The Book Case

Waterstone’s new flagship superstore heralds the arrival of lifestyle bookstores from the US. Fay Sweet applauds the coming of age of the British bookshop

It’s a long way from Notting Hill to Piccadilly… The now-world-famous bookshop run by Hugh Grant’s character in the film Notting Hill was the quintessence of the traditional old-fashioned English shop, all corduroy and cardigans, fusty, dusty, dog-eared and homely. It’s precisely the kind of place that Julia Roberts would want to browse, because of its Olde Worlde novelty value. Roberts, however, would be much more familiar with the sparkling new Waterstone’s superstore a few Tube stops away in Piccadilly.

Occupying the large liner of a building designed in the Thirties as the Simpson’s department store, this borrows from the recent US phenomenon of lifestyle bookstores – comfy sofas and cafés, acres of books and bars, plenty of readings and signings. If you like figures, we’re talking about a £5m spend, 1.5 million books, 265 000 titles, 5 570m2 of floorspace, four restaurants and bars, six miles of shelving… and so it goes on. It all adds up to Europe’s biggest bookshop. It’s bright and it’s bold, and will certainly mark a milestone in British bookselling history.

The recent reinvention of the bookshop in this country traces its design roots to the US. Borders was among those pioneering the lounge shopping style; it opened its first UK store, on London’s Oxford Street, a year ago. “Business is going well,” says operations director Philip Downer, adding that there are now four large stores around the country. “They’re based on the US format [designed by Chicago group Torque] with cafés and lounge seating areas, but in the UK we have used a different colour palette that’s lighter, brighter and zippier than in the US. This is because the British stores are all in city centres and have been conceived to appeal to a much more urban shopper than the US stores, which are mostly in the suburbs.” The other major innovation in the UK has been a new-look signage system – vital in the big-scale multistorey stores – and this has now been exported back to the US.

In competition with Borders, the new Waterstone’s pushes bookselling boundaries still further. Along with the six miles of shelving, there’s a smart restaurant, bars, a gallery, events arena, private dining rooms, an Internet suite… whatever next? Swimming pool and sauna?

The interior takes its cue from the clean lines of the International Style architecture. The building was designed by Joseph Emberton, in collaboration with Alexander Simpson, son of the founder of the House of Simpson. To underline its progressive and modern image, Simpson’s was opened in 1936 by world land speed record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell. “It’s an exceptional building and interesting because it was designed specifically for retail,” says BDG McColl design director Brian McManus. The consultancy previously worked on a Waterstone’s in Glasgow, which opened two years ago. Part of the renovation and refurbishment work involved stripping away the decades of office and store room accretions which had crept on to the Simpson’s sales floors.

A single floor of the store is considerably bigger than most large city bookshops. “It’s a listed landmark and protected by English Heritage, so the design was conceived to work in sympathy with the building style, highlighting elements like the wonderful windows and amazing travertine marble staircase,” McManus adds. “It was clear from the start that a Victorian pastiche bookshop interior wouldn’t be appropriate for the building, so we’ve taken the opportunity to rejuvenate the Waterstone’s brand language and focus on its real strengths as a retailer that is passionate about books.”

To reflect the architecture, the interior is brighter, lighter and fresher than before, with soft areas furnished with bright red leather and chrome sofas by Hitch Mylius. “Where possible, we’ve built on the colour palette associated with the building – for example, the Waterstone’s solid dark red carpet has been reinterpreted as a red pattern on a neutral background picking up the orange-red of the stair handrail and the marble,” McManus explains.

To provide a seamless link between bookstore and food and drink outlets, BDG McColl also worked on the store’s catering facilities, which are run by Searcy’s. An instant response, based on a couple of visits to the store in its opening week, is that the catering areas feel more comfortable than the bookselling space. Lighting is softer and the spaces smaller and more contained. The sales floors are vast, and although they are divided into different subject areas, there is a slight feeling of exposure and being dazzled by the bright lighting.

“It’s certainly a departure from the clubby atmosphere of the past, and the shop is doing very well,” says Waterstone’s commercial manager Chris Rushby. “We have plans for around 20 superstores, but it’s too early to say whether these interiors will set the style for them all.”

But the book superstore is far from the model for all future bookshops. “It will be just one of a number of styles,” says retail analyst Mike

Godliman, director of market research company Verdict. “Book selling has been sleepy for years, but it’s now been shaken awake by the Americans and become incredibly dynamic in a short space of time,” he adds. “We are likely to see all major book retailers opening three or four flagship superstores in big cities, and these will become real destinations. The new Waterstone’s is in such a good location that it’s sure to be on the visiting list for people coming to central London for shopping. Foyles had that reputation in the past, but has lost a lot of ground.

“The big advantages of the superstore are the cafés and bars that encourage people to meet there, but also the fact that they can carry such a wide range of titles. There are dozens of places you can buy a bestseller, but if you’re looking for something specific or you want to browse, you’ll head for a superstore,” he says.

Godliman also believes that the superstore manages to answer the needs of several types of customer. “Leisure shoppers will have plenty of time to look round and drink coffee while they’re making their choices, but it can also work for the lunchtime shopper who wants to find something quickly – one really good design element at the new Waterstone’s is its strong signage.” As in other recent Waterstone’s, Interbrand Newell and Sorrell created the signage.

The stores may also act as a supply centre for small branches. “Chains can use superstores to improve their service offer – customers in smaller stores can order and receive titles by next-day delivery,” Godliman adds.

In the wider market, numbers of independent bookshops continue to diminish, but Godliman believes they shouldn’t despair. “There’s still plenty of room for differentiation and specialisation. Niche bookshops can sell themed books and related goods.”

Godliman is even optimistic about the bookshop surviving threats from rising Internet sales. “Figures for 1998 show Internet sales accounting for around 6 per cent of the market, but by 2003 we predict that one in five books will be sold via the Internet. But on-line selling is a new channel – not a replacement for the book shop.”

The research organisation Book Marketing looks to the US model to predict UK Internet book sales. Demonstrating that accurate Internet sales figures are difficult to secure, Book Marketing reckons the total market share is very small. “The total British book market is estimated to be valued at around £2bn, with consumers buying in the region of 350 million books a year. We saw real growth in the figures during 1997 and 1998, but it has levelled off this year,” says Book Marketing’s Steve Bohne.

“We estimate that Internet sales account for around just 1 per cent of the British book market. It’s a tiny amount compared to all the hype. However, it is a fast growing share. The pattern in the US may indicate what to expect, with Internet sales doubling in the past few years. The US Internet market share stood at 1 per cent in 1997 and doubled in 1998, according to The Books and The Consumer Nonsubscriber’s report, published by Book Marketing.

And at the niche end of book retailing, the child-focused Launch Pad is the latest innovation from Ottakar’s. With an existing 70 shops nationwide, the company has concentrated its efforts on the middle market in medium-sized towns. Launch Pad claims to be Britain’s fastest growing book shop chain – it opened 15 outlets in 1998 and has plans to launch a further 120. Ottakar’s plc floated on the stock market in April last year for £30m.

Launch Pad works as a standalone store – the first 185m2 outlet opened in Sheffield’s Meadowhall Shopping Centre in July – or as an element within a main bookshop, as at Ottakar’s in Glasgow. Once again, this idea has been imported from across the Atlantic and follows a research trip made by children’s bookselling team leader Wayne Winstone. The in-house design concept draws together children’s books and educational toys, and is aimed at the five-12 years age group.

“The spark of inspiration was that traditional British bookshops are not very appealing to kids,” says an Ottakar’s spokeswoman. “Our new idea is best explained by the phrase which appears on the shop facia – ‘Children learn best when they’re having fun.'”

The shops carry a full range of children’s fiction and non-fiction books as well as educational toys in seven colour-coded categories – Science, Our Planet, Creativity, History, Learning, Games and Stationery. Developed in tandem with the Science Museum, there are interactive learning stations featuring equipment such as an electronic microscope and model of a human torso.

“Not only have we been able to bring together the best and most exciting ranges of products from the US and UK, but we’ve also built a fantastic experience for both adults and children,” says Winstone.

The new WHSmith at Bluewater in Kent marks the latest stage in the evolution of the store identity being developed by Fitch. The bright, upbeat store is the fruit of research which highlighted that there were a number of opportunities to “develop product presentation and store environments”, according to the group.

The project team also wanted to build in a stronger identity to individual product areas. The analogy of the new interior is that “customers should experience the store in much the same way they might enjoy their favourite magazine”, a Fitch spokeswoman adds.

The design has great pace, starting with the glossy “cover” or facia which has an LED screen featuring the latest news, and punchy graphics promoting in-store offers and promotions. Inside, the customer is led through the various sections and encouraged to take a journey through the store. Each area is highly distinctive and switches between bright spaces with hard flooring and stack-em-high bestsellers piled on freestanding units, through to tranquil pools of red carpet and cream upholstered armchairs for book browsing and reading newspapers. The graphics do a great job in flagging-up each section, acting as headlines and flashes to reinforce the editorial style of the concept.

“The look of books and our attitude to buying them has changed so much in the past six or seven years that book shops have had to reconsider how they address the market,” says Steve Hagarty of Fitch. “Plenty of people buy books like CDs. It’s an impulse purchase, something to read on the train. We have provided softer areas where people can stop and consider, but equally important was the need to direct people quickly to the books they are looking for or might enjoy.”

Along with the magazine analogy, the new WHSmith also borrows from music store design. “Plenty of authors have become real stars so, like music charts, we want to incorporate the buzz of the top ten and show lists of bestsellers, and quotes from reviews.” The identity was created last year by Diefenbach Elkins Davies Baron – now FutureBrand – and the point of sale material was designed by Fitch.

Spoken word book sales

Mintel estimates that the spoken word market has more than doubled since 1994, worth £60m in 1998 and growing by a further 17 per cent through 1999.

Consumer behaviour Mintel finds that 77 per cent of respondents had bought at least one book over the past year, children’s being the most popular single category.

Analysis reveals there to be four consumer typologies in book buying: Scholars, 11 per cent of consumers; Practicals, 10 per cent; For children, 21 per cent; Occasional/non-buyers, 58 per cent. Thus most book buying is accounted for by 42 per cent of respondents.

Buying overall is skewed to ABs ( and to a lesser extent C1s). Socio-economic group membership is the single most important predictor of purchase.

The numbers of books published each year continues to increase and is more than 100 000. The largest shares of the new titles are accounted for by fiction and children’s books.

The 25-34 year old age group contains the most enthusiastic buyers and those over 65 are least likely to buy books.

source: Mintel

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