to Amazon employees. It expects to be widened to the general populace in early 2017.

A US retail analyst has predicted the Amazon Go technology could reduce the retail workforce by as much as seventy-five per cent.

In a more general context, the British Retail Consortium estimates a reduction of around three million retail jobs in the UK market.

In response to rumours that Amazon is planning to open around 2,000 similar grocery stores in the US, senior management had denied such a possibility, stating that it is still in the embryo stages of testing and development.

Some commentators argue that the Amazon Go development is all about moving Amazon more fully into the payments systems market – which is proving to be a lucrative area. In many ways the system is like PayPal, where consumers can shop across different platforms and online merchants, using a single PayPal login.

Taking a broader perspective, it can be argued that this innovation is further proof that companies are moving away from a service philosophy which places personal engagement at the heart of the value proposition. This takes the consumer into a world of remoteness and robotics. It is questionable whether such a concept will lead to better service or lower prices (particularly in the case of the retail sector).

Clearly such use of an amalgam of technologies can help retailers address perhaps the biggest single cost input into their operations: labour. By greatly reducing the need for staff and front-line personnel, it can lead to significant cost savings. This is important in a sector such as retailing, where profit margins are so low (varying from between 1% to 5% in many cases).

Who benefits from this development? The shopper? The retailer? Both? Other stakeholders?

We might want to pause and reflect on this question.

Other issues for assessment include the following.

Does the Amazon Go value proposition / model stack up in the longer term?

Is this an example of a technology-driven product, which takes little or no account of the needs of the consumer?

Where is Amazon going with this development in the longer-term? It appears to be far removed from its original value proposition: that of an online retailer.

What impact will it have on the large food retailers such as Tesco, Carrefour, Wal-Mart, Target and so on?

Are we witnessing an irreversible decline in the concept of customer service?

Is this a potential game-changer?

I would welcome your views.