Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ironic problem buying a book

Bad business model loses out to low-cost competitor

I wanted to buy a book today.

So, I went into a bookshop, indeed a very big one, the New Street branch of Waterstone’s, the company’s ‘flagship store’ for this Midland part of the realm, located in the palatial former headquarters of the now defunct Midland Bank.

(Waterstone’s, I should explain, is a mega-chain, part of an even bigger conglomerate, that now runs most of the high-street bookshops in the United Kingdom. It was initially a personal foundation of bookseller Tim Waterstone but has grown and grown, absorbing other book chains along the way, including Otokars and Dillons. An idea of its ‘management style‘ may be gained by the references at the end of this article. It has in the past gained a well-earned reputation for refurbishing historic buildings to house its more important stores, albeit incorporating within them its rather brutal corporate shop-fitting style. The company is currently piloting a totally revamped house style, ‘to attract more footfall and provide a more compelling brand experience to [its] customers’.)

As I walked through the store looking for the appropriate department, I noticed that a whole room had been screened off, having nothing there but empty bookcases. ‘Oh dear,’ I though, ‘the crunch is all around us.’

Having found the right department I went to a lady behind the desk and asked for my book. She didn’t have one and checked her computer. ‘I’m sorry, Sir, there isn’t a copy in any Waterstones store round here. It’s only in our London stores.’

‘Oh dear,’ said I, ‘and it’s only just been published. Sold out already?’

Consults computer again. ‘No sir…’ awkward pause, ‘they’ve only been sent out to shops in London, nowhere else.’

Immediate response: ‘I suppose they know that we’re all morons outside London.’

She’d touched a raw nerve, and I’d sensed that she knew it even as she spoke. Brummies are very sensitive on such a matter. So too, I am sure, are the denizens of Manchester, and Sheffield and everywhere else in the United Kingdom. How dare they (whoever ‘they’ are), do they think that we're sub-literate, don’t we have colleges and universities, are we not capable of participating in the level of cultural discourse that we have to assume Metropolitans are…?

The lady wanted to help... ‘We could order one, it’d only take a couple of weeks.’

‘A couple of weeks? To come up from London?' (London is only a little over a hundred miles away.)

'Oh, no, it would't come up from London. It'd have to be ordered specially and sent from the publishers.’

I thanked her for taking the trouble (I meant it, she had done what she could and done so openly and with charm, and none of this was of her making) but I declined and left the shop.

As I did, I again passed the emptied room. Although I hoped that the nice lady would get by, I realised that I didn’t care a fig about what happened to Waterstone’s. And although it was only later, when I had spent a few minutes on Google prior to writing these lines, that I read about the proposed ‘a more compelling brand experience’, I had already realised that I might well never go into a Waterstone's to buy a book again.

The company (ultimately HMV) has no love for me. Like its books I am just a commodity. So I reciprocally have no loyalty, no feeling for HMV and Waterstone’s.

Old habits die hard

I wanted a book, so unthinkingly I went into a bookshop.

Old habits die hard, but die they still may. You want a book, so you go into a bookshop. That’s what people of my generation grew up to do. Young people want a book (and a lot of things besides) and they turn to Amazon.

I came back home and checked on http://www.amazon.com/. Yes, there’s my book, reduced from the recommended retail price of £17.99, that Waterstone’s would ask of me, to £13.90 , with free delivery. That’s 23% off. It’s hardly a match.

Regular readers of Conductive World will know that at this point in an article there is often a subheading along the lines of ‘What’s this to do with Conductive Education?’

A clue. The irony of this little experience is that the book at the centre of my little adventure is The Romantic Economist by Richard Bronk, flagged in my previous post and to be returned to…


Bronk. R. (2003) The Romantic Economist, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

--- (2008) Watersone’s: creating an exciting in-store experience for the UK’s largest and most successful bookseller (website)http://www.thebrewerydesign.com/client/waterstones

--- (2009) Waterstone’s, Wikipedia

Finch, J, (2009) Waterstone's joins the ranks of high street retailers shedding jobs, The Guardian, 12 January


  1. hi,

    what is the name of your book and where can i get it?



  2. The book that I was specifically seeking was 'The Romantic Economist', by Richard Bronk, as referred to at the foot of the article, above these Comments.

  3. Sorry, I didn't answer the second part of your question. Click on the URL included in the reference at the foot of the article, and get it from Amazon.

  4. oh i thought it was a book you had written, and you were having difficulty buying a copy. a bit like J R Hartley.

  5. Ben tells me that he put a URL link on his last Comment but that Blogger did not comply.

    Brits who remember, and non-Brits who never knew J. R. Harltley, might like to cut and paste the following into their browswer:


    It wasn't quite like that, but I do know the feeling!