'Last of the great booksellers'

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Richard Lewis catches up with Blackwell's UK, the new-look academic bookseller that knows its name</p><p>
Last week's headline-grabbing news that the age-old volcano Blackwell Publishing was on the verge of an eruption will have reminded its retail sister company, Blackwell's UK, of tremors of its own.</p><p>
Blackwell's UK (BUK) went through its own seismic shift last March, when The Bookseller revealed the Oxford-based family business was to merge its UK library supply, retail and Internet divisions into one business. BUK was created, operating under one managing director, Alan Leitch. He was to report to Philip Blackwell, c.e.o. of Blackwell Ltd, which owns BUK and US-based library supplier Blackwell Book Services.</p><p>
As a result of the merger, BUK was more insulated from any changes at the publishing end. Although events may conspire to draw BUK into the dispute over the future of the publishing side, the board has reaffirmed its intentions not to sell the retailer.</p><p>
A total of 90 staff were shed in the process, through redundancy or non-replacement. This figure, according to Mr Leitch, was less than the company expected and less than had been rumoured at the time.</p><p>
"The merger was about clarifying the confusing way we presented to the market--it encouraged internal competition and triplicated certain functions," Mr Leitch says. "We needed to take the company apart and rebuild it in order to make ourselves easier to deal with." All this was done, he says, in a year of "changing markets and disappointing performance".</p><p>
Blackwell's remained tight-lipped at the time about rumoured shop closures. In the end only three, all high street general booksellers, closed: Sheffield West Street, Aberdeen Upper Kirkgate and Northampton. Headfiller, the chain's academic Internet bookshop, was folded as a standalone business. The brand was salvaged and now appears on the retailer's Website.</p><p>
This left the chain--including Cambridge shops Heffers--with 65 branches, and an estimated total turnover of &#163;70m.</p><p>
Blackwell's was getting back to basics. "You have to get smaller to grow bigger," commercial director Michael Neil says. "We had shops in places where we didn't make money and [general bookselling] wasn't what we wanted to do."</p><p>
This is not to say that any general bookseller under the BUK umbrella is doomed. "Heffers in the Grafton Centre, Cambridge, is not academic, but we make money out of it so we'll stick with it."</p><p>
The chain says library supply--which remains an integral part of the business--was streamlined in the merger process. The challenge now, BUK says, will be to grow the business profitably, learning from BBS in the US and taking an "aggressive presentation to market".</p><p>
Clearing the decks</p><p>
One of the most important aspects of Blackwell's regrouping was--along with the appointment of a new financial director, Steven Walsh-Hill--the appointment of Michael Neil in June.</p><p>
Mr Neil, former brand strategy manager at W H Smith, had also worked at Waterstone's and Hammicks. He describes his task at Blackwell's as delivering a commercial focus, from day-to-day basics at shopfloor level to strategic planning.</p><p>
"This is year zero," he says. "It has been about clearing the decks. It was good to join a company at the beginning of its financial year and begin an aggressive sorting out of problems."</p><p>
Blackwell's has aimed itself squarely at the academic market. "If you stretch the brand too far, there's a danger you'll stop understanding what you're about," Mr Neil says. "If you can't understand, how can your customers? We're about serious learning." </p><p>
He believes that those in further and higher education should not be patronised with gimmicks. "Students are highly sophisticated beings. We spent a lot of time on our marketing communication."</p><p>
Straight discounting was kept to a minimum. "We're not saying, 'We'll sell books cheap so you can spend your money on beer and fags.' We can offer them something better." Blackwell's will now buy back textbooks for as much as 50% of the cover price at the end of the year.Purchases of 10 titles or more are guaranteed a 50% buy-back. The company does well out of this, by integrating the second-hand stock with new books, stickered as such. "It's a key part of our offer."</p><p>
There are plans to update shopfloor colour schemes and ambience, using the recently renovated Broad Street flagship in Oxford as a model.</p><p>
Flexible models</p><p>
While elasticity of branding is to be avoided, flexibility over the route to market can be a boon. Blackwell's trialled new models this year, gaining and holding territory, while keeping its costs in check.</p><p>
Blackwell's Connect is the name BUK gave to a new mixed offer which was launched in September 2001. The company provides a temporary stall during freshers' fairs and the beginning of term, leaving behind an online bookshop tied to the host institution's intranet. The scheme, criticised by online competitors at its inception, appears to have paid off. "We did in three months what we budgeted to do in a year," Mr Neil says.</p><p>
The other "new campus model" is as simple as Blackwell's facing up to seasonal fluctuations by employing casual staff at peak times. </p><p>
Supply set up</p><p>
The company pushed for better terms and a clearer understanding of its margins, while efforts were made to improve efficiency in the supply chain. Chris Rushby, Waterstone's former head of supply chain, was brought in as a consultant.</p><p>
As a result of these moves and some "focused bookselling" in branches, Blackwell's says it has had a fantastic back-to-university [BTU] period. "BTU is our sales spike," Mr Neil says. "Christmas is secondary."</p><p>
Cumulative sales for 2001 at the flagship store at 52 Broad Street were 8.5% up on the previous year. That store--facing new competition from Borders--took an unprecedented &#163;1m in October, a success Mr Neil puts down to: "John Thwaites the manager, the teams, the stock, the environment and an understanding of the local market."</p><p>
Shop openings are back on the agenda. Precise plans are not being revealed, but "big" shops will open in areas close to universities. "The last year has been very intense and inward-looking," Mr Leitch says. "Now we will be looking outward."</p><p>
At a recent party to celebrate the opening of Sir Basil Blackwell's archive--the "Gaffer's Room"-- at Broad Street, Toby Blackwell took the stand to reassure the crowd that, in a market apparently heading towards further consolidation, the name of Blackwell's will hold firm above the company door.</p><p>
Philip Blackwell goes still further: "BUK includes the Oxford bookshops, which are the cornerstone of the brand; it is from them that all the other Blackwell businesses have been built."</p><p>
"Philip and Toby are still committed to remaining independent," Michael Neil says. "We're the last of the great booksellers."</p>