Kingston’s high-street bookstore is still alive and kicking

After an MA Publishing field trip to our local Waterstones, guest blogger Joelyn Rolston-Esdelle explains why there’s still life in the high street bookstore.

As part of our Evolution of Publishing module, I and a group of students from Kingston University’s MA publishing course recently met with Matt Gretton, Store Manager at Waterstones in Kingston. Sitting on the carpet in the Business and Finance section like eager school children, we debated the future of bookselling face-to-face, the in-store experience compared to online, the importance of the relationship between bookseller and publisher, and the role of bookshops within the community.

Brisk business

Kingston is the largest single-floor Waterstones branch and the fourth largest in the chain in terms of turnover. The store is thriving at a time when high street booksellers are under threat. With 50,000 titles in-store and another 30,000 in their warehouse, Matt attributes their success to the fact that they cater for every market.

Unlike other booksellers that focus primarily on the mass market, the typical spend in Kingston Waterstones is spread across a range of literature. Although the store has significant success with hardback fiction, it is their student market that has the most impact, with 10% of their sales coming from textbooks.

The publisher–bookseller interface

Waterstones’ relationship with the publisher in terms of promotion and discounting has changed since the chain became privately owned. Although publishers decide the recommended retail price (RRP), individual store managers decide which books should be discounted in-store and to what price.  With the Kingston branch’s ability to sell, publisher reps – who visit every quarter – are able to ‘sub’ beyond the list of nationwide bestsellers. For ease of browsing, books are categorised in a wide range of sections based on their genre, with those most likely to sell displayed up-front and cover out. Around 60% of the books in any section are ‘core-range’, and as such are carried in multiples.

Whilst most customers “buy the book not the publisher”, there are a number of things that publishers can do to help high-street retailers. As there are tens of thousands of books published each year, it is essential for publishers to consider the quality of what is published. With the increase in ‘bandwagon publishing’ – for instance misery memoirs or vampire fiction – publishers often spend too long on one particular trend rather than creating new ones. With this in mind, Matt believes that for both publishers and booksellers to be successful, publishers should do more market research and work directly with booksellers to establish new trends, audiences and market size – an opinion shared by last year’s Masterclass speaker Julia Kingsford from Foyles.

The role of the high street bookshop

When asked about the main struggles faced by bricks and mortar retailers, Matt answered without hesitation: it is the number of customers choosing to buy online (and using the shop as a window). To tackle this, Matt and his colleagues focus on the in-store experience; soothing music and chairs create an atmosphere in which customers feel free to browse and enjoy, and expert help is on hand.

Waterstone's recently dropped its apostrophe to cope with "a digital world of URLs and email addresses"

It may be easy to buy books online if you know what you are looking for, but for the large number of customers who don’t, Waterstones staff can offer advice and recommendations based on what they have learned about customer preferences. And if they don’t have what you want in store they can have it delivered to the shop the next day – so you don’t have to worry about postage and packing and waiting around for deliveries.

Community matters

Matt says it is essential for the store to be viewed as an extension of the Kingston community.

Waterstones’ staff in action at the Rhythm & Muse/KWS poetry festival event with Roger McGough. Left to right: Peter Cole, Joanna Harker, Greg Shaw, and Matt Gretton

It is important for high-street retailers to get their company known and build customer support, and so attend the Kingston Reader’s Festival, sell books with the Rose Theatre and offer discounts and promotions with the local Odeon. Matt states with enthusiasm that they do this as “it’s all about being part of the community”.

The future face of bookselling

Matt can’t say what comes next for Waterstones, but he believes that in order to continue engaging their customers and combat online retailers they must conquer e-reading. It may be impossible to predict the future of bookselling, but it is important to predict what audiences want and need, and create a market for that.

Matt believes that if Waterstones is able to sell e-books in-store somehow they will be able to promote books in both formats, and thus have a stronger hold on the market. For now, their focus is on improving relationships with their customers through the introduction of a new Waterstones stamp card that rewards customers for spending. They are also using social media to spread the word about events, and thus widen their customer base beyond Kingston.

Christmas comes but once a year

During our visit, Matt and the team were gearing up for Christmas, the most important – and frenzied – time of year. For Kingston Waterstones 20% of their annual revenue is taken during the five week Christmas period. During this time, they are able to sell four or five copies of the same book. Their most popular genre is children’s fiction, selling around 1,000 volumes overall.

Many thanks to Matt for taking time out to share his expertise with us.

Joelyn Rolston-Esdelle is an MA Publishing student at Kingston University


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