Let's get physical

I recently attended this year's Retail Week Conference, arguably the best talking shop for this country's retailers. One of the main themes to emerge was that retailers needed to embrace, or rather, exploit, consumers' increasing need for a sense of community. A crassly commercial example was given—16.5 million people "like" Oreo cookies on their Facebook page (it must have been an old presentation, as it has grown to 19.1 million as I write). Retailers were encouraged to exploit Facebook: the average number of Facebook "friends" per individual member is 150—so the viral power of recommendations is stunning.

I sat listening, thinking that independent booksellers are the shining beacons on high streets. They are retailers that already embrace their communities. At this year's Bookseller Industry Awards, there were many such glowing examples put in front of the judges, and you will now know who was red hot.

Booksellers are leading the whole retail sector in having grasped the need to foster a sense of community and nuzzle up to customers as much as possible. The survival plan of the Muswell Hill Bookshop, London, was engineered in the virtual world: using Facebook to encourage extra purchases. It is yet another example that the bookselling trade is in the vanguard. Among the rest of UK retail, only a few of the best independent fashion stores establish that strong connection with their customer base that many booksellers enjoy.

The darker side of all this is that the internet is a long way down the road in losing that quirky, slightly anarchic feel that it once had. It is no longer an alternative source of information, but a mainstream one. Ever more rampant exploitation of "community" website members—in the form of increasing levels of advertising, and goodness knows what else—is facing us. This is implied by the ostensibly bonkers valuations attached to some of these businesses. Admittedly on the basis of some slightly secret squirrel share trades, Facebook is now valued at 32 times its estimated 2010 revenue. LinkedIn, the popular career networking site, is considering floating at a valuation equivalent to 13 times its 2010 revenue. To put this in context: on that basis Waterstone's would have been sold for £6.7bn.

High street record shops, 40 years ago a social hub for teenagers, are now a rarity. As sadly related each week in this organ, many libraries are under threat. Pubs are closing at the rate of 39 a week. The opportunity for social interaction—in a physical way—in this country's town centres is shrinking. In the future, will people mainly interact online? The ritzy valuations mentioned above would assume so. Bookshops will have to work hard to remain enticing places in which to linger. Perhaps one in particular springs to mind—a 15th-century antiquarian bookshop I visited this week: a tsunami of books, and an authentically medieval owner, whose personal hygiene would have made embracing customers a memorable experience!