The introduction of differential pricing is apparently under consideration at Waterstone's.
So, instead of a single price across almost 300 stores, individual books would sport different prices, shop by shop. It would be impractical, and amost impossible, to have a different price in every store; more likely, the new structure of 40 or so regions would be used.
At first sight, this seems a terrible idea. Should readers in Wigan be charged less for a book than customers in Piccadilly—won't Londoners feel ripped off? And anyway, in these days of the web, won't they all go online and compare prices in an instant anyway? Also, won't this be a logistical nightmare for Waterstone's to implement? Do staff in stores have the time to put a price on every book? Is the hub flexible enough to respond to all the peaks and troughs in demand that differential pricing may create?
Despite these perfectly valid objections, there is a strong case to be made for variable prices, particularly now that three for twos have been consigned to the dumpbin of history. Firstly, do consumers really care whether they might be paying more than in a neighbouring branch? Many will not know, others may not be concerned, as they want the book right here, right now, thanks very much. Many book buyers already accept they will pay more in a shop than online, but they are willing to bear that cost in exchange for good book advice, discovering new titles and being able to pick up the book immediately. Differential pricing is already a fact of life for many retailers, from beer to petrol, clothing to food.
If Waterstone's moves towards a much flatter terms structure, as is also being mooted, publishers will be reasonably indifferent as long as they are happy with the original price Waterstone's is paying them for the book.
Assuming Waterstone's has the systems, and the management ability to bring it in effecively, it could be the best idea yet of the new regime. It raises the fascinating possibility of maximising the profit on every title.