Waterstone’s: the road to take is the road not taken

How should Waterstone’s, the UK book retail chain, reform itself? The question has been much discussed in the light of the chain’s recent change of ownership. Today a further catalyst is provided by a report of a message to staff by the new Managing Director, James Daunt.

I will return shortly to the question of Waterstone’s. First, though, a brief disquisition on another UK chain, namely Ottakar’s. I remember my first visit to an Ottakar’s store. I was on a campus visit to Anglia University in Chelmsford, Essex. I had arrived in the town early and so, to kill time, decided to browse the local branch. I had no intention of buying anything and in fact I didn’t – but I very nearly did. In fact, I was tempted to buy a number of books. Why? Because there is such a thing of merchandising and Ottakar’s did it well.

I found further evidence of this on visits to other Ottakar’s branches in East Anglia, the region of England in which I live. In Bury St Edmunds, the two independents were no match for Ottakar’s, which was well sited, well stocked, and well staffed (and which served decent coffee).

For many years my family has been going on regular days out to Norwich. Waterstone’s used always to feature on our itinerary. That changed when Ottakar’s opened a branch there, just down the road. Our children simply preferred it. They declared it the branch their favourite bookshop. I never escaped without first opening my wallet.

Ottakar’s wasn’t perfect. The company never really sorted out its online strategy – it lurched uncertainly from one strategy to another. But, overall, Ottakar’s was good retailer.

What has this to do with Waterstone’s today? Well, because Ottakar’s was a strong competitor, Waterstone’s did the obvious thing: in 2006 it took them over. And, having taken them over, it did the next obvious thing: it closed some Ottakar’s branches (to avoid duplicating their own) and integrated and rebranded the remaining stores. Ottakar’s distinctive green and orange livery gave way to Waterstone’s black.

Rebranding the acquired company to conform with the acquiring company was, as I say, the obvious thing to do. That’s the way takeovers tend to work. But it was also the wrong thing to do. Ottakar’s welcomed customers and enjoyed selling books to them, much more that Waterstone’s did. What Waterstone’s should have done was turn itself green and orange and, more importantly, adopt Ottakar’s systems and culture.

According to today’s report, Mr Daunt has told Waterstone’s staff, “It is essential that our shops continue to deserve the respect and loyalty of their customers. We will achieve this by presenting our shops, and the books within them, with real flair. This will require much greater local initiative by those of you in the shops, and an emphasis on assistance and best practice rather than prescription by those of us working to support the shops”.

The language interests me. Particular that phrase “local initiative”. It reminds me of something – the About Us page that Ottakar’s used to have on its site: “Ottakar’s today is a paradox. On the one hand it is a national book chain striving to offer uniform excellence in range and service across over 130 branches. On the other hand it is a collection of intensely individual bookshops, run with great autonomy by staff whose commitment to books is matched only by their commitment to provide a bookselling service tailor-made for their communities. “

Ottakar’s somehow always managed to combine strong central systems with a sense of localism. Their stores were careful to stock a good range of local interest books; the walls often carried (unless memory deceives me) framed prints of local historical photographs; and each store’s staff used to display a list of their own  picks.

My answer to my initial question – how should Waterstone’s reform itself? – is: paint itself green and orange, bring back the Ottakar’s approach.

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