A future in bricks and mortar?

<p>I haven't yet seen any sales figures for Christmas 2007, but I suspect that none of the major high street bookshops will be jumping for joy. I spoke to people from head offices of two major book retailers just before the Christmas break (people who I could trust to give me an honest answer, not just the party line) and they both reported gloomy sales.</p>
<p>The high street has taken a massive knock in the past few years from the increasing impact of online retailing and book sales through supermarkets. All the signs are that the internet and supermarket share of book sales will continue to increase, leaving the traditional high street retailers struggling. This comes on the back of massive expansion by the Ottakars, Waterstones and Borders in the last 10-15 years, which has left them with thousands upon thousands of feet of retail space, spiralling rent increases and decreasing sales.</p>
<p>Which all begs the questions &ndash; what is the future for the traditional physical bookshop and how much do we all want them? As book-lovers, we all bang on about how much we love our local bookshop, and yet most of us will happily chuck a few cheap paperbacks into our trolley when doing the weekly shop at Tesco or order our Christmas presents from Amazon because it's more convenient.</p>
<p>Bookshops need to re-define themselves if they are to survive.</p>
<p>Many of the good independents are already doing this. In the last ten years, a lot of independents have closed their doors (my shop was one of them) but, encouragingly, more keep opening. Most of the survivors are much stronger, more pro-active and less likely to take competition lying down. Yes, they do have to work harder just to stand still, but they recognise that this is a competitive market and they need to give their customers very good reasons to shop with them.</p>
<p>This involves a much more personal level of customer service, regular mailings, an interesting and different variety of stock, a healthy programme of talks and events, and active involvement in the local community.</p>
<p>My impression is that Waterstones are currently failing in their attempts to achieve this level of interaction with their customers. They need to offer a more unique shopping experience, to give their customers reasons to visit their stores and buy from them. Their Christmas offer looked all too similar to WHS, Amazon and supermarkets, trying too hard to get a slice of the celebrity bestsellers' cake (Russell Brand, Nigella, Jamie Oliver, etc.) &ndash; whereas they really need to carve out a niche of being different. If they don't do this, long-term they will cease to have a reason to exist and I believe they will fail. Their customers will find a lot of things cheaper or easier to obtain elsewhere.</p>
<p>Undoubtedly, some individual Waterstones managers and staff are trying to achieve this, but it really needs a much more coordinated and unique policy from the top. Part of me suspects, however, that they are just too damn big to succeed at this.</p>
<p>Perhaps in the future huge bookselling chains will cease to exist or be much less important. The independents (who can do all this more effectively, despite struggling with competitive pricing) will see a resurgence. Being small and unique will have its advantages. I live in hope.<br />
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