Book Retailer of the Year

Introduction

In a hugely challenging year for retail, these varied businesses — a high street bookseller, an internet retailer, a mixed multiple and a couple of supermarkets — showed there were still plenty of good ways to get books into the hands of readers. After keeping supply chains and sales moving amid so much turmoil, all will be hoping for a much smoother 2021.

Winner

Moon Lane

The Book Retailer of the Year category is usually the preserve of the big chains, but after an unprecedented year for bookselling it is an indie, Moon Lane, that takes the award for 2021.

Adding the prize to the title of Children’s Bookseller of the Year), it was one of so many indies not just surviving but thriving in 2020. Its three shops rose brilliantly to the myriad challenges of lockdown, shoring up sales through home deliveries and using the extra time on its hands to develop a bright online personality, including via its revamped website, social media and a popular new Moon Lane TV channel on YouTube. “The resilience and innovation in the face of huge obstacles just blows you away… the small team achieved so much,” said the British Book Awards judges.

They also saw Moon Lane as an exemplar of independent booksellers’ values: committed to its communities and passionate about making books accessible to everyone. The loyalty that this approach has generated over the years became apparent in the support the business received from so many parents and children over 2020, when it was most needed. The year showed that while big retailers have resources to fall back on during difficult times, they can never match independents for agility, creativity or public goodwill.

Having ridden out the pandemic, you sense there is more to come from Moon Lane under its energetic founder Tamara Macfarlane, both commercially and philanthropically. Having agreed a first franchise opening in Nanjing in China, it might even become not just a national brand, but an international one. “The scale of ambition for a business of this size is amazing,” said the judges. “Moon Lane is much more than just a bookseller—it’s a force for good.”

The Shortlist

  • A Great Read
    Family-owned online bookseller A Great Read is shortlisted at the awards for the first time. Established in 2007, it found itself in greater demand than ever in 2020 as bookshops closed and people went online to buy. Sales through its retail website more than doubled — though other platforms like Amazon and eBay remain a larger source of revenue — and it adjusted to Covid restrictions to preserve fulfilment. For customers, the brand stands out for its service and promotions, while publishers like its firm sale policy and bulk buying.
  • Sainsbury's
    With high street bookshops shut for several months, the door was open for supermarkets like Sainsbury’s to gain market share in 2020. It used prominent in-store displays to get a good slice of blockbuster releases such as Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, and sharpened up its buying and merchandising strategies in the cookery and lifestyle sectors in particular. Like most retailers, it grew online sales sharply, in this case via its sister Argos business, and it successfully moved its Children’s Book Awards online.
  • Blackwell's
    After 140 years of selling books on high streets and university campuses, the pandemic saw Blackwell’s ramp up its digital arm. It trebled its sales through Blackwells.co.uk, and coped well with pressure on its supply chain and service. It played its part in local communities, reaching out to isolated customers and acting as a key conduit for care books and training material for the NHS, and turned closed shops into “dark stores” where teams could pick orders. Events moved online, including a Twitter-based Virtual Festival.
  • Tesco
    While some of the UK’s biggest retailers paused book supply during lockdowns, Tesco kept the deliveries flowing into its stores. In a sign of how seriously it takes the category now, big new releases got some highly visible front-of-store space in 2020. Promotions like a two-for-£9 on paperbacks and a discount offer through the Daily Mail have helped to make Tesco a destination for regular book buyers as well as impulse purchasers, and the retailer is an increasingly powerful advocate for World Book Day.
  • WH Smith High Street
    W H Smith Travel has won this award twice in the past five years, but this year its High Street business takes its turn in the spotlight. While trading was limited, it carved out a good share of sales of its own Book of the Year, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club. The chain celebrated the 10th birthday of its Richard & Judy Book Club with retrospective promotions and a spin-off Search for a Bestseller competition, as well as marking 15 years of supporting the National Literacy Trust.