The decline of a once fine bookseller

I see from this whole raft of articles in the papers that my former, estranged employer, Waterstone’s, is not only doing badly but being publicly chastised for poor decisions which took the business in unwise directions, effectively taking it from being a highly respected booksellers with good stock range and knowledgeable staff to being a bloody book supermarket with poor range apart from the same endlessly promoted few bestsellers (which are sold at a huge discount so gouging the company’s profits badly). Which is something I said years back and now I see a former head honcho of the company is saying similar things.

I think the rot really set in after the HMV merger, that’s when it became clear it was going to be run by people who had no knowledge of, or passion for, books and reading and who failed utterly to understand that while a bookshop may be a retail operation, its a very peculiar form of retail and trying to run it like a music store or supermarket simply doesn’t work, you end up with poor range that you give away large discounts on to entice in a type of customer who doesn’t read a lot and has no loyalty to you and will be just as happy buying the same bestseller from Tesco if its cheaper. Meantime due to centralised system and range cuts your best customers, those who are heavy readers, the ones who want a good range of books in all subjects and expert booksellers they can talk to about them, get fed up and stop using you. I recall one former colleague telling me about a visit to head office where at a meeting these non bookselling people deciding promotions were talking about units they could shift and product placement and it took them a while to realise they were talking about selecting books for the front of store. That was how they saw them, like selling tins of beans.

Depressing; when I first started there it was a nice place to work, the staff put up with crap wages because we loved books and we were trusted to run our sections and innovative in them, so the stores were all a little different, local content was included, small press folks got a look in, customers were happier and so were staff – sales were good and so was the company’s reputation. Of course changes in commerce – losing the Net Book Agreement, opening the floodgates to mass discounting and supermarkert muscling in, cherry picking only the top few dozen bestsellers, the growth in online ordering and Waterstone’s muddled policy in that field – inevitably meant it was all going to change, but allowing the changes to be made by idiots who knew nothing about bookselling and disregarding expert knowledge of loyal staff (leading to many leaving, or in my case being pushed out) meant they made a total arse of it. A shame.