The implementation of a new till system might not be the buzziest thing ever written about in The Bookseller, but for a 134-year-old retail chain facing the new era of digital publishing, it is a vital step. Matthew Cashmore, Blackwell’s new digital director—he joined in November after a two-year stint as digital development director at Hachette—says: “My vision of the future for Blackwell’s is that there are no artificial lines drawn between a customer at a till at our Oxford shop, or a customer walking around our Nottingham store, or using our website or using our new app.”
Cashmore is charged with re-examining the entire chain to “remove silos” between the customer in-store and online. This will take a lot of work, getting information to the till system that is “intelligent enough” to talk to Blackwell’s online network, taking hundreds of data feeds containing information as variable as book content, customer details, book metadata and pricing.
“No, it’s not front-end and sexy, but my God, it’s vital,” Cashmore says. “It’s my vision that a customer will be able to walk up to a till, type in their email address and pay via Paypal, or on their phone, or by using their online password—and I don’t see anyone else out there doing that work at the moment. We’re talking to till suppliers and looking into building our own till system so the work has started and I want it live as soon as I can physically build it.”
Cashmore does have plans that are of the front-end and whizzy variety, including the company’s imminent launch of its brand-new app. Set to launch initially on the Nook platform it will be rolled out to all other platforms in the first half of 2013, providing shoppers the same opportunities as its website—a chance to browse the chain’s catalogue and reserve titles—as well as “location aware” capabilities: “So if you’re in one of our stores it will help you navigate the store, give you specific discounts for that shop and reward customers who shop with us a lot. For example, if you’re a particularly loyal customer, it will offer you a free coffee. All things that will help us drive a deeper relationship with the customer.”
The app, Cashmore goes on to say, dovetails with m.d. David Prescott’s dictum of offering the “right book at the right time at the right place”. “On a basic level it is about being able to combine disparate information into one place very easily—a student can open the app, select their university and course and their entire reading list will come up. Then they can choose which books to download digitally, which physical books to order online and which ones to pick up from a store there and then.”
The growth of the Blackwell’s app will come with added functionality. “The more interesting point comes when you look into overlaying other information: what happens when the next app can also be uploaded with associated reading material for those texts, when lecturers can automatically send out their presentations to students via the app, or deliver messages about graduation day through us.”
Alongside Cashmore’s plans, there has been more good news for Blackwell’s. Last year’s results saw its losses fall by £3.5m to £1.5m (on turnover of £72.8m) and it managed to beat the average market physical sales decline of 8%, with its sales from June 2011 to June 2012 only falling by 5.5%. This is a positive result, given that the retailer had losses of £10.5m in 2009.
During Christmas Blackwell’s started selling the Nook, providing a “massive” boost in sales. Although Cashmore won’t reveal exact figures, he says they have been “phenomenal”.
Cashmore knows a thing or two about an industry in flux. Before joining the book trade, he cut his digital teeth at the BBC and production company and software designer UBC Media. “When I was at the BBC people said television was dying because of internet TV. But all that happened was that formats changed and broadcasters had to adapt the way that they dealt with content.
“The BBC was developing the iPlayer back when most people had dial-up internet; they were architects of that change. Now the book industry is going through that same process and I want Blackwell’s to be the architect of retail change.”