Saturday, October 12, 2013
Back to Waterstones
The word 'sacking' was a complete taboo, naturally.
I found the terminology of Waterstones rather depressing: resource for staff, learnings for lessons, handselling for talking to customers and, worst of all, product for books. In the end, I managed myself out of Waterstones before anyone had the chance to subject me to the full horrors of IPI.
Today, Waterstones is a different place. The company is now back in the hands of real booksellers and the shops look better than ever, with a vastly-improved range and presentation that recalls the good old days of Waterstone's, minus the mess.
I'd travelled to Piccadilly to meet a friend and as it was a little early for the pub, we decided to have tea in the restaurant on the 5th floor.
The view from the restaurant was impressive and the atmosphere was very relaxed compared to the tourist-clogged streets of the West End, but I was slightly put off by an irritating tannoy that kept shouting in a shrill, insect-like voice. What was the point of it?
Then I noticed that it wasn't a tannoy. Sitting at a table by the window, a large woman in her late 50s, with long hair and a tweed poncho, was watching a video on her laptop. She must have turned up the sound to compensate for the noise of people's conversation and the clanging of plates in the kitchen.
People started to look at the woman and at one point I thought a waitress was going to speak to her. But in true London fashion, everyone pretended it wasn't happening. When I decided to take the law into my own hands, she seemed genuinely surprised.
Has it now become socially acceptable to play videos in public places?
I was relieved to see that the new management had added perspex screens above the bannisters.
Like me, my friend used to manage bookshops for Ottakar's. She left 12 years ago and now had a successful career in academic publishing, but missed the fun and camaraderie of bookselling. I agreed, but said that we were lucky to have left when we did.
James Daunt's Waterstones seems a much better place than the bad old days of HMV, but the shops feel like the last days of the Byzantine Empire.
Managing Director James Daunt has tried to keep one step ahead of the decline in high street sales by focusing on making Waterstones more profitable. Loss-making stores have been closed, superfluous senior managers have been culled and the expensive head office in Brentford was closed (the slimmed-down management team now work in Waterstones Piccadilly).
But perhaps Daunt's most radical move took place earlier this year, when every manager and assistant manager was asked to reapply for their job. The aim was to reduce the payroll costs (I would guess by something in the region of £4,000,000) and ensure that the remaining managers were proper booksellers.
Sadly, the plan backfired somewhat, as some of the best managers in the company decided to jump ship rather than go through the consulation process. Out of 487 managers, around 200 left.
I met some ex-Waterstones managers at a party last week and the general view was that they felt that it made more sense to take the money and run (there was a relatively attractive redundancy package). I asked why, as I'm sure they would have kept their jobs. Their answer was simple: they felt that there was no future in bookselling.
Several years of declining sales, watching customers use their shops as a showroom for smartphone purchases from Amazon, had convinced these managers that the writing was on the wall. It was time to leave the sinking ship.
But was Waterstones a sinking ship?
In a recent interview, James Daunt asserted that Waterstones would be back in profit within two years. It seemed a grandiose claim, but W H Smith has surprised everyone by producing ever-improving profits in the face of declining sales, thanks to some very astute financial controls.
If Daunt can follow suit, reducing the costs of the business at a level that outpaces the decline in sales, then the chain could survive for years. But if I was a manager in my 30s, I wouldn't take that gamble.
We were usually indefatigable, although there was one occasion when my staff found me asleep on the office floor after a particularly generous publisher invited us to a cocktail bar.
At the time it was great fun (although my liver probably wouldn't agree) and it never occured to any of us that this world would come to an end. Every year, Ottakar's opened new branches and I assumed that this process of expansion would continue for many years to come.
When I opened my most recent shop, I had no idea that it would be one of the last new bookshops in the UK.
Of course, there are still bookshops, launch parties and author signings, but it is taking place against a backdrop of a relentless decline in year on year sales. Every year, Byzantium gets at little smaller and the Ottoman Empire gets a little larger. Soon, the enemy will be at the gates.
I wonder where it will all end.