Monday, August 05, 2013

Are Bookchains Merely Shuffling Deckchairs on the Titanic?

Change is demanding and be forced on companies by a declining or changing marketplace, or may be proactively adopted by others adopting a change of direction and strategy. What is guaranteed is that markets do not stand still and the only thing that is certain is change itself.

In the 80s the dramatic reduction of the price of North Sea Oil forced changes on all operators. The company I worked for shed over 40% of its staff in just months and the cuts were swift and decisive. The first tranche was based on the selection of ‘passengers, prisoners and wounded’ and frankly we knee who they were and we hardly missed them. The second tranche was based on what they called ‘arms and legs’. It was about identifying the non-core skills, in some cases non-essential departments and projects which just didn’t work at the new low market price. The focus allowed the company to remain focused and deliver.

I introduced the same logical process years later when working in a major retailer we had to cut waste and cost. In fact all companies should review their structure, resources, and skills against market changes on a regular basis.

So we come to a book industry that is experiencing change in every relationship, process and even the product itself! The area we hear most of today is bookstores and bookchains. The likes of Barnes and Noble and Waterstones stand out like giant stone statues in what is a fluid and digital marketplace. It isn’t just about digital content but digital commerce, marketing and networked consumers.

Waterstones has recently shed some management and redefined its organisational model but some would question whether it is moving in the right direction or merely moving deckchairs on the Titanic.

Is the challenge and opportunity at the store management level or the shop floor itself? Reinvigorating bookselling and engaging with customers and driving sales often is not about changing job titles and hoping that leadership can happen from the top.  Perhaps the demographic on the shop floor itself is wrong and changing that has to be a proactive change. I was part of the team that made such an initiative deliver in retail.

Both Waterstones and Barnes and Noble still have too much real estate and resources to change quickly. Both have to rediscover the art of book-handling, book-selling and engagement which is lacking in many stores today. It’s not just a case of having the right selection in the right location, but also having the right engagement and brand perception.

Waterstones may have avoided a digital commitment, or as some would suggested merely handed over their customers naively to Amazon. Barnes and Noble may have bitten more digital technology that they could deliver and taken too long to realise that the Nook market didn’t stop at the Eastern seaboard. But in both cases it isn’t too late to harness the goodwill and brands that remain, but it will take hard decisions such as experienced in the oil industry in the 80s and not just tinkering at the edges. It truly is a daunting task and not one for the old guard or inexperienced.

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