So what does the improvements in the Waterstone’s stores say to us in the Christian book trade? We can see the improvements they’ve made, if they continue their development they may win the core book buying customer back, and this is one of the main problem that Christian retailers have; not enough of the key customers coming and buying regularly enough (footfall & conversion in retail jargon).
Waterstone’s operates in a different area of the market with larger, better located and fitted out stores with a commercial approach. The majority of our stores operate in small units, in tertiary locations and with poorer fit outs. So as the enjoyment experience grows in Waterstone’s, it gives our stores more of a problem; that shopping in our stores isn’t fun, stimulating or rewarding. Discovering new titles or authors or finding titles that have been around for a while haven’t been found yet is a critical element in the survival plan for physical bookshops. Which is where the whole of the Christian book trade has to have a pretty open and honest conversation. We know that when times are tough, retailers tighten their belts and reduce their stock buys to free up cash, then they become more risk-averse choosing to re-order known sellers rather than new or different titles. Which in normal retailing tactics seems sensible, but our context is changing, and the role of the bookshop is changing; if a customer knows what they want, they are increasingly likely to shop around for the best price, which is often perceived to be online more than in their local store, so a self-fulfilling scenario arises as the bookshop then struggles financially unable to match range or prices.
So how about a different approach from bookshops and publishers, and recognise that where the new bookshops excel is in discoverability and person to person contact. So bookshops, instead of playing safe, need to offer product, (in quantity and well displayed) that is new, different and that surprises the customers. So publishers will have to find new financial models that allows retailers to take those risks.
Yes, it will still mean that retailers will say no those books that aren’t what their customers are looking for, and it will still mean that publishers are frustrated by the decreasing volume and proportion of sales through Christian bookshops and look for places where volume and risk-taking are found.
But maybe, we by having that conversation, and trying some new things we may carve out a better future?