AHA - Unmistakeable passion & steely determination

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This article was written by Eddie Olliffe and published in Together Magazine

Last September found me at Warwick University, at the end of the Indian summer in England, for the Booksellers Association annual conference. Apart from having to navigate some very convoluted roadworks, it proved a pleasant place to confer. As an aside, I have never seen so many contractors in Day-
Glo jackets and hardhats standing on every road junction to ensure that members of the UK book trade fraternity reached their conference hall in safety. Good to know that someone loves us!

The Booksellers Association Conference (BA) has always been a gem in the trade calendar, ranking alongside Christian Resources Together (CRT) – I’d better mention that! – and the London Book Fair (LBF) as the ‘must-go-to’ annual events. Personally the Frankfurt Book Fair has always been less of a draw, as it appears mainly for publishers and the selling of rights.

For me, the sorrow of any BA Conference is that so very few Christian companies choose to attend – booksellers or publishers – in spite of the very generous retailer’s package for those in membership of the BA, enabling bookshop staff to attend. As the event lasts only 24 hours, there is hardly a problem with having to be out of the shop for too long. This year, the Christian trade representation was left to the team from Lion Hudson for the publishers, and for the retailers; Unicorn Tree Books (Lincoln), Holy Trinity Brompton Bookshop (London) and CLC Bookshops (me!). I fully accept that CRT is a more appropriate show for our trade, but even so, disappointing if you see yourself as part of the broader bookselling profession.

Warwick brought together booksellers from around Britain and Ireland, all with one thing in common; a steely determination to keep their shop open despite the odds, and an unmistakable passion for selling books. Determination and passion were visible and evident in spades. The BA had placed a plain white A4 sheet in the delegate pack headed up, AHA, in order to note down any ‘aha’ points that had struck home. This was my ‘aha’ prompt – DETERMINATION AND PASSION.

The Christian trade community has much to learn from this striking attitude if we are to continue to fulfil our spiritual mission to a wider secular world. We are not alone in our determination and passion as far as bookselling is concerned. In fact, the evidence from Warwick is that many are expressing it far better than we are. It’s time to wake up and realise that change is afoot if we are to survive.

For me, it was a clear call to refocus on why, as Christian trade, we do what we do. We have much to learn from our friends in the secular book trade. It seemed that they are far more determined and passionate about what they do than we are. For most, it’s about the bottom-line result, whereas for us it’s so much more than that, involving as it does far-reaching eternal outcomes. If I’m right, what an indictment - but do please feel free to prove me wrong! In one aspect, however, the Christian trade is streets ahead of its secular counterparts, and that is in the sale of non-book product. Warwick included a new non-book showcase to assist booksellers with this specific product area. Our own trade has been doing this well for years.

In my experience, the book trade in the UK has always been collegiate, warm and friendly. The BA Conference allows smaller businesses to interface with the likes of major chains like Foyles and Waterstones, and to mull over issues and concerns in a non-contentious atmosphere. Access to the senior management of these businesses is useful in terms of discussing ideas and figures over a meal with people with whom one would very rarely come into contact.

On that note, for me, the most valuable part of the event is the opportunity to hear speakers who understand the book market and who are used to assessing future trends as part of their day-job, as well as watching enthusiastic booksellers, many with brilliant insights and ideas, sparking off one another and returning home highly motivated.

Conference take-aways

These are my take-ways from these sessions, many of which have a bearing on what you and I do each day:Probably my favourite: (1) welcome dogs inside the shop, (2) arrange for firemen to visit the shop and (3) bring animals – donkeys, alpacas’ and goats - outside for children to meet. Apparently, this last one is a winner in driving footfall, especially on a Saturday morning. I’m not sure of the insurance or health and safety implications? Best get those checked out!

I smiled when keynote speaker, David Mitchell, partway through a hostile diatribe against a ‘cynical and life-crushing’ Amazon described them as ‘a benefit scrounger’, with the Government granting them what amounted to a ‘massive job creation subsidy’.

The best quote of the event? Surely; ‘Bookshops are still the very best place to discover books’ (Tim Walker, BA President). Conference was encouraged to actively ‘display titles face-out and sell to customers who didn’t know these books existed, and didn’t know they needed’.

Rik McShane, Retail Director at Waterstones categorically stated that m.d. James Daunt had ‘fixed’ Waterstones’ problems by ‘putting Booksellers back in charge of their shops’; not a view one publisher I spoke to agreed with, as stock buying has been heavily scaled back. However, McShane stressed that the 286 Waterstones shops were becoming more individual and that local staff were gaining more control over their stores. Customer service has to be ‘hard-wired’ into every retail organisation, so good staff are key.

What struck me here was a secular booksellerimploring delegates to ‘Enjoy it, love what you do and have a sense of fun’ and ‘it’s a real privilege to work in this trade’; so how much more for those of us engaged in the ministry of Christian retailing with all that means spiritually.

Sian Hamilton from Foyles, Charing Cross Road in London is always good value on the subject of shop layout. He encouraged everyone present to ‘Embrace your mistake as no project ever goes 100% right!’ Wise advice, I guess he should know! The new Foyles has already altered their layout after the first few weeks. Hamilton advised putting impulse
purchases and Bestsellers front of house and destination titles at the back, as well as ‘Don’t block your windows’, allowing clear sight lines through the shop. ‘Make the front entranceway welcoming’, with clear glass - not covered in posters and stickers.

‘Lighting, lighting, lighting’ as well as ‘location, location, location’ is the new orthodoxy. Heavy front doors, steps and poor lighting are all off-putting to customers. Display tables should be a showcase for the shop; they provide focal points and are obvious browsing areas. Used well, tables can boost sales dramatically. Finally, spend part of your day watching customers, where they go, what they notice, which directions they turn etc. These observations can be used to signpost your shop for a better customer experience.

The ‘Consumer Insights’ session was quite fascinating. Customers were variously described as ‘tricky, unpredictable, contradictory and irrational’! I think that means you and me actually. It does help to better understand your business if you talk to all your customers and not just to your favourite and most loyal customers.

The highlight session for me was Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis. He embarked at breakneck speed on an astonishing overview of the societal changes of the past 50 years. He believes that book publishing is in a far better place today than many of the other media industries, such as music and film. He noted that traditional media still dominates consumption. TV and radio consumption a key remain part of each day. Print remains huge. UK book sales still amount to £0.5m each and every day!

Digital remains a massive challenge

No one really knows quite where digital is going. Ebooks have plateaued (but may reach 26% market share by 2016) and sales of eReaders have stalled. Clearly, there has been a decline of physical bookshops due to the impact of supermarkets and online. This change has primarily damaged the ‘mid-list’ and adult fiction (down 15%). Fiction is now seen as
‘throwaway’. McCabe noted wryly that Amazon is essentially an algorithm, it doesn’t ‘sell’ books; it can only ‘list’ them. 50% of all Amazon purchases are pre-planned, as buyers tend not to enjoy browsing online (only 3% of sales result from browsing). Serendipity and discoverability work better in the physical environment.

The major impact on retail today is the ‘disruptive’ and ubiquitous Smartphone, along with the rapidly developing mobile ecommerce platforms. Mobile payment apps are becoming commonplace. The UK now spends more online (at £1,175 per head) than the rest of the EC on ‘cultural goods’ (includes books and music). We are a nation of digital shoppers but paradoxically we also still like to ‘go to’ the shops!

The over 40s are now in the majority for the first time. Shoppers are getting older and are more tech savvy. Media and telecoms spend is higher for older people. From the 1950s to 2005 there was the systematic erosion of ‘buying local’. This reality has been thrown fully into reverse. Shopping patterns are once again going through huge changes; think Tesco / Aldi, Morrisons / Lidl and the cutting back of physical retail space by other major retailers.

Conference this year appeared exceptionally clear that physical Bookshops will continue. Yes, they will need to change and yes, some could do better, but things that people value do survive. You only have to look at radio and theatre in an age of television and movies as good examples. There is no sign of printed books disappearing anytime soon. It’s also clear that few publishers wish to see bookshops disappear, but instead, to thrive and prosper. Leaving the marketplace open to one mega-
online operator would create a dangerous future for the industry, and most especially for publishers. I’m told the American Booksellers Association (ABA) is beginning to recover its membership, with over 2,000 actual sites represented. Booksellers coming into the US trade are described as ‘younger, more professional and more knowledgeable’. That’s needed here too.

2nd February

February 2nd, 2015 - Posted & Written by Together Magazine

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