Fnac: French connection?

Fnac: French connection?

Take a look through The Bookseller's online archive and you'll find a story that could have come straight out of the heroic age of chain bookselling in the 1980s/90s. In an ambitious five-point plan, a major retailer announces its intention to double bookshop numbers, reinvigorate its range of CDs and other "non-books", create a "Children's World" in every store, expand customers' internet ordering options, and improve customer services and loyalty programmes.

Extraordinarily—for anyone focused on Anglo-American bookselling—the announcement was made on 19th July 2011 by France's Fédération Nationale d'Achats des Cadres. Yes, Fnac is still betting heavily on the future of the printed book and the physical store.

Fnac is France's largest "cultural products" chain, and its only sector superstore operator. New chairman and chief executive Alexandre Bompard was hired from Europe 1 Radio at the beginning of the year, with a brief to strengthen the brand's position in France and elsewhere as "a leader of the digital revolution". However, his strategy appears to be far more closely focused on physical retailing.

Fnac has about 80 superstores in France, and a further 70 throughout Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and Brazil, with an opening in Morocco scheduled for the end of this year. It has a long-established online store, and has launched a branded e-reader, the Fnacbook—but shows no signs of treating its bricks-and-mortar estate as an anachronistic legacy. Far from it. In July, Fnac announced plans to open 30 stores in edge-of-town locations across France, and around 50 small stores (up to 3,000 sq ft) in smaller towns and specialist locations. Subsequently, Fnac has confirmed a trading agreement with Lagardère to operate Fnac-branded stores at airports and railway stations.

The net effect of this activity will be to almost double the number of physical stores Fnac currently operates in France. Finding myself in the Loire Valley, I set off to Fnac in central Tours, to see if I could understand the secret of its success.

Shock of the view
Many Bookseller readers will have visited a Fnac store at some point, and the look and feel of the brand has remained remarkably consistent over the years, with an ambience closer to old-school HMV than to the typical British or American bookstore. Presentation is straightforward and stark, with all-steel fixtures in black and white, exposed/blacked-out ceilings, and straightforward lighting and signage.

This creates an environment that is clinical, but not necessarily intuitive. Fnac has been selling a very wide range of non-book products for many years, and the store layout implies that the customer will know what is carried. To anyone familiar with UK or US retailing, the front of store area is a shock. A series of product aisles fan out from the entrance, and reading left to right the customer is presented with: cameras and accessories; Top 10 books; Nintendo DS players and a "Star Wars" DVD; academic diaries; a bay of local interest books; a pile of MacBook Pros; and a rag-bag of backlist books, CDs and DVDs, including a "2 livres achetés = 1 livre offert"—yes, a three-for-two offer, though the selection of aged backlist looks unexciting.

After this diverse and uncompelling mixture, you pass to a shopfloor focused solely on electrical goods of every audio, visual and computing type—indeed, there are no more books to be seen until you've walked 70ft into the shop. This, I suspect, is one of the secrets of Fnac's long-term success. Rather than confining itself to the books'n'music format of B&N and Borders, Fnac carries a broad enough range to provide mall shoppers with a mix that in the UK  would require Waterstone's, HMV, Ticketmaster, Jessops, Phones 4 U and Currys Digital to merge.

Flat or serene?
At last we're deep into the store, and we've finally found the book department. And it is impressive—a densely fixtured and ranged area of around 10,000 sq ft (think of a full floor at Waterstone's Piccadilly, without walls, stairwells, etc). You are quickly left in no doubt that an intelligent, specialised and stimulating range has been created for you, albeit one short on surprises, or a distinctive small publisher presence.

Every aspect of the layout and execution assumes that an educated customer who has read their reviews in Le Point or L'Express will be able to find the book they're looking for, and that little else will be required to tickle their interest.

So table displays are limited, and shelves are typically all spine-out, with perhaps a display shelf at the top to assist navigation. And French fiction spines are still overwhelmingly black text out of white (reversed for policiers), in stark contrast to the UK jacket design. French bookselling, by contrast, is flat—or serene, according to your taste. The "hardest sell" comes from the printed review cards on table displays.
There is more visual colour in non-fiction, and range is exemplary—there are few regional bookshops in the UK that would still be offering over 2,000 titles in Art/Design/Photography, for instance. The same applies to the Children's and Graphic Novel departments—a strong selection, but with layout and merchandising heavily proscribed. Character products, games and other associated merchandising are almost wholly absent, although the new "Univers Enfant" departments should rectify this, and little is done to create interest or excitement around authors or series.

Elsewhere, Fnac's CD and DVD sections are stocked as though the iPod and digital streaming have never happened, with prices that would be unacceptable to the UK consumer—€20 (£17.75) is typical for backlist albums and new DVDs. Interestingly, there is a tranche of "missing categories": newsstand, stationery, calendars, office equipment. Given that chains such as Plein Ciel (a sort of Ryman/Paperchase hybrid) comfortably range books, Fnac's non-participation in these categories, which embrace some high margins, is odd.

Cultural divide
Overall, Fnac offers a strong, deep, mainstream range across all its product categories. Service is polite but unexceptional. Space is densely filled—there is nowhere to sit, no café, little evidence of events or customer participation, and the overall ambience is very masculine.

Of course, the cultural differences between Britain and its nearest neighbour are legion, and what appears to a UK bookseller to be comprehensive but unimaginative is clearly a well-honed strategy, meeting the needs of the mainstream French book-buyer. The French take literature very seriously. The Centre National du Livre (an arm of the French culture ministry) has deemed over 500 independent bookshops to be "Libraires Indépendantes de Références", a designation that can bring exemption from business taxes as well as being a mark of quality.

Supermarkets sell books with gusto in France, but cannot loss-lead, thanks to the Lang Law (see below); a LeClerc hypermarket on the outskirts of medium-sized market town offers over 3,000 titles—perhaps five times the volume of a large Sainsbury's—with respectable ranges of fiction, children's and travel titles.

There is, of course, that rigorous price control legislation. Thirty years ago, culture minister Jack Lang stipulated that publishers should fix the selling price for a book, and that no channel can discount this r.r.p. by more than 5%. Amazon has challenged the ruling unsuccessfully, and sticks doggedly to discounting each title by 5%. Fnac.com also applies the 5% saving online, but the absence of a significant price differential between specialists, supermarkets and the internet has significantly slowed the growth of online bookselling in France.

In May this year, the Lang Law was applied to e-books, which accounted for 1.5% of the total book market in 2010. There are few indicators of an imminent e-book explosion. The Fnacbook e-reader sold just 14,000 units in its first six months on the market.
As a result, many books are expensive by UK standards. The French edition of The Help was on sale at the supermarket for €23.80 (£21.12) with the latest Jean Auel title at €21.85 (£19.39). B-format paperbacks have a similar cover price to the UK, but a wide selection of pocket editions from series such as Pocket, Livre de Poche and J'ai Lui provide good A-format titles at strong prices, such as Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist for €5.60 (£4.97), or John Grisham's The Firm for €6.00 (£5.32).

The prospect of Fnac coming to the UK has been essayed on many occasions, but I believe it would struggle to adapt in a no-prisoners-taken market like ours. Although change is in the air—Google's agreement with French Hachette Livre to republish out-of-print editions digitally is a global first—Fnac and the French cultural establishment are betting heavily on the continued viability of physical shops. Without the distractions of price warfare, customers can choose their preferred buying channel, and this supports specialist bookselling.

France is a more outward-looking country than it used to be; more open to other cultures and influences, travelling abroad and learning new languages. Whether their publishing and bookselling cycle becomes more like ours in the future remains to be seen, but in the meantime, vive la différence.

Philip Downer owns the Front of Store retail consultancy (www.frontofstore.co.uk). He has formerly held senior positions at Borders and Waterstone's.