Category Archives: Retail

Why as a bookseller I would be pleased about the CLC/Eden tie up?

The relatively unregarded backwaters of Christian bookselling were churned up (again) yesterday when the leading wholesaler CLC, and Eden.co.uk,  the largest specialist UK online Christian e-tailer announced a shared property deal in Chester.

Capture

So will this muddy the water or make for a healthier environment for all involved in Christian books?

I would suggest that this is a smart move for both Eden & CLC and will have tangible benefits for physical bookshops and their customers. But to see the opportunities that could come from this move require us to lift our heads up and look at what else is happening in the wider swampland of the Christian book world. When we do, we see the choppy waters that exist elsewhere:-

  • We see the changes in media & reading culture with social communities and immediate engagement on new platforms.
  • We see people reading more, but differently. In shorter pieces and different formats.
  • We see the changes in retail of where and how people are choosing to buy their reading material.
  • We see a church resourcing itself differently using new mediums of podcasting, blogging and social media – which aren’t replacing book reading, but they are significantly eating into the time that a lot of people would have spent in books.
  • We see church leaders not recommending books in the way they used to.
  • We see books losing their place as the sole repository for clearing thinking as the world look for an immediate response to issues.
  • With the rise of self-publishing we see the credibility factor of books reducing. (That’s not to say all commercially books are good, and self-published are bad, it’s the rules of the selection game have changed, and it’s more difficult to sift through the pile)

All this means that the visibility of the traditional Christian book is reduced in the eyes of the buyer, so whilst acknowledging the challenges  facing each individual business, the greater challenges to Christian books come from these changes and not a trade partnership between two key players who wisely decided to share a location, minimise their overheads to allow them to be more financially viable and to focus on their key task of selling Christian products.

It will mean that suppliers should be able to improve the availability of products, which will speed up delivery. A new CLC warehouse isn’t a trade panacea, they are a wholesaler not a distributor, so by definition they will still make their stock decisions based on demand, but a new warehouse will give them a capacity they haven’t had before.  It will give Eden a chance (I presume) to offer same day dispatch and access as well to this larger range, which gives them more power to fight off the Amazon onslaught.

The bookshop priorities of building their local community presence, curating their range and maximising the retail experience can only be improved by having a better set up wholesaler who is closely connected to a key retailer. So I hope the trade sees the benefits, and realises that the bigger challenges don’t lie in competition from Eden & CLC but in from wider afield.

 

Ending well & starting again

January 2014 was a really strange month for me.

There are three bookshops that I have been deeply involved in that closed their doors for the final time on January 11th. These were the remaining 2 Wesley Owen shops and CLC in Kingston which I opened as Chapter & Verse in 1995.

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So for the first time ever in my working life I won’t be directly responsible for a physical retail store, and the first time for nearly 20 years I will not have a Christian bookshop under my wings.

I have deeply mixed feelings, I feel so sad for the staff whose jobs and ministry are ending, I feel for the regular customers, especially those for whom the shop is an important connection point with people and faith. I feel for the town as yet another shop is emptied and I feel for the wider trade as it grapples with a changing world. Yet somehow I don’t feel sad for the business itself.

In this rapidly changing culture and retail environment this type of commercial Christian operation has had its day. We watched an inexorable and irreversible shift in sales,  to such an extent that sales in my old shop in Kingston in its last year of trading were lower than in its first year over 15 years ago, and had dropped to a third of its best ever sales.   The viable models for physical Christian bookshops have altered, and are based once again around independents,  passionate individuals, churches and charities. These models will need to keep adapting and continually change at a good pace.

We live in a world where the major forces for the future in the book trade are companies like  Amazon, Google & Apple for whom bookselling is not a primary function, but a side show. Books for them are just one of the ways to connect with consumers to further a wider agenda. However these companies are superb retailers; and they have grown dominant and have utterly and permanently changed the book world.  This is retail context that we now live. The UK Christian book trade had its own black swan event in 2009 that altered the structure of the trade and left us even more vulnerable to external forces.

It seems to me there are some questions that need considering, that not only address the challenges of publishing and bookselling,  but also begin to re-frame the way we look at how we write, read and learn.

  • What role do books now play in the life of the church?
  • What role does the church play in the life of books?
  • With changing writing formats and new platforms emerging, where do books fit in culture anyway these days?
  • Christian leaders still read, but more and more of their congregations don’t, very few church leaders recommend books.  Why that disconnect ? And how can that be changed? 
  • Is physical bookselling a viable standalone option?
  • Can the existing trade structure cope with continued decline in overall bookshop sales?
  • How does partnership in the trade now work?
  • Should bookshops form a co-operative to work together more effectively?
  • Should a shop aim to stock a good general range or should they specialise to their local market?
  • How can bookshops build viable financial models?
  • Where should Christian bookshops be located?
  • How can independents capture and use data?
  • What differentiates a shop enough that customers are prepared to make the journey to visit?
  • Is digital going to push print to a point when it is an add-on luxury?
  • How important is being local in social media connected world? 
  • The nature of social connection has changed, what implications does that have for books?

…and these questions just scratch the surface.

For those involved in books, from authors, publishers, booksellers and readers it is important to consider these questions, not just for the benefit of church and trade but because people’s lives are deeply affected by these changes.

When we packed up our final store I took our managers for a bite to eat and to talk about the final week that we’d just been through. Literally our last supper. We talked about the 50 year history of the shop, we told stories of good times and funny episodes, of the people who worked there and shopped there.  When we finished our meal and stood outside, none of us really wanted to be the first to turn away. When we finally said goodbye,  I watched a friend and colleague who had spent over 50 years selling Christian books walk slowly off into his retirement.

I was pleased we ended it together as friends, but so aware of the need for still greater change.

It is time to write the next chapter in the life of Christian books and I suspect the plot will take a very different direction.

Waterstones

It is interesting to watch the developments within the Waterstone stores, and the improvements to the in-store experience. As a book lover the new feel is very welcome, it pulls me in and through the store. I find myself beginning to stay longer and visit more sections of the store. There seems to be a good mix face out and spine-on, more interest points, a greater quantity of recommendations, product highlighting and feature points. So I start to pull books from the shelves,and to browse more seriously. I begin to discover titles and my enthusiasm for these books and this shop rises.

Waterstones shop front

I start thinking about capturing the information about these books so I can remember that I may consider buying them. So out comes the iPhone & happily photo the covers into my Evernote books file already wondering about the ebook price and how much I will save.

But then I stop myself, I know the maths, if I choose to buy these books online, that I discovered in-store, then the store won’t survive. I check the prices on the back…ouch £12.99-£16.99, a quick online price comparison shows that the ebook prices are up to half the physical price, and with my preference  for e-reading (travel, accessibility)  

So here is the next challenge for Mr Daunt and his team. I like your new stores, I love the bookshop experience and I know I need to buy from you to retain this experience, but here’s the problem. My relationship with you doesn’t exist. Yeah, I’ve got one of your cards, (somewhere I forget where), I get your generic emails (yep, they are automatically filed away…unread) but I wish it was better, that you cared more about my browsing and spending. If we are going to get closer then we both need to change our habits, you need to work harder at connecting with me in my local store, make it feel as if I own that store with you, give me more space to sit, read and stay longer, give me free wifi that leads me to your site, give me an offer code that may tempt me to buy the physical book. Work harder at your social media that pulls me into the store…keep giving the new discovery and yes I would buy from you, and I would buy a lot of books, an awful lot.

Writing for pleasure

In the last 12 months I’ve spent more time writing than in the whole of the last 20 years combined, having started an MBA and also taken up journalling.

Buying a iPad really helped as it is not as intrusive as carry a laptop around, has made writing simply more accessible in everyday life, with programmes such as Evernote & Dropbox making it very simple to capture thoughts and ideas.

I thought this would lead to a lot more blog posts, but as I’ve written I realised that for me, writing is intrinsically private, it helps me think more clearly, process emotions and learn. Hence this very quiet blog.

There are also so many interesting writers and bloggers out there, that it has made me question why I would want to write publicly. The blogs I enjoy are those that challenge, introduce new ideas or are topical, these bloggers tend to write about subjects rather than themselves, although my favourite writers are those that combine the two. Even this post feels too introspective to me.

With my studies on retail, and my work in Christian bookselling, and I have quite a few opinions on a “trade in trouble”, but being fortunate to be working for one of the most professional and progressive companies in the sector, I don’t want give away the family jewels or come across as patronising, so I’m reluctant to blog in this area. The Christian retail trade need to engage with the harsh realities of retailing, and to win back the hearts and minds of the Church, and on it’s current course it is not going to do that.

So writing has become my new unexpected pleasure in life. I’m so pleased to have discovered it.

Bullied into buying

I think it would be safe to say that most of us dislike uninvited telephone sales calls to our homes.

I signed up to the telephone preference service (TPS) to ensure that I didn’t get these calls, and I’m pleased that they’ve dried up…mostly. I say mostly, as I got a call last week from a company called Nationwide Energy Service, the saleslady was very insistent that this wasn’t a sales call, that they had a government grant that I could use, and all it would cost me was £99.

Of all the sales calls I have ever had the misfortune to receive, this was probably the most pushy, slick and well-worked of them all. The saleslady had every objection covered, had the ability to talk without breathing, spoke at 100 words a minute, it was like being hit by a sledgehammer.

The irony of it was that the product she was selling, loft insulation, I had already decided that I needed to sort this summer for our home. However, her attitude was so aggressive that there is no way I am going to buy it from them. So I’ve decided to incur this company as much time & cost as I can, knowing they will not get a penny from me. I let their surveyor come round, measure up, quote, and I’m now waiting for the follow up sales confirmation call, which I will say not yet, please call me back in 2 weeks, when I will ask them to call later…you get the picture.  I’ve also reported them to the TPS.

This lot really bugged me, I think because the sales lady really knew how to work the call,

So memo to self….

  • I have a right not to say yes there and then, I can take my time and decide.
  • Someone else’s pressure is their pressure, let them keep it.
  • If someone makes a request, the default position is no, it is much easier to change a “no” to a “yes”, than it is to get out of something.
  • You have a right to be undecided, that’s not a untenable position.
  • I have a right to find out more information and alternatives.
  • I have a right not to be bothered by these people.

So if these guys call you, do yourself a favour and just put the phone straight down.

And if you’re Ashleigh from the Nationwide Energy Service, change your practices now, they are deceitful.

And if you’re the saleslady that called me, then please, please, please, go and find a good use for your quite obvious phone talents…go and join Compassion or World Vision, but stop doing what you’re doing.

The scariest comment for booksellers that I have ever heard….

Last weekend I was attending my first study weekend for an MBA course that I have just started. In amongst the teaching, case studies and introductions was a session with the librarian, who took us through how to use the Stirling University Library facilities. Being a distance learning course, he focussed on how we could access the libraries online books, and with a throw away comment,  he added….

“As as University we buy nearly a million pounds worth of books, journals and reference works each year, and we try and and buy as few actual physical books as possible, we aim to get as many as we can as e-books”.

Most of the other students smiled and nodded, but I sat there as if the world had stopped around me and thought, “my world of bookselling has truly changed irrevocably”.

The implications of this quite logical step for the university are profound. Not only are they not buying physical books, which undermines the logistics of a viable booktrade, they are training a generation to read in ways which will change the face of bookselling. This e-learning generation will learn to default to ipads, kindles & netbooks as their preferred reading method. I’m not saying they won’t read physical books, and that won’t buy the physical books from bricks’n’mortar stores, but I believe that the nature of books and bookselling is changing more rapidly than we ever thought it would or could. As an aside, this is as scary for internet retailers as physical stores, because their primary purpose is to move actual rather than digital product.

As an avid user of the internet, I’ve always known, deep down, how this will change bookselling, but the starkness and reality hit me hard in that simple throwaway comment.

Bookstores will have to be simply exceptional to thrive, they will have to offer their customers an experience they enjoy so much, that they will choose to forgo the ease and price of online reading. This “being exceptional” will be different for different retailers, but will probably include a surprising breadth & depth of stock, being a specialist store, have deep community and customer relationships with loyalty schemes, a local distinctive, and a staff that are totally passionate about their store and the books they sell. These will be the basics, with other things like coffee, college bookstores, and new expressions of bookselling, having seen a really busy little bookshop in a market hall today,

and a mobile bookshop in my own town,  so I believe new types of bookshops will appear.

So what is important to the book trade now is “content” and “the customer”, because the rest of the book supply chain is imploding.

and yes, I will still be buying an ipad this week.

Back to school

After a real tough year in 2009, I’ve decided that I needed to take another approach to my work life. Having worked from the day I left school, started my own business, and worked my way up in other companies, I need, at this stage of life, to do something different.

So I’m going back to school. I’m going to do an MBA

It’s based at the University of Stirling and is the MBA in Retailing course.

I’m as excited about this course as it will be intellectually stimulating, fun & different to anything I’ve done before…. and a huge thanks and kudos to my new employers for supporting me in this.

It will take over 2 years, a shed load of time, commitment and hard work, and covers key areas.

• Managing the Strategic Environment

•Retail Management Context

• Managing Finance

• Managing the Supply Chain

• Managing People

• Retail Marketing

• Retail Buying and Merchandising

• Managing Change

So this weekend we have our first study weekend,

I can’t believe how much I am looking forward to this, a really great new chapter in my life.

Thank you Don

One of my favourite bloggers is Don Miller, author of Blue like Jazz

whose books I first discovered in a remainder warehouse in Waynesboro, Georgia!  So I’m really pleased this guy has become popular and is now a well read & influential Christian writer and blogger.

In his post today he asks the question ” Do you own your own successes?…he then writes about ways of reminding yourself of God’s faithfulness and previous successes when it seems failure is all around.

This is particularly poignant for me just coming out of a business that failed, leaving significant debts. I am clear in my mind that I myself could not have stopped the business failing, but I was still part of the team when it went down. There isn’t day that goes past when I don’t reflect on why, how, and what I could have, should have, done to prevent it. It still leaves a horrible feeling and a sense of failure, and awareness of the problems it caused many good people.

So to have a reminder in a blog post to consider those things that are successes in my life is very very valuable. Top of the list, and unsurprisingly, has to be my family, but oh how easy is it to take them for granted.  I can also think of lives changed through the bookshops I’ve run, and churches I’ve been a part of, and this is just for starters.

So I think tonight I will make a list of successes rather than failure. Then maybe sleep will come just a little easier.

Thank you Don