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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