I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in one of my favourite places. Sunny Suffolk. Whilst basking in Southwold High Street, supping coffee & enjoying a pastry from the wonderful Two Magpies Bakery my eye wandered across the road to Southwold Books and it reminded me of a piece I had meant to write when the Bookshop opened back in 2014.
You see, all is not as it seems. Beneath this distinctly local façade, with its beautifully merchandised window displays full of local authors, this store is actually part of Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain. It’s one of a growing number that Waterstones successfully operate under ‘independent’ branding.
Under the umbrella of the £38.4bn US hedge fund Elliott Investment Management, which in 2019 also purchased the largest US bookseller, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones currently owns 291 bricks and mortar shops across the UK, Ireland, Brussels & Amsterdam. And the man in charge of their bookstore operations is James Daunt, a 57-year-old executive well known in the UK for founding the amazing Daunt Books, a quirky but much-loved group of 9 shops, 31 years ago. So, things are in safe hands.
The struggles of running a book chain for 30 years have left James with a complete love of books but also some strong ideas around how to run a successful store. It’s given him a very distinct style too. For example, recommending books the staff have read & enjoyed rather than being dictated to by publishers, displaying books with their covers out & adding handwritten notes with recommendations. His shops tend to make the visitor feel like they are in reader’s clubs where staff are expert curators.
James says ‘I think bookshops should have personality. If you go to a pharmacy and buy shampoo, then you want to see it in the same place. So, every Boots is the same and that makes sense. But with books, it doesn’t.’ He feels that the magic comes from giving staff more autonomy.
This approach was a huge departure from when Waterstones was run by HMV. Kate Skipper the chain’s Chief Operating Officer said all stores were operated exactly the same whether in Crouch End or Huddersfield. To make the change they had to trust their employees, but also sacrifice payments publishers were giving them to promote their books. The financial impact was brutal at first but now Waterstones is performing very strongly with stores operating ‘above base forecast’ in 2021.
And it looks like they will follow a similar model in the US. Barnes & Noble is far larger than Waterstones, with more than twice as many stores at 627 and seven times the revenue. Already B&N is opening smaller outlets on high streets. And there’s growing optimism too as independents are growing, from a low of 1,650 across the US in 2009 to 2,470 in 2018.
Elliott Investments are expecting Waterstones and B&N to expand. “We’re a rational investor & if you look at it holistically, these stores are good for the cohesion of communities in which we operate. That’s important to us as well.” It looks like bricks & mortar book shops are here to stay.
Which is a great proof point for local from We Are Acuity’s perspective. With another of our clients we have investigated the impact of a national ‘one size fits all’ brand against a template based regional variation of branding and this approach really works both for a national or global brand & a local audience.
It’s been proven that local stores in most sectors index far better against attributes like professionalism, trustworthiness, expert, compassionate, straightforward, supportive, caring, premium, long established & of course local. And these are all significant hygiene factors when customers are at the consideration phase of buying.
Using a local or regional templated approach for your brand allows you to act local whilst benefitting from being national with respect to overheads, buying power, economies of scale, best-practice & marketing footprint. It feels very much like win win to us!
Or if you'd like to read more about Local Marketing have a look at our blog page "Local Thinking': https://www.weareacuity.com/local-thinking-our-blog
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