Tea, cake and a completely full loyalty card at Waterstones Piccadilly yesterday.
Yesterday, I went to Waterstones Piccadilly with my book-loving older child, now 14. The afternoon expedition had started out not as a book-buying excursion, but as a walk in St James’s Park – one of those things you suggest to your teenager as a way to (a) get them out of their pyjamas on a Sunday and (b) spend some time with them in the hope that they might chat to you. However, once we were at the park, we decided we’d walk up to the bookshop. I knew, from Twitter, about the 20% discount weekend, and I had a debit card in my pocket. But my intention was just to spend some time browsing books with my daughter, and maybe to buy – sort of as an act of support for a truly excellent bookshop, more than anything else – one book, either for her or for me.
Once a book-lover… A photograph of a photograph on the stairway at Waterstones Piccadilly showing the older child at a Gruffalo event many years ago. I’d forgotten it was there, and must have passed it many times, but she recognised herself.
I should say right now that there is no lack of books in our household. I recently tweeted a picture of the physical books that have accumulated around my bedside – just a fraction of the books, some of them unread, in the house.
The books by the bed. Sharp-eyed readers will spot the Kindle on top of the tall pile. Sharper-eyed readers will realise that what you see is just the front two piles: there are two piles of books behind these ones.
Nor is January any more of a flush month for me than it is for anyone else, post-Christmas.
So I had neither need nor, really, means, as my child and I arrived at Waterstones, entering from the Jermyn Street Entrance.
Frankly, we didn’t resist for long. The 20% discount was prominently advertised throughout, and, by the time we’d got to the main body of the shop, I was already clutching six Quentin Blake Matilda/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory greeting cards (for my thinning greetings-cards-on-standby box) and a guide book to London for the family. My daughter, studying Mandarin and 20th century history, found Jung Chang’s biography of Mao on the ground floor, which I bought to give her on her forthcoming birthday. The Mao biography was close to where I found Lean In (which I had, it turned out, bought as a Kindle book, and partly read, but entirely forgotten: I am not sure whether that reflects worse on me or Sheryl Sandberg… but I suppose I can lend the print edition to other people more easily). Then my daughter stumbled on something she hadn’t known existed: a board game based on one of her favourite novel sequences, Gormenghast. I bought it for her grandfather to give to her for her birthday. Upstairs, I replenished my sadly-depleted Christmas present drawer with The Design Museum’s Fifty Dresses that Changed the World, for a fashion-aware relative. Then on to the children’s section. By now, I was really trying to persuade myself that I was Just Going To Look, and to see how Nosy Crow’s books were being displayed… but somehow I ended up with Squishy McFluff (bought for the format) and How to Lose a Lemur (because Fran, the author/illustrator, works for Bounce, who manage our sales representation) for the Nosy Crow office bookshelves. Honestly, I’d probably have bought more, but my daughter was getting restive.
Nosy Crow series fiction (The Grunts In Trouble and Olivia’s First Term) on a table promoting the first books in great series.
Nosy Crow’s Just Right for Two in place for Valentine’s Day.
Nosy Crow picture books (The Princess and the Peas, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam and Dinosaur Rescue!) on a picture book display table.
Nosy Crow’s Baby Aliens Got My Teacher glowing from the fiction shelves.
So we went down to the basement for a tea and cake – also 20% off – and then the plan was to go home… but in the cafe there was display of DVDs with Walk The Line at a pre-discount bargain price of £3.99. My husband likes Johnny Cash, and just last month I was telling him about the film, which he hasn’t seen but which I saw on an aeroplane once. He has a birthday coming up soon, so I took it upstairs to the ground floor to pay for it… which is where I saw Life After Life at the cash desk.
What I bought at Waterstones Piccadilly without really meaning to
Look, I am not proud of this rampant consumerism. I ended up spending money I had decided I couldn’t easily spare on things I hadn’t intended to buy. And anyone who knows me will know that I am pretty resistant to the temptations of shopping: Nosy Crow colleagues would be likely to comment if I wore new clothes to the office, for example. So this isn’t a common indulgence.
The point is that the whole bookshop experience (from the lovely displays of things I could properly look at and pick up in a lovely place, to the staff member in the children’s section who offered to help me if I needed support on book choices, via the cafe) combined with the discount was just… really, really seductive.
I spent – gulp – £89.52, including the redemption of my rapidly-filled loyalty card.
Last night, I worked out what the same things (not including tea and cake, obvs) would have cost me had I bought them on the same day from Amazon (though I couldn’t find on Amazon the greetings cards I bought in Waterstones, and had to substitute other Quentin Blake greetings cards). The answer, without including delivery charges, was £88.09. So, with delivery, I would have paid more if I’d bought everything from Amazon. But the thing is that I wouldn’t have spent the money on Amazon. I only ever go to Amazon to buy things I know I want/need, and never to browse, far less just for a really nice thing to do on a wintry Sunday. But at Waterstones, in the context of a leisure activity with my child, I spent money that I never intended to spend on books/book related things I didn’t know, or had forgotten, existed. I would never have spent that money online. Without the discount, I might still have bought a book (even two) at Waterstones, but my spend was very much increased by the discount.
And I don’t think I was alone. Waterstones Piccadilly felt a bit like a venue for a book party this afternoon: lots of people with armfuls of books buying and browsing and reading and chatting.
So I was wondering aloud on Twitter if a monthly, or quarterly, event like this weekend’s could work for Waterstones. Of course, I know the arguments against it: it’s hard/dangerous/impossible/unsustainable for bookshops to compete with online retailers on price. A bookshop’s costs, from space to staff via stock, are so much more expensive. Financially, the odds are stacked against bookshops, who tend not to have indulgent investors, and who need to turn a profit on books today, in contrast to internet giants like Amazon who can build their stock value based on building their revenue – to an unimaginable, for me, $74bn dollars in 2013 – and market share, while only making a 1% operating profit last year, and who can use books as loss-leaders. I know, too, that Waterstones Piccadilly is the company’s flagship store, and I suppose I might have been less seduced in a less stunning, less spectacularly stocked branch.
But I certainly came away having clocked many more books that I would like to buy than books I bought, and, truth be told, with a renewed sense of excitement about Waterstones as a consumer (I always feel excited about, and grateful to, Waterstones as a supplier!). I guess it might depend on what the weekend’s take was (perhaps The Bookseller will provide analysis); on refining the model (for example, my loyalty card was credited with the full price of the books, I bought rather than the discounted price, which I hadn’t expected, and was maybe unnecessarily generous); and whether, as some Twitter friends suggested, if the event were held regularly, people would just hold out for discount days, and not buy at all at other times. One Twitter friend suggested a subscription model, so you’d pay an annual fee up front to be a “member” to get your discount, maybe every day, not just on special days (not unlike Amazon Prime, in a way).
What do you think? Where do you buy your books? How can bricks-and-mortar bookshops compete with online retailers? Would you pay to be a bookshop “member” in exchange for discount? How important is price when you are buying books anyway?
(Thanks to Philip Downer, Julia Kingsford and Cathy Rentzenbrink as well as other Twitter friends who chipped in to the discussion on Twitter on Sunday evening that prompted this blog post.)