Shoppers will be cautious about returning to the high street, but Waterstones will emerge from the coronavirus crisis and eventually have a wider range of shops, the firm’s m.d. James Daunt has said.
Speaking to Boldwood Books founder Amanda Ridout in an interview for the IPG Virtual Spring Conference, recorded ahead of the UK government’s confirmation that shops can reopen from 15th June, Daunt said his stores would have a gradual reopening once necessary safety measures were in place.
The firm’s branches will have clear social distancing markings and signs inside and out, sneeze guards, and gloves and masks for staff, and will use contactless payment whenever possible, he said. He also confirmed plans to quarantine books taken off the shelves by customers for up to 72 hours.
He told Ridout: “I don’t think there will be a rush back to the high street, as one assumes that consumers, or at least a proportion of them, will be cautious about doing so. But equally it’s also clear that there isn’t going to be a total boycott of the high street and indeed, if my local supermarket is anything to go by, people are prepared to queue for extraordinary lengths of time to get inside.
“So the shopping experience will change. While coronavirus restrictions are in place there will be fewer people shopping. But I think the attributes and merits of physical shopping remain as clear before as they do after.” Daunt said Waterstones’ online sales had “exploded” during the lockdown, but consumers were buying a different kind of book to the ones habitually sold through its physical stores.
Daunt said: “In particular, there is a segment of books that are not performing as well online. Particularly the new, the undiscovered, the slightly more esoteric doesn’t, at least for us, perform online as well as it did in the shops and that clearly is associated with bookseller recommendation, the physical presentation of books in front of customers and the fact that as you browse, you may buy the book that you hadn’t thought of, or didn’t know about. That’s evidently much more difficult online.”
Waterstones hopes its online operation will retain the customers it has picked up during the lockdown, and Daunt said he hoped the business would learn from Wordery, even if it doesn’t “integrate” following owner Elliott Advisors’ purchase of the firm. However, he expressed some concern over how to sell new books that came out during lockdown, and all the titles that have been kept back, creating a “very crowded space”.
Speaking about the future, he said bookshops would not “significantly change” because of the crisis, adding: “We as the retailers need to hopefully harness the reductions in our fixed costs to raise our game and invest in our physical estate and make it even more attractive. I think you will see a wider variety still of the sort of shop that we run—small shops, medium, big—reflecting communities, many with cafés, many of them with social spaces.”
Daunt predicted structural fixed costs would come down, with less rent to be paid. He was also optimistic about indie bookshops, saying he was “hoping and assuming” the vast majority of them would come through the crisis. But, referring to the troubles at Bertrams, he said: “If a wholesaler is no longer with us, that would definitely be a very bad thing.”
Daunt said: “I think we are extraordinarily fortunate in having a product that clearly has proved of very enduring value and attractiveness in these times. We’re not facing the existential horror that many of our fellow retailers are, and quite clearly many of them are not going to emerge from this. We will emerge from it, but we will be within a high street that is depleted.”
Photography: Mike Massaro.
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