In the last four years, Waterstones has changed to a company which is more customer-focused, with booksellers who have more flexible working hours, more accountability and higher energy, according to the chain’s m.d.
James Daunt was speaking on the subject of the value of booksellers in a changing world at the Oxfordshire Publishing Group’s Summer Conference on Tuesday (23rd June), and described how the company’s ethos and working culture had undergone a revolution since it was sold from the HMV Group in 2011 to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, to today.
In 2011, booksellers spent their time stickering, ordering and returning books, but now more time is spent helping customers; their tasks were once routine and customers had little trust in staff, but now trust is much higher, with booksellers' days spent improving the shop and recommending books instead of trying to please the bookshop manager or publishers, Daunt said. There is also now stronger accountability among booksellers with performance related pay, and high energy when there was once low energy, he added.
Daunt explained that publishers now value Waterstones because it actively sells books –using, for example, the Book of the Month promotion, events to showcase books and being alert to what publishers need. “We have lost the support and interest of the academic (textbook) publishers and it is imperative we retain the support of general publishers,” he said. In March 2013, the company announced it would close six of its 12 academic stores although at the time said it remained "committed to the academic market."
Daunt also explained how the company had changed its buying process and had cut the company’s costs by halving its head office and reducing returns by 70%. He discussed how important booksellers had been in this culture change at the company and added: “It is all our responsibilities to encourage investment in libraries and reading. We live or die by our culture."
The impact of the Kindle e-reader and digital reading has also had a significant impact on the chain and bricks and mortar booksellers in general, with Waterstones’ sales falling by 14% in 2011-12 when Kindle sales were on the rise, which equated to £93m, Daunt said.
Also speaking at the Oxfordshire Summer Conference were Eric Huang or Made In Me, author Philip Pullman and HarperCollins c.e.o Charlie Redmayne.