Category Archives: Waterstones

Turning the page on publishing

Stitched Panorama

If you are in the book publishing business right now you might be bracing yourself for an HMV-like end, but it seems to me that publishers still have options and if they make the right choices the end, however it arrives, could still be a long way off.

Those of you who followed my campaign a couple of years ago to try to persuade HMV that there was life after i-Tunes will know that I can’t resist a challenge.  That exercise saw me gathering a bunch of marketing folks with fertile minds on a kind of LinkedIn crowd-sourcing basis and trying to persuade the HMV CEO to listen to a few ideas we had on reviving their business.  I’ll leave you to judge for yourself what his rejection of our offer says about the relationship between success and the “open to ideas” philosophy that I have always promoted.

I’m struck by the similarities between the publishing and music industries.  Both are victims of the digital onslaught.  Technology has provided an alternative to their physical products, everyone is an author these days (even me), pretty well anybody can get published, readers don’t have to leave home to buy a book and last week you could buy any of the UK’s top 10 selling books online for 78pence!  This latter fact is a symptom of another phenomenon, the tendency of business in other sectors, in this case Sony, to give away the publishers’ raison d’etre, in their pursuit of sales of their own dedicated hardware eg tablets.

Publishing also has a similar structure to the music business.  There are publishers like Harper Collins who own numerous brands, they each support many authors and their books are distributed through physical stores and on-line.  Three levels of the business, each of which is under attack.

There are two keys to the future of the book business. The first is brand. It seems to me that publishers have been very slow to develop the brands they own. There are few sectors where brands measure up to the description “community” more than those of a publisher. You’ll know if you’ve been on this blog before that I believe all brands to be, by definition, communities and publishers’ brands are far more readily represented as communities than food products or cosmetics, yet, when I look at publishing houses I can’t see much evidence of them either recognising this or exploiting their good fortune.

The second key is the physical retailers. The front line book stores are suffering the same pressure from e-commerce that HMV did. Businesses like Waterstones are probably making a better job of competing than the music retailer did, but they have a long way to go before they maximise their assetts and even further before they could claim to have a model that will sustain them in the future. Like HMV, physical booksellers need to be more radical in their thinking. Instead of adapting their current model they should be experimenting with complete, ground-up rethinks. My worry is that, again like HMV, they are failing to recognise not just the requirement for such radical thinking, but the urgency with which they need to get on with it.

They might take a leaf out of the book of Ralph Halpern. When he headed up Burton Group he was said to have twenty or so retail formats on test in pilot stores at any one time. It worked for him and I firmly believe that, like any product manufacturer, retailers need think at least two store generations ahead in order to ensure continued success. John Selfridge taught us that retail is about entertainment and bookselling, more than most other sectors, is firmly in the entertainment sector. This means that bookstore owners have to ask themselves, “are my customers looking forward to their next visit to my store in the way they would a football match, concert or theatre?” Sadly most retailers I come across set their bar far too low in this respect. Customers should be feeling like a young lover about their next date with you.

Actually record shops used to be like that, In fact record shops used to be real communities too. I remember hanging out in a record store in Birmingham each Friday when albums were traditionally released, sampling the new stuff and discussing it with the store guys and anybody else who felt like chiming in. You could spend hours at a time in there and I often did. Come to think of it, there was a musical instrument store up the road from the record store with a similar vibe. I met Ozzie Osbourne and Tony Iommi from a new band Black Sabbath there once and they invited me to their gig that evening in the back of a pub in town (Now that dates me!) These days I can get the same kick from a visit to a bike shop like 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn. All these stores are interesting and engaging in their different ways. That’s missing in a lot of retailers these days and its where the answer could lie for retail book stores.

Its not surprising that some of the thoughts I had on HMV apply equally well to bookstores, but these in turn were based on a train of thought I evolved with a mobile phone operator a few years previously. A growing number of retail sub-sectors have to understand that they need to approach selling from a new direction, engaging customers in other areas of their lives creating an environment and establishing conversations into which a sales message can be introduced.

In a similar fashion, a few years back I created a magazine for Philips comprising features on successful projects in highly specialised business sectors. The features were compelling to the target market, but more than that, by ensuring that they were each written as a showcase for specific Philips products and concluded with a call to action and a contact device, we turned an entertaining magazine into a powerful sales tool that is still doing the numbers. I’ve also created community projects for manufacturers and service providers. Introducing products and services to consumers in the context of other areas of their personal lives engages them on an entirely different level. This I believe is how bookstores need to start thinking. Its not new of course. Its commonplace in the US for bookstores to be incorporated into coffee shops or restaurants, an idea that has been adopted in parts of Europe and even the Middle East (I have such a venue close to where I currently live in Bahrain).

While the front-line would benefit from radical thinking, publishers need to start making things easier for themselves and instead of engaging head-on in a battle with digital and e-tail that they just won’t win, turn the page and focus on the aspects of their business that their competitors just don’t have. They need to tighten up their brand definitions, get a better grip on their customers and start building relationships with them based on something other than price. Forget readings and signings, they aren’t sufficiently radical to make the difference that this sector needs.

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In the retail – e-tail war detail could be the decider.

So, HMV is in a state of meltdown yet again and with today’s profit warning following a Christmas trading period that turned out to be more of a turkey than a gift, it all looks pretty glum for this once retail icon.

In fact HMV is one of two high street retailers that I feel deserve a kick up the arse right now.  Both are frustratingly short of a few tricks that would counteract the biggest threat to their future.  The other is no-brand WH Smith, whose stores are dismal, amateur, badly lit, over stocked, over-priced and poorly staffed.  There’s an irony somewhere in the fact that HMV’s sister business Waterstone’s is the one showing WH Smith how its done.  Smiths may be in growth mode right now, but it looks like the short-term market-trader kind of success that begs questions like “So what do we do for our next trick?”.

Compare the two – On the brightest day a visit to WH Smith can make you feel like ending it all.  A bit like a church hall jumble sale, the mess of books, school equipment, magazines and sweets(?) and lord knows what else, trying hard to be all things to all people and succeed in being nothing much to anybody.    Waterstones, on the other hand, with their founder back at the helm, have single-mindedly established their authority in a sector where authority is everything.  These days Waterstones are ticking all the boxes, with knowledgable and intelligent staff and meaningfully stocked shelves (no pick n’ mix sweets in grubby pots here).  They have even mastered the trick of using their High Street presence to establish the authority they need to succeed on-line and with a million plus e-book downloads under their belt I have no doubt that both clicks and mortar numbers will follow.

Like Waterstones, WH Smith and HMV have both encountered the Internet challenge, but while WH Smith firstly buried its head in the sand, hoped it would go away, then muffed the response, HMV, like Waterstones, are focussing on doing things in-store that only in-store can do and using on-line as a sort-of take-away format – well almost.  And that’s the rub.  They aren’t getting down to the detail quite as I would have hoped.

For one thing, despite the live music elements they have added, they haven’t really mastered the brand community thing and they are missing some of the small practical things could make doing business with them easier and more fun.  Take for instance the art of the demo.  A focus of all record stores in the past and certainly a useful community building tool today.  Remember the Saturdays (That’s the day of the week not the band!) spent in the listening booth at your local record store listening to Friday’s releases and deciding what to spend this week’s pocket-money on?

When vinyl went out of the door, so it seems did the listening booth – replaced, admittedly by HMVs listening posts, which were fine, but then … silence!  Sure, they’ll play a CD in the store if you can get close enough to the check-out for your request to be heard, but it’s not the same as sharing a set of headphones with your mates in a sweaty booth.

Maybe they think they have that one covered with their in-store radio (Is it live? – I’m not sure), but they kinda’ come out of that looking like the guy who invented 6-Up – just a natz short of success – not enough interaction, which they could have built-in even with an AsLive solution.  They also miss the same trick on-line because, except for a few albums like Jessie J’s latest which features her brilliant Price Tag video, you can’t listen to even samples of selected tracks before you buy.  In the store they make great play (excuse the pun) of introducing new acts with short, on-shelf biogs, but if you can’t listen to the music, you have to risk £10 to buy the album blind (or is it deaf?) which, when we are all being austere, is a non-starter really.

To WH Smith I say, before turn yourself into a Moroccan bazaar, I suggest you don’t copy Woolies, because we all know where that gets you, pop across to Wilkinson instead and see how multi-category retailing is done cheerfully and tastefully (and with staff that you’d consider striking up a conversation with).  Oh and switch the lights on.  Reading in bad light is bad for anybody’s eyes.   HMV on the other hand need to write a thousand times “retail is detail”.  Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, get the little things right, tackle these and I’m sure you’ll find your days will be brighter.