21st-century booksellers

<p>The role of shop-floor bookselling has undergone a massive shift in the past few years. As high street bookstores have adopted central buying and systems-based stock management, in varying degrees, the everyday activities that bookselling involves have changed, and continue to evolve.</p><p>Since the demise of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, bookselling has been through a period of professionalisation and embraced commercial practices such as central purchasing; it has been inevitable that those involved in the day-to-day running of the stores would find their functions transformed.</p><p>How different is the job of bookselling now, compared to 10 years ago? The answer is that for some, the skill sets required have been completely rewritten, while for others, there has been a greater emphasis placed upon more traditional proficiencies, as a response to the overall environment.</p><p>The journey has not been entirely smooth, and in some places has led to an exodus of booksellers for whom this transfer of responsibilities left them feeling stripped of their sense of purpose. Waterstone's was at the forefront of the transformation, while other chains have developed central buying and systems-based stock control to varying degrees. Both Waterstone's and Borders UK head office declined to comment on this topic.</p><p>A manager at one chain store bookseller says that centralised control of stock has changed the skills required of shop-based staff. "One of the problems is retention of booksellers because the job is less interesting for them--it is basically just about stocking out and giving good customer service."</p><p>Customer service skills</p><p>For others, central buying and stock control has freed up more time to spend with customers, talking about and recommending books--an enjoyable and crucial part of the job. As online retailers continue to make inroads into the market share of bricks-and-mortar booksellers, the high street stores are placing greater emphasis on the importance of face-to-face customer service. It is seen as the primary means of ensuring repeat custom and forging relationships with consumers.</p><p>Customer service is also a vital way for independents to compete with their larger, discount-driven rivals. James Daunt, proprietor of Daunt Books in London, says: "Bookselling is about responding to what your customers want and about selling books. Computers replace what's on your shelves extremely efficiently, so let them do it."</p><p>Time that might be spent on ordering, be it new titles or stock replenishment, may now be used in bringing the books in the shop to the attention of customers. "It enables booksellers to concentrate on making people walk out of here feeling happy about their experience, because they've bought a book from someone who knew what they were buying, and made them feel good about it," Daunt says.</p><p>Daunt Books' approach to buying is to give responsibility for it entirely to one person, thus enabling all the other staff to concentrate on customer service and heading off other potential problems, such as sales loss if an unexpectedly successful title goes temporarily out-of-stock pending a reprint.</p><p>A bookseller at Borders echoed the idea that less responsibility for buying leads to more responsiveness to customers. "There is more emphasis than ever before on customer service, from the way we answer the phones to how we personalise our customer service. Verbal presentation is incredibly important even to the point of using the customer's name off their credit card when we thank them."</p><p>But within some stores, there is a sense that an enforced set of customer service responses is turning booksellers into automatons. As a Waterstone's bookseller points out: "I can't understand why a company should think that a robotic bookseller reading a script would in any way endear a customer to that particular chain."</p><p>Passion and databases</p><p>One of the paradoxes that arise from the change in booksellers' roles is the question of where book knowledge fits into providing good customer service and, on a larger scale, whether or not a passion for books is as important for a bookseller in today's environment than in previous years.</p><p>Keith Clack, a bookseller at Blackwell's, Broad Street, Oxford, has 40 years' experience within the book trade. He observes that as booksellers across the sector grow more reliant on IT systems, with information available at the touch of a key, they are becoming more accurate--able to give "chapter and verse on all kinds of books"--but less instinctive.</p><p>Increased use of computer systems to identify titles for customers and source stock has seen booksellers become skilled at data mining and IT; but has this also entailed casting off the intimate knowledge of books and literature that was once imperative for the role?</p><p>Andrew Stilwell of the London Review Bookshop believes that love of books and knowledge about different titles are the most important skills of a bookseller, and should be continually developed. "You have to love the things you're working with, which is books," he says. "You've got to read feverishly both books and newspapers, to know what's coming out and what's being reviewed."</p><p>But elsewhere, there appears to be less emphasis on product knowledge. A manager at Books Etc says: "A good knowledge of books is no longer an essential part of bookselling. Everything can be looked up."</p><p>This sentiment encapsulates one of the main criticisms levelled by booksellers at centralisation: that in taking away the opportunity to purchase books at store level, specialisation within a particular category and any personal ownership of the store is eroded. And there is a knock-on effect on booksellers' stock knowledge. A Waterstone's bookseller says: "With centralisation, booksellers can only guess at what is going to land on their mat. And if they're not sure what is on his or her shelf, how is the customer going to know?"</p><p>A lack of knowledge of titles in stock means the loss of an ability to sell-up based on recommendation. While booksellers are able to check availability of a title that a customer may know they want, a spontaneous knowledge of in-stock titles--which would previously have been gained through ordering--is impossible.</p><p>Richard Christie at Ottakar's, Wood Green, believes that shop-floor staff are perfectly placed to make judgements about buying because they are closer to their customers than head-office-based staff. "You get a much better feeling from the shop floor where you see the make up of your market and the spending patterns of the people who come in," Christie says. "It's coming to life and is not just numbers. It is also far better to merchandise the section when you've bought what you know sells for the space you've got."</p><p>In Foyles, Charing Cross Road, staff try to rely on their own knowledge, rather than computer information. Mohara Gill, Foyles arts buyer, says: "Customers want booksellers to be a library of knowledge--they look to us for information to help their purchases."</p><p>Visual merchandising is another bookseller skill that has been affected by centralisation. Within some chain booksellers, window displays are now tailored by head office, including the exact titles to be included and physical format of the display. The new approach has changed the role of booksellers, who were previously encouraged to engage their own imaginations and visual skills for window and instore displays.</p><p>At Foyles, booksellers are still expected to devise ideas for merchandising, and the buyers for each section decide which titles to bring to shoppers' attention. Foyles' approach enables booksellers to take into account local issues, and to champion books that they feel strongly about.</p><p>Changing roles</p><p>There are two trains of thought regarding the effect of central buying and systems-based stock control on the role of booksellers: one is that where systems are complementary to booksellers' skills, they contribute proactively and positively to the day-to-day running of the store. In such cases, knowledge about books and reading, passion for matching books to customers, and visual merchandising skills remain part of the bookseller's role.</p><p>But where systems override all creative input from booksellers, and offer little or no option to deviate from decisions made at head office, the difference between the role of booksellers and a general shop assistant blur; and the roles have begun to look similar.</p><p>Customer service remains the function that both types of retail role require: good communication skills are high on the agenda for all types of store-based staff.</p><p>With Waterstone's now poised to take control of Ottakar's, a significantly larger number of high street book stores may soon be subject to the same central buying and stock management system, bringing about a possible reduction in the amount of store-based buying that still takes place at Ottakar's. Borders, too, is in the process of introducing central-buying and stock management throughout Books Etc. The challenge for the chains will be to offer an engaging enough role to attract staff who have knowledge of books and literature, and who are committed to selling them.</p><p>Five skills of 21st-century booksellers</p><p> /P>Customer service</p><p>Paramount to bookselling is ensuring the shopper's experience in the store is as pleasant as possible: all the other bookselling skills ultimately feed into this one.</p><p>IT literacy</p><p>All bookstores use some form of IT system that enables their staff to carry out transactions, place customer orders and make purchases. The greater the level of responsibility, the more computer literate booksellers must be.</p><p>Interpersonal skills</p><p>Booksellers must be able to interact easily with customers, and ideally to articulate ideas about books they might like to buy. Communicating openly with colleagues both on the shop floor and through the chain of command is also vital.</p><p>Visual merchandising</p><p>At its simplest, merchandising may mean setting out a three-for-two offer, or following instructions on a marketing update. Beyond this lies the ability to select titles as part of an imaginatively themed campaign and construct an innovative display.</p><p>Passion</p><p>An emotion rather than a skill, but one which, if nurtured, will increase customer satisfaction and loyalty, as people who have enjoyed their purchase may return to the store. It may be cultivated, but never taught.</p>