If Scotland goes independent it is likely to cause “huge disruption” to bookselling chains with shops across both Scotland and the rest of the UK, retail chiefs say. However, they acknowledge the threats to business remain purely speculative at this stage, with three weeks to go until the big vote on 18th September.
James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said that while he firmly believes independence is a question for Scottish voters alone to decide, if the country were to go its own way and was denied a currency union with the UK it was likely to cause problems for the Waterstones business.
“We are tied to retail health in general in Scotland, which is tied to the economy in Scotland and we would only wish the best for it,” Daunt told The Bookseller. He continued: “If Scotland did go independent and was denied a currency union with the UK then obviously using a different currency across our shops in difference locations would be hugely disruptive and difficult. But Argentina continued to use the US dollar for quite a long time.”
He added: “However, I am extremely conscious that I am not a voter and it is absolutely something for Scotland to decide. Clearly I do not wish to make any bold statement on which way the vote should go because I do not feel qualified to do so… and a lot is still speculation around at this stage.”
David Prescott, c.e.o of Blackwell’s, revealed that the company has been planning for the prospect of an independent Scotland since March. “We have done internal planning of what we might need to do if Scotland goes independent but beyond that we will wait and see what happens,” he said. “We have looked at the areas we would need to focus on if it did happen but it is impossible to do in detail because no one knows about time scales. All we can do at the moment is know all the areas we are going to have to look at.”
On the question of the VAT implications should Scotland break free from UK governance, Peter Lake, business development director of the JS group, which includes John Smiths bookshops chain, said “clearly” losing the zero rate on physical books would be “very unwelcome.”
He commented: "Obviously we think the fact that the UK has the VAT exemption on books is a good thing, particularly for the education marketplace, which was one of the main arguments for having that zero rate on books in the first place. Clearly if VAT is imposed on books after the referendum, it is likely to have an impact on sales from vendors in Scotland, particularly where customers can get the products from other nearby, cheaper sources. It creates an additional issue for Scottish retailers in that sense.
"Would it make life more difficult for parts of our operation? Yes it probably would. But as to whether we have looked into a policy of what we would do in that situation - whether we would pass that increase onto the customers or cushion it ourselves - the answer is, no we haven't. It might mean we will make less margin ourselves. But we think the zero VAT rating on books is there for a very good reason so to impose any VAT would not be welcome."
He added that the JS group had no company-wide stance on which way Scotland should vote, but added that the debate had led to "many conversations" among staff.
Different groups of Scottish business leaders, including publishers among their number, have written open letters to the press arguing both against independence and in favour of it.
They followed on from an open letter written to The Bookseller by independent retailers and publishers in Scotland raising concerns about the impact of the introduction of VAT, should the terms of entry to the EU after independence require it.
Other individuals in the book trade have expressed a broad spread of diverse views both for and against a "Yes" vote.