It’s Calliope!

It’s Calliope? What’s Calliope?

Well, plenty of things, actually. Calliope was the Muse of Epic Poetry, back when the Greek Gods ran the world. Since then, the name has been applied to (amongst other things) a hummingbird, a font, an asteroid, a saint, a river, a housing project, five Royal Navy ships and a host of other things.  And it’s pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable: Ca-LYE-o-pi.

The name was also given to a steam-driven fairground organ, which you can read about here. I’d rather like to own one of these, though the horses might be high-maintenance.

Calliope, the wonderful operonicon or steam car of the muses EDIT

And in the spring of 2013, Calliope will be a retail business operating from a physical shop and a virtual website, selling gifts, books and all manner of attractive things, and run by my old colleague and friend Andy Adamson, and me.

Of course, there’ll be more to tell when we have a business to launch, but in the meantime, here’s what Benedicte Page had to say about us in The Bookseller:

Downer to open new store:

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/downer-open-new-store.html

06.12.12 | Benedicte Page | The Bookseller

Former Borders UK c.e.o. Philip Downer is to open a new store, selling books, gifts and other merchandise, in the spring.

The shop, named Calliope, will be opened in an undisclosed Surrey location for which the lease is currently under negotiation. Downer will run the shop in partnership with former Borders colleague Andy Adamson, who is handling commercial relationships with vendors. A recruitment process has begun for a store manager, with applications welcome.  Conversations with publishers are already underway.

Downer, who announced the venture at a meeting of The Galley Club last night (5th December), said: “We envisage a store and an online offer with a combination of books, gifts and other merchandise. I’ve been saying for some time that bookshops have to diversity and that being an expert 100% bookshop shows a profound failure to understand how customer expectations have changed. There is an opportunity to sell quality books to a broad consumer audience.”

Downer declined to give details on what percentage of his offer would be books, saying the volume and proportion of books within the retail offer would vary “according to season and customer demand”. They will, however, all be beautifully produced volumes, books “of quality, inside and out”, he promised. “I was a judge in the British Book Design and Production Awards and spent two days looking at these fantastic books and recognising that we have the design and production capability in this country to produce truly beautiful, attractive books. It is interesting the extent to which some of the major publishers is grasping that nettle.”

The bookshop will have an “interesting and extensive” but as yet unspecified online offer and will also act as a community resource, Downer said.

The name “Calliope” refers to the music of epic poetry, but Downer said he was more inspired by the old steam organ of the same name towed around the country by horses, the “explosive fairground noises” of which feature on one of the songs on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Calliope is already on Twitter, at @CalliopeGifts, so do follow us and keep in touch with developments, as we move from being a great idea to becoming a great shop.

Mr Kite 1

In the meantime, I’ll be undertaking at least ten somersets on solid ground. Have a good Christmas, and don’t forget, shopping at local stores keeps your economy and community alive – and their taxes pay for the services you use.

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All Quiet on the Front of Store Front

It has been, hasn’t it?

At a time of massive publishing mergers, Amazon’s forced disclosure of their UK sales, and a continued reshaping of the retail landscape, you’d think I’d have quite a lot to say.

Which I do – but sadly, not a great deal of time in which to frame it into cogent blog entries. So, my apologies, but I’ve been very busy, and it looks as though I’ll be getting busier.

I’ll continue to throw the odd Tweet into the ether, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say through this forum in due course. I’m speaking at the Galley Club in the Strand next week, which should be interesting.  And, as my other plans come to fruition, I’ll be sure to let you know.

(Reapplies nose to grindstone.)

As ever, thanks for reading – and this Christmas, support your local high street!


Swann Song: Changes at WH Smith

The Bookseller has published a column I’ve written in response to WH Smith’s prelims announcement last week, which delivered the double whammy of £100m+ profits, and the upcoming departure of Kate Swann as Group CEO.  I’ve reproduced it below.

When the WHS announcement was made last week, two sets of instinctive responses crashed into each other.  The City reporters raised the roof for Queen Kate, during whose reign earnings-per-share have been driven to ever higher peaks, thanks to a combination of margin enhancement, cost-cutting and share buybacks.  And the naysayers pointed out that, yet again, sales were down – even in the go-go Travel division, like-for-likes keep falling.  Oh, and BTW, the store environment is pretty poor.

I try to take a slightly more nuanced (or reflective) view.  Swann has delivered extraordinary numbers through torrid times, but has she left her heir apparent, Steve Clarke (who is promising more of the same), with a sustainable model?

WH Smith has made every decision with its shareholders’ interests paramount – and that’s as it should be, am I right?  However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those decisions have been predicated on short-to-medium term returns, rather than the sort of long-term investment that leading retailers make.  WHS is still a bricks-and-mortar company (notwithstanding a long-standing but rarely promoted transactional site, and the slightly more forward-looking Funky Pigeon online offer), trading in categories –  printed books, newspapers and magazines – that are in long-term decline.  Its overseas Travel expansion plans are broad-based – but winners need to be idenified from a pot-pourri of investments across several continents.

Retail Week has just dropped through the door, complete with a profile of Steve Clarke.  In the meantime, here’s The Bookseller piece:


How’s the retail shake-out working for you?

Some smiling faces in the retail community this morning, with news that like-for-like sales in September lifted by 1.5%, easily the best result of the year.  Why the bounce?  There will have been some pent-up demand, following the armchair weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics, and – extraordinarily – there was actual alignment between fashions instore and the weather outside, so customers stocked up on winter clothing.

This didn’t necessarily mean a kiss of life for the high street, however – online sales rose by 9.9% year-on-year, compared to 4.8% in August, so the big shift from physical stores to the online environment accelerated, once customers started shopping again.  And JJB Sports called in the administrators at the end of the month – one of the biggest failures in a terrible year for business failures.

There’s an interesting piece in the FT this morning (you’ll need a subscription), which lists some of 2012′s most notable casualties - Blacks, Game, Clintons etc – and notes the overall fall in the number of trading retail units across the country.  Most pertinently, it highlights the quiet retrenchment taking place within successful non-food chains across the country, whereby multiple smaller stores are being closed in favour of a fewer, larger stores in the big centres.  (nb my blog on the top eighty retail locations, from the start of this year).  It may not feel like it, but independent retailers are increasing their share of the number of trading retail units, with 67% of all stores controlled by indies, up 1% against 2011.

And this is where the retail shake-out in the headline comes in; progressively, over the past four years, the out-of-date leviathans, the single product chains, the superseded-by-technology businesses and the unable-to-respond-to-slicker-competition-or-just-ground-down-by-Amazon retailers have been bought out, merged or closed down.  There’s now a big “middle of the market” gap between the FTSE 100 corporations and the street-fighting new players, but this recessionary climate has been rolling for long enough to allow the biggest players careful application of their cash piles to reshape their store portfolios and integrate first-class online offers, while the new companies have grown up, and been designed from the ground up, for an omnichannel (apologies to John Ryan) world.

A guaranteed better retail tomorrow requires consumer confidence, and we haven’t yet turned that corner.  (With Europe unresolved, the end of austerity is still some way off.)  Nevertheless, we are seeing the birth of a new, fitter retail sector in the UK, with plenty of entrepreneurial spirit among the start-ups, and in larger, imaginatively run, modern businesses like Hotel Chocolat or The Hut.  This is a volatile and fast-changing sector (asked Bill Grimsey), and there will be more business failures, more empty shops, more job losses.  But good retail practice thrives on its ability to adapt, to anticipate changing consumer behaviour and surprise, delight and good value.  The new generation, and the wisest of the old, understand this, and are seizing the opportunity.


Booksellers and publishers working together: The BA Conference

I spent Monday with the Booksellers Association Conference at the University of Warwick, and wrote up my immediate reactions in this piece, published by The Bookseller.

I do believe that there is a robust future for the best independent bookshops.  But they’ll have to evolve, and to stay ahead of their customers’ expectations rather than trailing behind them.  I hope that bookshop owners, publishers and their trade associations can work together to ensure that there is still a role for these businesses.

Do add your comments.


Physical retail: it’s still all about service, and it always will be…

I’ve written a blog piece for Retailer Solutions, reflecting on some timeless truths around customer service.  You can read it here.

I’ve been working in retailing for many years, and throughout the time, commentators, trainers, coaches and indeed CEOs have continued to return to the importance of customer service.  And yet, still, as a nation, we really aren’t very good at it.  On a day-to-day basis, the apparent “cost” of providing good, one-on-one service – in terms of people, time and training – still doesn’t appear to be worth the bother, for operators in big chains, and for owner-managers too.

The high street renaissance may be dependent on rebalancing the landlord/tenant relationship, weaning councils off their addiction to critical parking charges, or making the business rates regime fairer.  But if customer service is still poor, then sayonara, shopkeepers – and the retailers will only have themselves to blame.

Retailer Solutions is an initiative driven by Enterprise Ireland, the organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises across the world. Enterprise Ireland is a champion of innovation, and can provide retailers with access to emerging technologies from Irish companies with world class solutions for retail. 


Relay race

Cannon Street Station is a National Rail terminus in the City of London, bringing commuters into the financial district from south-east London and Kent via London Bridge.  It’s busy for an hour or two each morning and evening, but outside of these times, and at weekends, it’s dead.  In 2010/11, it served 21m passengers, which sounds like a lot, but compared to Liverpool Street (56m), let alone Waterloo (92m) it isn’t a big number – around 40,000 people each rush hour.

It’s recently been redeveloped, with plenty of handsome new office accommodation on top, but this somehow served only to emphasise how empty everything underneath was, when I visited at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.

Compared to other mainline stations, the retail offer is negligible, but interesting.  Cannon Street is home to the first Relay convenience store in a UK railway station.  It’s owned by LS Travel Retail, part of the Lagardère Group, which is a huge presence in travel retail in mainland Europe, Asia and America, but has only arrived in the UK this year with the Relay CTN and Watermark bookshop brands; they also operate Lonely Planet’s Manchester Airport store, and have multiple specialist fascias in their portfolio.

Relay is a brand consumers will have seen in dozens of European airports, so it looks familiar, but out of place.  The store is small (pretty tight, in fact) and neat, with the right ranges of newspapers, magazines, on-the-go food, confectionery and cigarettes, and small selections of grocery staples and books.  There’s nothing remarkable about the offer, but the shopfit is bright and inviting, the staff friendly, and everything is clean and well-ordered.

The tube network has many independent CTN offers, but mainline stations tend to be the province of the WH Smith Travel division.  It’s interesting that Relay secured this site instead of WHS…

…but not half as interesting as taking note of what WH Smith has done instead.

Smack-bang opposite the station entrance, on the north side of Cannon Street, there’s this:

Not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but take note: it’s clearly bigger than Relay, and it boasts two supporting brands in Funky Pigeon, WHS’s wholly-owned cards and gifts business, and Costa Coffee.  That coffee offer alone should be enough to get commuters across the road from the station – even though Costa Express means that you get self-service machines, rather than a smiling barista:

Plenty of room for customers too.  The store has a rear-facing dogleg, which permits a sizeable Funky Pigeon range, in addition to WHS’s regular Travel fare:

The timber floor, clean lines and bright environment all create a very inviting environment.  They also put one in mind of an old song:

There is no doubt that competition causes incumbents to up their game, and that’s certainly the case with WH Smith in Cannon Street.  Over to LS Travel Retail for the next leg of the Relay race…

Cannon Street image: e-architect.co.uk 


Films, food and fiction

Format change in action – a couple of examples from history:

1.  Movies and TV:  in the late 40s/early 50s, movie companies fought broadcasters to protect their industry against the upstart television.  Their frontal attack failed, and consumption of moving pictures largely moved from the cinema to the home.  TV developed wholly new formats (game shows, chat shows), but also reformatted drama (soap operas, seasonal series) beyond what the movies had ever been able to achieve.  Much of the talent that had worked exclusively in the cinema found new ways to make new livings.

2.  Counter service grocers and self-service supermarkets: another mid-century change.  The economies of scale, and the ease with which savings could be passed on to the customer, rendered counter-service stores rapidly obsolete.  Supermarkets sold bulk and sold convenience; as the years passed, they progressively improved product quality, all the time managing value.

In both cases, “big business” created the format shift – just as big businesses have created ereaders and tablets; but thereafter, they had to develop those formats as dictated by the customers.  Publishers in the post-paper world will have to do the same.

Indeed, pbooks are set to join cinemas and small food stores on the junk heap of history – until they reinvent themselves anew for an ebook audience.  But that will have to wait another 10-20 years – a cycle of decline, to be followed by a renaissance in a new and different form?

Hitch: http://jimberkin.wordpress.com; supermarket: business-school.exeter.ac.uk


The pbook tail: an ursine stump. The ebook tail: very long, very thin. And very different…

Some Twittering this morning, inspired by a couple of articles spotted by Jellybooks‘ Andrew Rhomberg.  One is a market report from Publishing News, the other a blog entry distributed by ebookporn.

@arhomberg

Low prices are transforming ebook buying behaviour from “buying to read” to “buying to collect” http://ebookporn.tumblr.com/post/28845301698/why-publishers-are-having-difficulty-settling-on-a …

 ‏@frontofstore

Collect, or just accumulate?

@arhomberg

bit of both? Some is accumulate “wanted to read” (and then forgot), but also collect “don’t want to miss out” (deal!)

@arhomberg

the post certain rang a bell with me in that ebook buying and physical book buying are evolving somewhat differently

@arhomberg

you now have genuine impulse buying from the comfort of your home and at genuine “impulse prices”

@arhomberg

Front list/back list ratio is 40/60 for print, books, but 20/80 for ebooks! http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/53430-what-happened-to-the-long-tail-.html …

@frontofstore

Concepts like frontlist/backlist, based on print runs/reviews/marketing, increasingly redundant in ebook world.

PN notes that Nielsen Bookscan has reported a fall of 30%, almost one-third, in US sales of fiction backlist titles in printed book form, for the period ending 22nd July 2012, compared to one year earlier.

The shift in market shape is accelerating, not slowing down, with the article noting a significant fall in physical book space at retail outlets (over and above Borders’ US closure).  One major American publishing group is reporting that 80% of backlist sales are now in ebook format – the pbook long tail is getting shorter and shorter.  Assuming Amazon still accounts for a large part of those backlist sales, backlist bread-and-butter in bookshops must be looking very stumpy indeed.  And without backlist sales to prop up the discounted frontlist, the book-specific store model looks very troubled.  Booksellers need to diversify, and to recognise that the “general bookstore” is probably unsustainable.

But hell, you know that already.  What’s piqued my interest today is the effect that all of this will have on publishers – and not so much on the grand strategies of media groups (many of which are quite forward-looking), but more on the basics of seasonality, range management and changing consumption patterns.

Amazon made one of their opaque announcements this week, proclaiming that for every 100 physical paperbacks and hardbacks they had sold in 2012, UK customers had downloaded 114 titles to its Kindle e-reader.  Such is Amazon’s dominance in the UK book market that this was headlined “Readers are now buying more e-books than printed books“, ignoring the enfeebled minority of book-lovers who are doltish enough not to use Amazon.

Ebook customers aren’t behaving like pbook customers.  Are you a traditional “heavy book buyer”?  If so, how many books might you buy for yourself at a time – four, five?  Any more, and the weight/bulk will be too much to carry, and once you get home, there’s the imputation that all those pages piled up at your bedside must be read.

Whereas ebooks – pah, easy.  Click, download.  Click, download.  Moby-Dick – always meant to read that.  Click, download.  À la recherche du temps perdutwelve volumes for £3.25 – no problem.  Click, download.  Having it on your Kindle is almost tantamount to reading the thing anyway.

Back to that ebookporn piece.  As the writer notes, people are downloading “huge chunks of content that will never be read”.  The piece concludes:

If your download 70 books at $0.99 each you are spending $70 and acquiring years of books to read. Very soon this reader stops purchasing and that sales bubble bursts.

If instead they were to spend not $70 for 70 books but $7 a month for access to 7 million books this reader spends $84 a year, year in and year out.  Knowledge is light and it stands to reason that access to all books can be sold like a utility such as electricity, water, and internet access.

This is what might be described, broadly speaking, as the Spotify principle, and it’s one that slashes through publishing, bookshops and libraries as we know them.  Which has more value to a reader who has no desire to surround him/herself with dead tree content – 70 ebooks, most of them unread and never-to-be-read, or an almost infinite quantity of content, from classics to trash, all available from the cloud at a moment’s notice?

This brings us back to frontlist and backlist.  I can understand how new ebook content can break through and succeed, whether a title starts with word-of-mouth build, typical of self-published hits, or is driven by a professional marketing campaign.  However, that approach divides ebooks into Monster Hits and Everything Else.  When publishers were putting out a few dozen pbook titles each season, they were reasonably certain that most bookstores would carry/display/promote most of those titles.  The books would get their place in the sun, and then (if they’d sold a few copies) earn a position in the backlist, where sales could tick over unto eternity.  They would move from frontlist to backlist; most of them heading ultimately to oblivion, and few lasting for lifetimes.

There is no straightforward translation of this old world into the land of ebooks, where hits will be bigger and faster, but will probably also be forgotten more swiftly.  The solution, of course, is not to try and force a frontlist/backlist pbook mindset on the ebook world, but to adapt methods that works best for readers – who now have the freedom to behave in a totally different, less considered way.

Note, methods.  Sales will fluctuate; surge, recede and return again.  Content will no longer be defined by its copyright date, but by its relevance to a particular reader’s needs.  Publishers will require a whole range of different sales tactics which are reliant on understanding the end customer.  This is best achieved through partnership with sellers, sharing sales data and market understanding, though it runs counter to Amazon’s established strategy – Seattle is determined to hold on to its data and control the customer relationship.

The “Spotify” approach is a rational response to the hangover that will follow downloading excess; alternatively, publishers may have to assume that a high proportion of ebooks will be sampled, but never read, and price them accordingly.  Neither solution represents a straightforward “format shift” (in the way that hardcovers were succeeded by paperbacks in the mid 20th century).  Consumers aren’t thinking in those terms, so publishers are going to have to change their model fundamentally.  And because the book has been such a successful object for so many centuries, that’s a difficult shift for people and corporations alike.  Ask any old bookseller – we know…

And to close, a gratuitous photo of about seventy pbooks, all of them pretty well-read…


The rich and the poor: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy…

…who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

The quote, of course, is Disraeli’s, and it was brought to mind after I read this piece by Marcus Leroux in Monday’s paywalled Times.

The gist of the article (for those of you without a Times subscription) is that 25% of non-essential retail spending takes place in just 3% of Britain’s shopping areas.  Of course, the crushing dominance of London – West End, City, Knightsbridge, Westfield – will help to skew those numbers, as London’s share of tourist retail is exceptionally high.  But forecasters CACI have reviewed 4,000 different shopping destinations, grading them from A to E, with anything below a C having questionable long-term viability.

The retail landscape has become more differentiated in recent years, as a combination of demographic polarisation, plus online, supermarket and out-of-town shopping, has caused the geography of the UK to divide more starkly between winners and losers.  I pondered this in a blog I published at the start of this year, seeking to identify 80 centres that I believed had future relevance; in Leroux’s piece, he notes that around half of Thorntons and Argos stores are in D and E banded locations.  And when stores close, which centres do you think will bear the brunt?

Well, here’s the good news (he said, a little acidly): the clone town will be a thing of the past.  No longer will there be identical parades and malls of the same jewellers, fashion stores, chocolatiers and gift shops, from Cornwall to the Highlands; instead, we risk a brutally stratified selection of pound shops, pawn shops and cheap booze in struggling towns and suburbs, while chi-chi boutiques and cafes overwhelm the rest.

I’m not convinced this is a good thing (I am a One Nation kind of guy); and I wonder if all of the government’s attempts to focus on local retailers (Portas towns et al) only takes us a short way down the road.  I very much support reducing business rates, slackening planning red tape and freeing up parking in order to revitalise a shopping district – but that revitalisation requires strong and solid national chains as well as entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Any smart indie retailer understands the appeal of well-known neighbours, preferably robust and well-managed ones.

There is a significant risk that squeezed, mid-market retailers will be closing in the top locations, pushed out by high occupancy costs and sophisticated online shoppers; and closing also in the poorer towns, where falling sales are precipitated by falling employment, collapsing aspirations and a general hopelessness.

We may need to move away from the purist “you can’t buck the market” view to a more nuanced standpoint that recognises that decent communities need a well-balanced high street (as well as good jobs, schools, healthcare, housing…), and that allowing high streets in densely populated areas to fail is akin to leaving broken windows unattended.  Of course, those retailers need to provide goods and services that their customers need – which of course is what mid-market chains have always delivered, tweaking their value offer as appropriate to local demographics.  But once “some quarters in the City” (Leroux) have prevailed on Argos et al to close their D and E locations, recovery in those towns will become just that little bit more difficult.

Blindingly obvious “two nations” photo: Cheryl de Carteret on Flickr


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