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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: State of Selling Books

The Corporate Bookshop
Chris Mills

The bookshop as a museum: when is a bookshop no longer a bookshop? Or bookselling the chain store way: the advent of the lifestyle destination.

I will first lay my cards on the table and admit that this piece is directly inspired by my own experience of working in bookshops in the U.K. and Ireland. Many of my points could apply equally to any or all chain stores. Having said that, not all chains have the same approach to sales and their staff, the same distribution methods or are even comparable in size and turnover.

Neither is it necessarily the case that an independent is always better than a chain store. A poor independent is as bad as a bog standard chain store. However, no matter how good a chain store is, it is increasingly bound by central buying and corporate homogeneity. Waterstones are in the process of implementing a centralisation programme and Hughes and Hughes went along this road last summer. By contrast, Borders have had a change of heart and moved away from centralised buying. But what has been lost to the book trade (and indeed continues to be lost) during the process of centralisation, homogenising and re-branding? I shall consider this question in what follows.

There has to be uniformity of stock, merchandising and window display across the whole of the company. Often there is a company uniform with a logo to enforce the company brand. In some chains it is no longer sufficient merely to wear a badge. Staff individuality is thus discouraged, possibly it is even feared by the management (contrast this with independents where quirky dress sense is often de rigueur). Shelves have to be filled in exactly the same way in each branch as far as possible. Rarely is there allowance made for differences in area and demographic when stocking different branches. This of course makes buying easier and enforces the company style in the market place. This style or image is one that should be seen to project the store as a comfortable and undemanding place to pass some leisure time; to hang out or to chill out, whatever the phrase of the moment might be. Thus the re-branding of the bookshop as a ‘lifestyle destination’ has begun. It is not supposed to be about intellectual curiosity or discovering new worlds any more. Diversification into other goods is a part of this process. You can get coffee, magazines, newspapers and ‘thank you’ cards all under one roof.

Arguably the most important casualty of centralisation in the book trade is the loss of staff morale at shop floor level. This stems from the lack of autonomy over day to day aspects of the job. Bookshop staffs have traditionally relished the opportunity to have a positive role to play in identifying and ordering stock for the shop. This is based upon their own knowledge and experience and /or from regular perusal of the review pages in the national and local press. Not surprisingly staff tend to be avid readers and like nothing more than having a chance to pass on their recommendations.
Pic Winding Stair Bookshop Dublin

In a well-staffed bookshop, a wide range of interests will be represented, to the benefit of the customers and ultimately to the good of company profit levels. This should be an important consideration to senior management in this economic climate.

All too often centralisation ignores such a wealth of experience relying as it does on a mere handful (or less) of buyers at head office level. In theory the buying department is open to suggestions and advice but in practice the result is less than ideal. This is partly because of the bureaucratic nature of the procedure where suggestions have to be passed up the chain of command to the relevant person. And there is no guarantee that emails will be opened much less acted upon. Thus is time and enthusiasm lost to the company. This potential lack of morale has been recently highlighted by reports in The Bookseller on the major centralisation undertaken by Waterstones in the U.K.

The rather terrible phrase ‘trolley monkeys’ is used to describe the fact that shop staff will be reduced to merely shelving whatever they are given. For experienced and knowledgeable staff this can be soul destroying. It has been the case that staff have spent years building up a credible and reputable profile for their section, only to see the guts ripped out of it with restructuring. Variety sacrificed on the altar of blandness and homogeneity. Certainly for bulk ordering new titles central ordering is practical (provided the quantity ordered is realistic), but in maintaining a stimulating backlist there is no effective substitute for the keen interest of the shop floor staff. It may seem an obvious point to make, but if staff have books on the shelves that they have had a hand in selecting, they will be able to sell with a greater degree of confidence and assurance. It is also worth pointing out that they will enjoy their job more and create a more welcoming atmosphere for potential customers. After all enthusiasm is very infectious. Unfortunately so is apathy.

A central buying system coupled with corporate thinking ultimately leads to a situation where a customer could visit two different branches in two different towns on the same day and find them exactly the same in terms of stock, store decoration and merchandising of displays. We are told that this is a good thing; a most desirable state of affairs. But is this what our imaginary customer really wants? Whatever happened to variety being the spice of life? Local quirks and difference? After all Galway is not Dublin and South Dublin is not the same as North Dublin (or so I am reliably informed). While acknowledging that a recognisable similarity between one branch and another is a useful retail tool, a certain difference here and there can be stimulating. Supporting local authors is an example that springs to mind. A display of a particular author may be of much more relevance to one town over another. Thus an antidote to blandness and too much same-ness.

Corporate blandness is increasingly the norm in many retail stores on the high street but surely books are, and should be different? While blockbuster fiction and celebrity memoirs are always going to be placed front of shop in each branch, surely there is room for some individuality in the choice and display of the back stock? Unfortunately stores tend to lean too much on heavily promoted ‘book of the month’ features at the expense of the gravitas supplied by a good backlist.

The good backlist scenario is important to encourage trade from particular group of potential customers: local book clubs. Book groups are an important source of revenue and therefore mining the backlists for something interesting to tempt them can be a productive exercise. There inevitably will come a point when every local club has read the latest Booker prize winner. And the ‘flavour of the month’ offering which is probably a chic-lit title that the publisher was offering at a good discount simply will not do no matter how good your sales pitch is. (Memo to Head Office: if a customer wants a book along the lines of Anne Enright, staff are not going to be able to fob them off with Amanda Brunker). The figures will add up if the stock (and enthusiastic staff) is there. Multiply twelve books per year by x number of local groups and x number of members and it makes sense.

There is an unfortunate tendency in corporate-speak to refer to a book as a ‘product’ in store merchandising literature. But to a discerning customer (for instance a book group devotee), a book never has been nor ever will be merely a product. It will therefore prove to be a mistake on the part of companies to order and display them as such. Books cannot be treated as though they were a consignment of baked beans. It is not merely a question of which brand is best (Heinz, anyone?); a choice of book is subject to a myriad of considerations on the part of the customer. Chains are great lovers of the ‘342’ promotion which can work well if a good selection is offered. For instance Dubray Books are now running a history three for two and have also done one of novels in translation. Hughes and Hughes recently ran a promotion featuring travel writing and fiction set in various countries. This is an example of a good themed promo using some interesting backlist titles. All too often though, these promos can simply be comprised of mass market fiction and celebrity memoir rather than anything of any literary merit. It’s those publisher discounts again.

In keeping with the notion of the book as a product is the emphasis on merchandising in our new lifestyle destination store. The underlying thesis here seems to be that if the display looks pretty and eye catching enough, then the customer will make a purchase. While I have no wish to dispute the fact that a pleasing display is important and will appeal particularly to the casual buyer, it will have little or no effect on customers with a mission to purchase a particular title. Here we are back to the book club trade discussed above, or that well known phenomenon, the customer with a birthday present list. It is also arguable that an immaculate table could be off putting to browsers. No one wants to feel that they are destroying someone’s hard work. It is akin to the situation where no one wants to cut the first slice from a cake and thus spoil its appearance. And it is embarrassing when dislodged books crash to the floor. Cue lots of hasty apologies for wrecking the ‘lovely’ display. It sometimes feels as if merchandising is to keep head office bods happy rather than the customer. A case of whitewashing everything before inspection. It also has the added benefit for staff that it shows that they have been doing something. So, all too often it feels as though merchandising is an end in itself. More important than the stocking of interesting books. A case of the emperor’s new clothes perhaps. Are we just kidding ourselves too?

The thread of homogeneity runs through the merchandising as well as the stock lists. Company preference is that merchandising should follow the same pattern in all stores. Standard point of sale materials is generally expected to be used in all branches. This make for a cohesive feel which is sensible, but it surely also makes sense to allow a certain flexibility to take account of local variations. A prime example is the use of (free) advertising materials offered by local cinemas and theatres when they are showing a dramatised version of a novel. When so many books have been filmed in the last couple of years it is plain folly to ignore potential free advertising just because it does not fit in with the streamlined point of sale material. Publishers also send out promotional material with new titles, which unfortunately the independent stores are more likely to take advantage of than chains. This is a pity because they can easily be worked in with the chain stores’ own posters. It is also a pity because in my own experience, the publisher posters generate much more interest from customers than the store posters.

I have tried to pull together here some of the concerns raised by increasing corporate identity and conformism. Buying a book is a highly individual purchase to those who care about books and reading. It would be sad indeed if centralised processes made the bookshop into a kind of museum. Quaint notions of choice, knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Perhaps many senior managers have forgotten what it is to buy a book; sadly many of them probably never choose to do so.One at a time or all at once? Get updates from your friends in one place.
© Chris Mills June 2009

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