Last month, we published a rallying call from Ger Graus OBE, who lamented the ongoing lack of affordable books for children. "I continue to dream about 99p books for children in supermarkets," he wrote. "If not, books will forever be the domain of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ will continue to be left behind."
One company aiming to redress this imbalance is discount retailer The Works. The chain continues to expand rapidly, having opened 60 stores a year in 2016 and 2017, with a goal to have 650 outlets by 2020 - and its bookselling strategy accounts for about a third of the business’ circa-£160m turnover. That's due in no small part to its buying director, Andrea Bennett, who has responsibility for all the stock in The Works physical stores as well as on its e-commerce website. Bennett was promoted to her current role after a successful spell as the company's senior buyer, during which time she delivered The Works's first ever £1 million sales of children's books in one week.
2018 marks Bennett's second year on The Bookseller 100 list of publishing power players. What better time to get her thoughts on how she's keeping the company's bookselling "relevant and credible in an ever-increasing competitive world"?
It’s been a time of big upheaval for the publishing industry. How has The Works responded to this over the past few years?
We recognise gifting as a crucial part of our year-round offer and books are a very important part of this. We place a lot of emphasis on creating and developing new ideas within our book ranges, with a particular focus on kids’ books as this is such a big category for us. We have always been lovers of publishers’ backlist and often find a wealth of ideas, genres and themes which we can bring back to life. I am surrounded by a team of creative, forward thinking colleagues and this helps enormously in the development of a range. We place very little importance on front list publishing as there are many hidden gems in backlist publishing. Fundamentally, we focus on offering our customers a great choice of books at a low price.
What's the most innovative thing you’ve done in the past year?
The Works has a flexible and nimble business model that has enabled us to build a solid foundation for growth while also reacting extremely quickly to capitalise on retail and consumer trends. We are proud to work very closely with a select number of very reactive and commercial publishers who see the value in producing trend-related products for us quickly. Our business model allows us to make a success of trends outside of books as well.
We have significantly increased our focus on kids’ educational titles offering SATs and Key Stage support, and this will only get bigger and better for us as we add additional non-book ranges. Whilst adult colouring has seen a decline on previous years, the category continues to hold its own with some beautiful new publications being presented to us.
We are proud to be recognised as proactive business and we only want to buy the very best of what is available. We are very clear on our mission to offer our customers quality products for great value. Many traditional book categories have declined over the years due to a lack of consumer interest. At The Works, we are focused on remaining relevant and credible in an ever-increasing competitive world. We absolutely love books, it’s a deep-seated part of our DNA and we continue to work hard to ensure they remain a big part of our future.
How (do) you use data to drive your marketing and buying decisions?
Strong data has been key to the significant year-on-year growth of our online business. Search information data allows us to identify the top titles and themes our customers are looking for. We look at bestselling titles in the industry and see what is trending in the book world. Trust in the honesty and integrity of publishers, as well as a strong dose of creativity, help guide us to success.
How do you ensure your retail and ecommerce spaces work together effectively?
As a multichannel business, we benefit from having customers who want to buy in-store, online via a desktop or a mobile, or over the phone through our call centre. We are set up to service all of our varying buying missions with the same high level of customer service. For browsers in-store and online, we merchandise fast-moving and promotional lines together to ensure a joined-up journey. For destination shopping in-store, our layouts consistently categorise ranges across our estate nationwide. Online, we have recently invested in a new market-leading online search function that has considerably improved the rate at which our customers find what they are searching for. The Works’ successful Click-and-Collect model has transformed each of our 430 stores into hubs for customers who order online and wish to pick up their order in-store.
What do you see as your greatest competition or threat right now?
The Works has created a category of its own with broad consumer appeal and no direct competitors. In terms of increased offer and discounted pricing on books, supermarkets could be considered our greatest threat. We are focused on offering the best range possible in our own stores. We are keenly aware of what is happening elsewhere in the retail industry, but we don’t let it worry us as we are too busy creating our own magic.
What are you doing to hook the next generation onto your books?
Our vision is to offer a competitive and compelling range of well-known fiction for children aged 6-12 years in our stores. Whilst there are some challenges on pricing with mainstream publishers, we are focused on ensuring we can get books into the hands of the masses. We want kids to grow up with books seen as a way of life and not a luxury. Currently, we offer a fantastic range of kids’ picture flats both in store and online. Our picture flats ranges will ensure parents and young kids know that The Works delivers on price, range and quality. We also enjoy success in collections or box sets of best-selling kids’ fiction series, which helps drive a wonderfully positive attitude towards reading. The Works has opened over 100 new stores over the last two years and plans to open 50 stores a year for the next five years. I firmly believe that as a retailer, we are introducing affordable books to the next generation.