Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Literature, cake and a new look

In the fine weather today, we had plenty of takers for the courtyard garden, but we're rather used to having to entertain periodic groups of 2s and 3s - rather than the party of eleven that piled into the shop this morning just past 10. Anne Soper - a teacher of English Literature at Abingdon School, who has (I discovered with some expert googling) been with the school's English Department for over 20 years - came in to see if we could accommodate a departing English Literature set, one of whom had been in the previous day to pick up a leaving present. "No problem" I said (this is my standard pathologically-optimistic reply to almost any question BTW) and led them through the shop, stopping to press-gang two stragglers into taking an extra table and chairs in the garden. After having served up copious amounts of coffee, cake, soft drinks (including one pink milk, complete with coloured straw) I demanded something that I could put on the blog - here is the piece submitted: "Anne Soper and Rodney Mearns of Abingdon School led the departing Upper Sixth English Literature set on a jaunt to the 'mostly books' courtyard for coffee and cakes (all of them). The set consisting of: Andrew Barton, Oliver Foster, Henry Freeland, Kevin Lee, Oliver Minton, Huw Parmenter, Dacid Radcliffe, Stuart Robertson and Adam Withnall. Thoroughly enjoyed their hour in the May morning sunshine. Thank you." Would appreciate a copy of the (obviously brilliant) photograph I took of you all - cheers guys! Lots to say about the shop at the moment. The launch of our loyalty scheme (homebrew, bit of an experiment), the launch of our Children's Review Project and our selection as official booksellers at the Children's Food Festival in July will be the subject of future blogs. But the big news is - we've had a big revamp and switch around of where we put book in the shop - pictures soon!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Tesco Effect

One of the great things about living in Abingdon is the proximity to Oxford, and as I now (mostly) have Thursdays off, I decided to head off into the city with Alex for a few hours.

As you might expect given its situation and student population, Oxford has three large bookshops. Blackwells is far and away the best, and is good to pop into for general inspiration, replenishment of the soul, and worshipping at this cathedral of books. Waterstones and Borders on the other hand are good for the odd spying raid (mentioned before on this blog), and having Alex with me is a good excuse to hang around the children's room for a while without being escorted from the premises.

Being anonymous in these places allows me to engage the staff in conversation about business - and everyone agreed that the last month or so has been quieter than normal. I got this message from several other (non-book-related) businesses as well.

But it was the very revealing chat I had with one business owner that got me thinking. He runs a fantastic little shop in Oxford (which will have to remain anonymous for the moment as I was sworn to secrecy). Apparently, he had been approached by the manager of a well-known UK chain in the same line - who was a bit desperate, having seen a massive fall in sales over the past couple of months, and had come in to ask, with much humility, what on earth was going on.

Now, my sample here is small, and it could be due to lots of factors such as the weather, rising interest rates, etc. But I think we're about to see some dramatic changes in retail (a Tipping Point if you like), partly due to the inexorable rise of the Internet, but mostly due to what I like to call the Tesco Effect.

Back in April Tesco posted record profits (again) of approximately £2.5 billion. Sales increased in excess of 10%, and if you are the size of Tescos, and increasing sales by that much, your competitors must be suffering pretty badly. Add increased sales by Sainsburys, and that's a big hit for anyone competing with the big supermarkets.

And that can be just about anyone. I don't think it's any surprise that the retail chains suffering the most at the moment are media (including books), clothing and electricals. These are all the areas that have fuelled the impressive sales growth of Tescos et al. Next Wednesday sees sales figures released by Next, DSGI (what used to be Dixons), and Sainsburys. What's the betting that Next (clothing) and Dixons (electricals) are hurting, whilst Sainsburys post some new records?

In their seminal (though slightly clumsily-titled) book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout explain that, as any market matures, usually only two major players are left in the game (the others having gone bust, or have been bought out). These would be Tesco and Sainsbury then. However, what market are we talking about? Not the grocery market - after all, we can't be using 10% more toilet paper every year. No, the eventual market will be "everything-that-can-be-sold-by-a-supermarket" market. And what can't they sell?

So if you're selling something that's sold by the supermarkets, and haven't worked out your niche yet, start getting worried. Depressing? I don't think so. You just need to work out your niche (if you're not a big supermarket). And this report from the US - who are a few years ahead of us on this, having been battered by Wal-Mart - say that there are fantastic opportunities for independents.

I think if there is going to be an imminent massacre on the British High Street, people are going to want to do something, and supporting local shops might be an easy, rewarding way for people to feel empowered in the face of these retail behemoths.

Abingdon is in the front-line of this paradigm-change in consumer habits BTW. We have one of the UK's most profitable Tescos on the outskirts. Fed up with several years of small expansions (which don't trigger planning reviews, but are slow and messy) Tesco has now decided to go for broke and apply to increase its store by a third (or 19 independent shop sizes). I wouldn't mind, but the store is already huge. It's a Tesco Extra store. You have to walk half a mile to find the milk. On a foggy day, you can't see the far wall. On Monday, the District Council will decide to approve this application. They can't really do anything else. If they oppose it, Tesco will continue to appeal until they win, and then the council will have to pay Tesco's legal bills. Tesco has deeper pockets than the council (and better lawyers and expert witnesses probably). Sad, and democratically-emasculating, but that's the modern world for you. If I were Tesco, I'd do exactly the same. The politicians set the rules, Tesco maximise their shareholders profits within them. And don't forget, Tesco got so big by being brilliant at customer service. If Tesco weren't #1, we'd be moaning about Asda Wal-Mart. I think Tesco is actually a great business. But it's ironic that I get several communications a week asking my opinion about THE taking over Bertrams (Titanic and deckchairs anyone?) and a deafening silence about the big supermarkets taking over the world.

So - I think we can forget some brave local councillors standing up for choice and biodiversity in retailing. Instead, I think we need to get creative, and work out what competitive advantage we have over Tesco. I think it's a lot - but what does everyone else think?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Force is strong in this one

The following book arrived this morning. Hee hee...

It has been drawing admiring glances all morning, and is (conservatively) now on two people's Christmas lists. You have no idea how much fun this job can be sometimes...

The sooner Nicki is back in the shop the better I think...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Livres and B├╝cher

Abingdon is a curious place in lots of ways - one day I'll get round to blogging about Abingdon in a bit more depth (the mysterious Abingdon blogger does a good job anyway). For those wanting to know more, we've amassed a goodly selection of books about the town and surrounding area in the shop. One thing about Abingdon that impacts heavily on us (in a good way!) is the large community of French and German language speakers who live here. There are many reasons for this: proximity to Oxford, location of UK headquarters of Miele, the European School down the road at Culham, and various internationally-renowned research centres dotted about nearby (notably at Culham and Harwell - in fact, having just checked now, Culham have the best location map of any website I've seen in a while - why does this look like something produced by Douglas Adams?). As well as a chance to try out my slightly rusty German occasionally, it does mean (for example) that we have quite a few books in translation (for our size), and books from publishers like the splendid Winged Chariot have done very well in the shop. But now we'd like to stock a small but significant range of French and German-language children's books - but I really don't know where to start on this. Someone once told me that ordering French-language books can be a bit of a challenge (most are not carried by the UK wholesalers), but at the moment it's knowing what the "must-haves" might be in any range we carried. "Le Petit Prince", "Le Livre Des Mots" by Richard Scarry and "Harry Potter A L'Ecole Des Sorciers" is about as far as I've got (I'm sad to say). We shall be discussing this with customers over the next few weeks...I'll let you know what the final line up is...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

And the winner is...

I love elections - I can't help it. Despite the blandness, spin and who-on-earth-stands-for-what postmodern political landscape, there's something optimistic and (to me) life-affirming about going to cast your vote.

This year I was able to introduce Alex to the concept of local democracy, and although my first explanation got a response of "wot?"he did manage to post my ballot papers for me to a round of applause from the polling station staff. Heady stuff.

Back in 1992, and the general election that year, on what was also a gloriously sunny May day, I was a fresh-faced(ish) fairweather-lefty student (in Birmingham's Selly Oak - where crusty Tory Anthony Beaumont-Darke was about to get dumped by a Labour newbie much to our delight). I walked up to the polling booth with a mate of mine Denis - who was most definitely a committed lefty - and he asked me to take a picture of him in front of the polling station sign. He had been born on an election day, and there were photographs of him on every polling day ever since. I remember that walk vividly, and the excitement and optimism that Kinnock would trump Major, not knowing that "The Sun Would Win It", etc.

I thought the photo thing was a nice tradition - so hence the above picture.

Talking of elections (well, votes) is a thinly-veiled segue to say congratulations to Much Ado Books, in Alfriston, East Sussex - voted Independent Bookshop of the Year at the recent British Book Industry Awards. It looks a fantastic shop, as does the website. Nicki and I will be shamelessly pouring over the site in the weeks to come for ideas and inspiration, but I have to say the Paperback Piazza is a stroke of genius...

I notice that Charkblog noted the lack of booksellers who attended the awards this year - well, we would have been there apart from recent family developments, so we'll definitely try to go next year...