Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tea Leaves, Stars, Crystal Balls etc

It's always difficult predicting the future, but at C & P we're doing ok...

Around this time last year we were forcefully predicting the demise of the high street chains. A certain Waterstones bookseller was rather upset by this and battle commenced, eventually ending in a draw as we decided it was all becoming rather boring.

But we were right.

We said that the chains would struggle as the internet and supermarkets took the land from beneath them in a two pronged attack.

Prong one: You can never stock as many books as Amazon or another e-retailer - not even if you are the size of Waterstones Picadilly. (Amazon don't actually "stock" many books but they give the impression that they stock everything. In practice the punters don't care if the book comes from Amazon's stores or from a small bedroom bookseller - they just want the book)

Prong two: You can never beat the supermarkets on price - they are bigger and more powerful than you.

When you take the high cost of rents and staff then the High Street bookshop chain stops working. (Stop making profits that will attract investment)

Waterstones took over Ottakers and now many shops look like closing. Staff are pissed off.

Borders have just announced they wish to sell off their UK stores. 2000 jobs are now at risk.

But who will buy Borders? Tim Waterstone may be the only interested party but there is another problem in that the Borders stores are not in great locations. Waterstones always made sure they found the best position in a town.

So the high street chains are in trouble. When you take everything into account there is not much profit to be extracted from a chain of bookshops any more.

And that's where the indies come in...

See we aren't after massive profits. There are no shareholders to satisfy at C & P, just adam and I and our meagre needs. Similarly the likes of Topping & Co are perfectly happy with staff being paid good wages, same for Daunt and most other indies. Independent bookselling works because it's about love more than money.

But won't the internet and supermarkets kill indies just like the chains I hear you cry?


Why not?

Because what we offer our customers cannot be provided over the net or by a big chain. We get to know our customers. We listen to them and often buy in books because people have pointed them out to us and we thought they sounded interesting. Our bookshop works and will continue to thrive because we are creating a place where like-minded people can chat about books, read books, enthuse about books and hear authors talk about books. Yesterday we cocked up an order for a customer and we made sure she had the book in her hand an hour later. She went from furious to chuffed in an instant. Why? Because we made a mistake and we cared and made sure it was sorted.

I think I'm also going to be right in saying that people will continue to be people for a while yet, with human needs. As long as this is the case we will do ok.

So, as we said last year. Bye Bye chains, hello indies.


  1. By and large a very accurate post if I may make so bold, but I would like to pick you up on two points.

    Firstly, I had assumed that Amazon didn't actually stock very many lines but now that I am a publisher I find that they actually stock at least one copy of nearly every book that is available and likely to sell. I realise that for some small publishers this is only through the Amazon Advantage programme but I was amazed when I found out what their range covered.

    Second, Waterstone's didn't always go for the best location in town. Internally it was a matter of annoyance for every new Operations Director and MD quite how many branches were miles off pitch. In the Tim Waterstone days they often went for pretty buildings so ended up with stores like Birmingham New Street which is in an old bank and struggles to fill the space. Borders have much better locations from a retail perspective when they are in town centres. Obviously I am generalising here as you will find counter examples in both estates but I know that Waterstone's felt that location was a weakness for them.

  2. Waterstones can recover if they stop thinking about market share and concentrate on their customers. Unfortunately though, these decisions are made to pander to money grabbing shareholders by people who have never even stepped into a bookshop, except to but nice, arty wrapping paper. Stop thinking about how much Harry Potter sales comes from your company and start thinking about how you can be more independently spirited, like many of the stores already are, with their EXPERIENCED knowledgeable members. Just like our friends here at C&P

    The killing of the supply chain means that many, many people who have given loyalty for ten plus years will now be looking for other jobs just because of a money saving whim that was presented to its staf in a money wasting booklet that arrived AFTER the BBC told the staff over their cornflakes instead.

    You should be ashamed.

  3. Erm, Scott the WS Birmingham New Street branch is beautiful, and still my favourite bookshop (after C&P!) as it stocks a wider range than any I've been in outside of London. Not only that, but two minutes walk through sunny Brum (ahh my home town) will lead you to another huge Waterstones. The Birmingham Borders on the the other hand is a terrible barn of a shop that seems to have very little in the way of books.

  4. Amazon - fair cop they are fucki*n brilliant yah yah yah.

    But am I the only one that thinks online shopping is a bit dull?

    On that note see my next post!