Waterstones – Is it right to do whatever it takes to improve the business AND the Customer Experience?


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I like writing articles that pose a question in the title. When I read articles written by others who also use this technique, I am very tempted to answer the question before reading any further. If you have done just that on this occasion, what was your answer? If you answered ‘yes’; or, ‘of course’; then you are in agreement with me. I am sure that accomplished writers – especially those in the domain of fiction writing – would frown at an author sharing the conclusion to a body of work in the very first paragraph – yet this particular body of work is neither fiction, nor is it written by an accomplished author!

As I have already shared ‘the end’ of this post, let me now move to ‘the beginning’. Very often, I am inspired to write about events reported in the media. Whilst it is not always evident if media reports are based entirely on fact or fiction, journalists are a constant and never-ending source of thought-provoking material. As I wrote last week, when it comes to the world of Customer Experience, many journalists are writing about the subject without necessarily understanding what it is, or that they are even writing about it at all. This week, the UK media have excitedly been reporting a story about the retailer Waterstones. For those of you who are not based in the UK or do not know of Waterstones, this is how they describe themselves on their website:

We are the last remaining chain of specialist bookshops on the high street, and with more ways to read than ever, as well as competition from things like computer games and the sheer mass of information in the digital space, we are challenged with making our shops welcoming and interesting places to browse and explore, offering outstanding service, and an unrivalled array of bookshop events. They are staffed with passionate, knowledgeable booksellers, selling the right range of books for the local market, and who are ready to recommend that book that you didn’t know you wanted.

There are a number of significant elements in this description of their business that I need to bring to your attention:

  • …last remaining chain of specialist bookshops on the high street…
  • …competition from things like computer games and the sheer mass of information in the digital space…
  • …we are challenged with making our shops welcoming and interesting places…
  • …selling the right range of books for the local market…

The British High Street has been in free fall for many years. The bookstore has been a mainstay of traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing. In 2014, I wrote an article that described the challenges that book retailers were facing – the statistics were quite astounding – the number of Bookstores physically present on UK high street in 2014 had fallen to less than 1000. The book selling industry had become the epitome of an industry being torn apart by changes in technology and consumer behaviour.

The online revolution hit the book selling industry harder than many others. Large and small retailers alike have simply disappeared without a trace. In 2009 one of the most prominent collapses in the industry came with the demise of Borders. The chain of bookstores that was originally part of the US parent group had been struggling for a while. Recognising the impact of online competition, Borders had started to try to change their proposition from being one of just bookselling. By the time they announced their ‘administration’, typical Borders stores contained both a Paperchase stationery and Starbucks café concession. In addition, some branches also contained a RED5 gadget concession and GAME video games concession.

All of this provides the context for why Waterstones describe themselves as they do. If they were and are to survive in an environment like this, they have had to do quite literally, whatever they need to do to meet the needs and expectations of their customers. By doing so, they would and will continue to stand a chance of sustaining themselves as a business. It makes perfect sense – well I think so!

In this excellent article written by Stephen Heyman on Slate.com, the full effect of Waterstones vision is brought to life. Spearheaded by their CEO, James Daunt, Waterstones have not just managed to survive, they have managed to do so profitably. One of Mr Daunt’s strategies has been to open a number of ‘unbranded’ bookstores. True to their description of selling the ‘right range of books for the local market’, Waterstones have changed their model to suit the environment that these books are being sold in. It is really rather clever – as Heyman writes:

If Daunt has created an economically sustainable model for the chain bookstore in the Amazon age, he’s done it in large part by not having a model: Each Waterstones looks different and sells different books depending on the local audience and the business impulses of the shop’s staff. In a way, Daunt has reanimated the lifeless body of the chain bookstore by infecting it, just a little bit, with the usually profit-proof sensibilities of an indie.

Southwold Books – one of Waterstones ‘unbranded’ stores

Adapting a business proposition to meet the needs of different types of customer is a very good, competent strategy – both from a business AND customer perspective. However (there is always one of those), whilst it is a very good strategy, it is a strategy that the British media attacked this week with headlines such as:

Describing the Waterstones strategy as ‘sneaky’ and ‘deceptive’ is very strong. The question is whether or not the consumer agrees with the media. The BBC article states that ‘Waterstones is under fire for apparently masquerading as the little guy in a world of increasingly homogenised High Streets’ – but it does not state who Waterstones is actually being putting ‘under fire’ by and who is making these accusations. As far as I am aware, Waterstones are not breaking any laws by using different branding in different locations – there is no mandatory requirement for them to state that they are the ‘parent company’.

Comments left by readers of the various media articles seem to substantiate this:

“I don’t see a problem to be honest they aren’t exactly putting other book shops out of business, if they are then that is because the other shops are either over pricing or some such, stop complaining for the sake of getting in the paper.”

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If it feels like an independent bookshop ten it has served its purpose. How many people complain that GM make Vauxhalls as well as Cadillacs?”

“The former Martello Bookshop in Rye was poorly stocked, dingy and in need of up-dating, which would have required a huge investment. The building was let under a repairing lease & required a massive amount of work to bring it up to scratch; no-one wanted to touch it. The Rye Bookshop which eventually replaced it on the same site is brilliant. It stocks a great range of books for all ages, knowledgeable and helpful staff so a great asset to book-lovers and to the High Street generally. Don’t blame Waterstones for investing a huge amount of money and for trying to revive small town high streets, blame the owners of the properties for being greedy. And by the way, we always knew about the Waterstone’s connection.”

“As long as they fit into the environment why should it matter? The trading company is shown.”

“I am not acquainted with Southwold , but in many places, the cards and gifts shops that also sell books only stock a small range of “popular” books. For anything else, one has to buy it on the internet. I personally like to be able to see the book I am buying and, very often, while searching on the shelves for what I am looking for, I come across other interesting books and often end up buying several books instead of one. I would think that Southwold should be pleased to have an occupied shop providing employment. Too many towns are blighted by empty shops and deserted high streets.”

The title of this post asks a simple question – ‘Is it right to do whatever it takes to improve the business AND the Customer Experience?’ –  I repeat my simple answer – YES! Waterstones should NOT need to defend anything they have done in implementing a business strategy that has successfully given customers what they need and want whilst enabling their business to have a more sustainable future. I applaud James Daunt and his team at Waterstones for what they have achieved and urge you to join me in doing so!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


  1. Ian, as usual I would think that the devil is in the detail. And the detail is the word ‘and’. This is because it is neutral.

    I would have agreed if you would have said ‘improving the business by improving the customer experience’ because this would have made the outside-in approach clear.

    The ‘and’ implies that the customer experience improvement can be a result of the business improvement.

    Well, I think … It can’t.

    So let’s begin the discussion

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Thanks for this Thomas – I do not disagree with you actually! Sometimes the subtle use of words can seem subtle, but actually be very significant – I appreciate you bringing this point to my attention!!


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