Store profile: Waterstone's, Manchester's Arndale Centre

Store profile: Waterstone's, Manchester's Arndale Centre

As an illustration of where it has come from and where it is going, Waterstone's new store in Manchester's Arndale Centre could not be clearer. The shop is split virtually straight down the middle between the traditional Waterstone's look for browsers and a newer, modern format designed to attract a new generation of shoppers.

Through the doors on the left, familiar Waterstone's shelves on carpeted floors house the usual stock sections and range. But to the right, exposed brickwork and air ducts, bleached wooden floors and lots of space between displays give the store a much lighter, more modern feel. Here, genres have been completely rethought, and split into many more sub-sections than previously; biography shelves have "Celebrity" and "Painful Lives" divisions. Colourful photographs and graphics enhance text section banners, and a front-of-store "marketplace" showcases bestsellers and offers, on tables that are lower and piled less high than in other branches.

All inclusive

It is all intended to help lead shoppers to what they want more quickly. The changes followed feedback that some customers found Waterstone's stuffy, "wordy" and daunting, and did not browse according to traditional categories. In response, booksellers now walk the store's 9,000 sq ft of floor space looking to advise customers—stock is put out only in the evenings, giving staff more time to help in peak hours. "A lot of people are intimidated by bookshops, or get frustrated when they can't find what they're looking for," says manager Alison Wood. "Everything we're doing is aimed at making it much easier for them."

Wood transferred from Waterstone's Liverpool branch to set up the new store last summer. She recruited about a third of its 28 staff from other branches, with the rest joining Waterstone's for the first time. The store opened in September, in time for Christmas. There have been plenty of visitors from head office and other branches—the chain is rolling out elements of the new store design in other shops, though whether or not it becomes the template for all others to follow is yet to be decided.

Not everyone likes the new format, and some book bloggers have fretted online about the unfamiliar shelving and layout. "The place doesn't look chic and retro," says Dovegreyreader, commenting on a new-look store in another city. "It looks like a cheap and nasty cash-and-carry warehouse." But the sleek layout chimes with the bright, airy style of the Arndale Centre (completely revitalised since it was hit by an IRA bomb in 1996), and Wood says it has gone down well with customers. "We thought some people might be shocked, and perhaps they might have been if the store had been refitted. But because it's a new opening, no one has batted an eyelid."

The new format is especially popular among parents, whose children can read and play in a "mini-amphitheatre" area. The children's section has dedicated staff and its own sound system to loop nursery rhymes and songs, without irritating adults shopping elsewhere. Youngsters are encouraged to handle the books—all part of Waterstone's efforts to update its image as a place for families. Like the store's Costa coffee concession, the section was deliberately integrated into the main thoroughfare of the store rather than tucked away in a corner. Near Costa is a browsing lounge, positioned close to genres of books that people most like to flick over with their coffee.

Like most shopping malls, the Arndale attracts some heavy spenders, though the mall's city centre location means it also gets passing trade. "Essentially, we're still a high street store," says Wood. It is already a prime stop on author tours—popular autumn visitors included David Hasselhoff, Adam Ant and pop star Shayne Ward, who used to work in the adjacent New Look shop. There's also a book group, Sunday storytimes and other events for children, and a regular book quiz in the lounge with books and champagne as prizes.

Magazines

The store is continuing to experiment with other new lines and approaches, such as a small range of magazines and the new Waterstone's banner, set on a light rather than dark background. It also promotes www.waterstones.com, which is accessible for free through computer terminals throughout the shop. Most people have used it to locate the book they want rather than to buy it online, though it has helped to reinforce the modern Waterstone's brand, says Wood. "It's been exciting to be involved with something so new and different—and great to see the shop being used just as we intended and designed it."