Saturday, October 12, 2013

Back to Waterstones

Yesterday I returned to Waterstones in Piccadilly for the first time in years. The last time I was there, it was to attend a tedious and morally repugnant training course on a thing called IPI, which stood for Individual Performance Improvement. It was a euphemism for 'managing people out of the business' or, more bluntly, getting rid of people without having to pay them any redundancy money.

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?

As we left the restuarant and reached the top of the staircase, I remembered that this used to be one of the suicide hotspots of London. The winning combination of alarmingly low bannisters and an unhindered 100-foot descent to a solid marble floor exerted a fatal attraction for some and we became used to the emails that read "Waterstones Piccadilly will be closed for the rest of the day."

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.

By the time my friend and I left it was dark. We walked in the rain, avoiding the groups of shuffling tourists, until we found a reasonably enticing pub. As we sat drinking our pints of Guinness, we reminisced about the days when we'd go to launch parties, stagger home, sleep for four hours and then go to work.

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. 


Rog said...

Leanings?! Ironical that a bookshop chain would mangle language so.

Maybe the future is like the British Library where the wall of fine books is merely a visual backdrop to people jabbing at their "devices",
No wonder they put up Perspex screens.

Steerforth said...

There was a culture, during the HMV days, of employing people from other areas of retail. I think the idea was that booksellers were too airy-fairy to have any real business sense.

I used to suggest that perhaps these macho, swaggering types (who'd joined Woolworths when they were 16 and had often a chippy attitude towards anyone with a degree) were actually idiots, but I felt like a lone voice.

They almost destroyed Waterstone's and it was no surprise when James Daunt gave them their marching orders as soon as he became MD.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Waterstones Piccadilly is too like an art gallery to me. I find it too hard to choose books with all that space and bright lighting. I prefer a bit of higgledy-piggledyness more conducive to book purchasing. I can see why it was a suicide hotspot!

Canadian Chickadee said...

I'm glad too that Waterstone's seems to be turning things around. It's a nice store, and I'd hate to see it go the way of so many bookshops.

I can't imagine a world without books. As a child, my dream was to have a room with lots of bookshelves crammed with books. And now I do.

I'm a lucky woman! :))

Nota Bene said...

There should be a law requiring every high street to have a good's such a pleasure spending time looking through racks of books deciding which ones to get. Anyone who plays videos loudly in public shouldn't be surprised if a cup of coffee is accidently spilt onto their keyboard...

Lucy R. Fisher said...

What to call this syndrome? Restaurant at the end of the universe? Which civilisation threw a last wild party while the barbarians were at the gates? (I sometimes repeat the mantra: It was fun, it ended, things do.)

Cheer up - print's not over yet! If I was a publisher/bookseller I would push for smaller, shorter, lighter books. Like an India-paper edition, or a pre-war Penguin.

Debra said...

What's a tannoy ? I don't know this word...
Actually, as morose as you may find England, I can assure you that England's social climate is Disneylandesque next to that of France...
The rat race (or treadmill...) has not revved up to France's uniform industrial speed. (I used to say that French society has a knack for importing the worst American practices, and multiplying their evil exponentially. It still mystifies me why this culture so systematically imports what is evil, vulgar, crass, and cheap from my mother country.)
Do you ever wonder how people who drove horse and buggy taxis made a go when the automobile became accessible to large numbers of people ? It gives you second thoughts about getting starry eyed over the word "progress", doesn't it ?
I agree about the word "product". (Almost) anybody who resorts to it should have his/her mouth washed out with soap.
Lots of other words need to get less publicity right now too, I think.
The books that I love are beautiful objects too.
Way back when, before we decided that everybody had to have tons of books, they could still be beautiful objects.
I'm not sure that money is the root of all evil that we like to think it is, though. Our ideas right now are pretty toxic too.
Are you as nostalgic as I am ?
I bet...

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well I for one will be happy to host a kindle burning!

Am having very little to do with Amazon these days since the tax avoidance scandal, that is for sure. But I only used it for books that I could not find elsewhere, even when I did use it.

Good luck to Mr Daunt. I actually do think there is a chance that things will turn around for the book selling world, but that is where my crystal ball fails me.

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I agree. I felt overwhelmed by the space. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why it was a loss-making store in the days of HMV.

Carol - Long may it continue. It's been suggested that reading will die out, but my youngest son loves books and I don't hear a peep out of him for hours sometimes. He's only seven, so I hope that he's one of a new generation of book buyers.

Nota Bene - I agree, and in a small town, a bookshop can also be a cultural hub. I used to encourage local drama groups to stage plays in my last shop and it seemed to go down really well. A high street without a bookshop is a sad place.

Lucy - No, it's not over yet, but I know that many bookshops are on the brink of going into the red. You're probably right about smaller, shorter books for an age in which reading competes with so many other things. Like this.

Debra - A tannoy is a loudspeaker that is used to make announcements in places like stations and shops.

Yes, I am quite nostalgic, although I try to remind myself of all the negatives of too. I was particularly depressed by London the other day, as it felt like a theme park for tourists and millionaires, serviced by a population of poorly-paid immigrants. It can't be progress when even relatively well-paid people can't afford to live there any more.

Laura - It all depends whether the declining sales will bottom-out at some point. My crystal ball tells me that out of 280 branches, Waterstones .probably only needs 50, in large towns or cities with a strong catchment of middle-class people.

If ebooks become as easy to illegally download and share as MP3s, then there'll be a meltdown. Otherwise, it will probably just be a slow and steady process of contraction.

James Russell said...

Waterstones ordering system still a nightmare - a publisher friend tried to order a Rough Guide in a certain Waterstones not far from Bristol, was told they would not be able to get it in less than a month. New titles ordered in tiny numbers, then reorders take so long readers lose interest... Answer, browse in the bookshop, buy from Amazon. Perhaps they should charge a browsing fee? Obsession with central control not healthy.

Steerforth said...

James - That's what's finished me off. At Ottakar's I was trusted to run the shop as if it was my own. If I didn't agree with a pricing strategy, I could use my initiative.

Waterstone's was obsessed with 'compliance' (one of their favourite words) and would use phrases like 'brand identity' and 'consistency across the estate'. I was supplied with 'planograms' to tell me which shelves to put the books on. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

And if some enterprising local author had dared to produce a book that might sell, they had to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops to get it on the shelf.

The impression I get is that today's Waterstones is better, but there is still too much central control, even if it has been devolved to 'clusters' of stores.

I'd just trust the booksellers to do their job.

Rob Scovell said...

Enjoying your blog, fellow south-saxon.

If you think the woman playing the video in the bookshop is bad, you ought to visit the Hamilton Central Library out here in New Zealand, which I've blogged about:

Looking forward to your next post. I like the cut of your jib, sir.

Steerforth said...

Rob - Thanks for commenting and introducing me to your excellent blog, which I shall now read regularly.

Ms Baroque said...

Thanks, very illuminating! I never knew that about the stairs... grim. And God, I well remember the days of those publishing parties, where you'd go and they'd be PUSHING copies of the book at you, HERE, take another one to give away!

The best party I've been to in YEARS was the other week - the 10th anniversary party for the London Review Bookshop, and you should have been there. A paean to booksellers and a shop that continues to be on the up. The bubbly flowed (though they didn't give us books). I ran into people I hadn't seen in over a decade, and had chats with a Mr Mars-Jones and Ms Callil... Even our old Hamish Hamilton rep from the mid-80s was there! So LRB must be doing something right. It's a really encouraging sign.

As for the rest...

Anonymous said...

What I find interesting is the gaping chasm between the PR fluff of "robust sales" and "more interesting place to work" and "less centralised" that JD is getting away with.

The actual departures numbered around 300, the company is more centralised than ever, there is a painful lack of leadership (a very successful bookseller does not a very successful MD make, necessarily) and sales are apparently not at all as they claim.

W is the last major specialist high street bookseller, so no sane person wishes it ill. It is also privately owned. This means that the spin that they are getting away with is appalling.

I hope it flourishes, I really do, but the public perception of what type of place it is to work, is smoke and mirrors. Much more so than under HMV, however ghastly their practices were, they never got away with this flagrant misrepresentation.

Steerforth said...

Ms B - I'm sorry I missed it. I noticed that when I moved outside the M25, I might as well have gone to the Congo. Invitations to publishing bashes dried up almost overnight, as people assumed that I wasn't available.

I can take or leave authors, but I would have loved to see the reps!

Anonymous - Yes, that's what bothers me. I want to be positive about Waterstones because I was so critical about its previous owners, but the lack of local autonomy bothers me.

As far as Daunt is concerned, an ex-manager told me that he is a rather introverted man and lets his operations director (who is regarded as a bit of an HMV dinosaur) do most of the talking at conferences. He is, by his own admission, no James Heneage, but I think people appreciate his candour and committment to bookselling.

I've heard mixed reports about the shops. They look better than they have done for a long time, but the sales seem to be on a downward trajectory.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty clear that there are a lot of disgruntled ex Waterstones managers/booksellers here. Did you all jump ship at the wrong time and wish you'd stayed?

Steerforth said...

Good question. I think the answer would still be no for most people, as many have gone on to find interesting new careers with the added bonus of better money and weekends off. I don't think bookselling is as much fun as it was and the competition from Amazon and ebooks has made a lot of people in the industry feel that it doesn't have much of a future. I would certainly be very reluctant to manage a shop again, unless it was a very interesting project.

Anonymous said...

such a horrible company to work for ... they treat their staff like dirt.... can't imagine its improved much over the years .. terrible working hours terrible money and horrible vile managers Foyles is far store.... with a much better selection of books.. I didn't know about the people throwing themselves over the stairs but I can't say that I am surprised the problem with a shop like Waterstones is it has no heart.. in so many ways.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - Apparently it's better now, but it would be hard to be worse than the moronic thugs that HMV imposed on us.