Distracted by the allure of online, consumers might be forgiven for turning their backs on bookshops. So are booksellers offering anything to persuade them otherwise?

One of the features of retailing is how quickly it changes. The rage for novelty is embodied by the way Retail Week can find new stores, formats and retail spaces to look at week in, week out. There is, however, an exception: book selling. It is curious that the basic model for shifting tomes has changed little in the past 30, 40 or maybe even 100 years.

In essence, shoppers heading off to one of the big book chains will encounter rows of shelves, arranged in the style of a library, with a few low-key signs that are supposed to tell the lost where they will find the department they are looking for. Ask why so little has been done and you’ll often be informed that book shoppers are somehow different and this is the way they like things to be done.

Yet consider the facts. Bookshops, as evinced by the efforts of the large chains, contain shelves of products, all of which have a price on them, and cash points where money is taken. Judging by this analysis, it’s quite hard to see what the difference is between book selling and any other form of retailing. So why has so little been done and are we likely to see change in the near future?

Pali International analyst Nick Bubb says: “This is a very data-rich market with so much information about sales that you can juggle with.” The upshot of this, he explains, is that many retailers are entirely focused on promotions, whether it’s three-for-twos or straightforward discounts. This inherently gives rise to the way that many bookshops appear, with tables of bestsellers and promotions at the front of the shop and the usual library fixtures further back.

The most obvious exponent of this line of thinking is also the UK’s biggest bookseller: Waterstone’s. For the most part, a visit to one of its branches is like being back at college, with a respectful silence maintained in most areas and functional-looking equipment throughout.

All white for some

There are, of course, exceptions. The Waterstone’s branch in Manchester’s Arndale Centre seemed to herald a departure from book-selling norms when it opened in September 2006. Signage was replaced by graphics, the ceiling had been left open to expose the air-conditioning trunking and the overwhelming impression was white. It looked as if someone had taken the bleach brush to the entire interior and created a semi-industrial warehouse environment to sell books from.

The store was greeted with positive press at the time and many felt that this could indicate a way forward for booksellers. Yet, at most of the retailer’s branches, you are left with the abiding impression that things today are much as they have always been.

The Arndale look has been exported to a few other stores, most notably its Oxford Street branch, opposite Selfridges. Taken as a whole, it is clear that the generous proportions of the Arndale prototype were not available to the Waterstone’s team when they approached this branch, but the origin of the inspiration for the interior remains clear.

There is also, of course, the flagship at nearby Piccadilly. Housed in the former Simpsons building, this should be the best bookshop in the land, if you measure such things by size and historic surroundings. It certainly holds a lot of books, but the store fit-out is five years old this month – and looks it. In fairness, as in other parts of the chain, the staff have exercised a considerable degree of autonomy in terms of the way in which specialist interest departments are flagged up. The erotic book table, for instance, has a discreet railcard bearing the legend “uninhibited waste”, which seems a fairly accurate description of the category.

But while the staff endeavour to maintain this as a destination store and the shop benefits from the sheer scale of the building, it is hard to escape the sense that Waterstone’s has lost interest in looking after this asset.

This, in many ways, characterises what seems to happen in UK bookshops. It matters little which chain is looked at – there are only a few big players – good ideas and new formats seem to have a habit of withering on the bud.

Gensler design director Owain Roberts, who has worked with booksellers on their store design, is unimpressed. “UK high street bookshops don’t seem to know who their target audience is. It’s kind of something for everyone – but is it for me? Carpet, single-paced, piled-high, a bit shabby, buy one get one free, no point of difference – there’s nothing to engage the media- and entertainment-hungry consumer, whose like-minded communities are online,” he says.

Again, a measure of balance is required. Waterstone’s operates an efficient web site, as do rivals Blackwell’s, “the knowledge retailer”, and Borders – the latter in association with Amazon. Shoppers can browse the web pages and read reviews from other readers at their leisure. It’s a bit like taking a peek at the staff picks and reviews that you see in almost every branch of Waterstone’s, except in rather more relaxed surroundings

And there’s the difficulty for retailers. What reason is there for visiting a terrestrial store when so much of the bookshop experience can be replicated online?

Right riveting designs

Echochamber creative director Howard Saunders looks offshore for hints about how things might be improved. “Retail often gets stuck in a rut. Think bookshops and you think of a sea of tables piled high inside a municipal library,” he says. “Things are changing. The revolution in book-cover design over the past few years proves that publishers understand the power of great design. There are signs that this renewed passion is starting to filter into stores, with brands such as Page One in Singapore, Akademibokhandeln in Stockholm and Plantage Books in Belgium showing us that there’s always a way to reinvigorate a tired old format.”

What Akademibokhandeln, Page One and others show is that the book-selling format is far from set in stone and that, if the online threat is to be countered, store environments need to be made rather more compelling than they are in most cases.

There are two exceptions to this: WHSmith and Tesco. Both operate on the basis of selling a narrow range of titles alongside other merchandise categories and both are heavily reliant on price. These are the value retailers of book selling. Tesco in particular operates its book operation as an impulse purchase, a place where you can pick up the latest Clarkson while buying clementines. And the point is, once shoppers realise that the unashamedly populist titles are on offer in large Tesco stores, there are fewer and fewer reasons for visiting a dedicated bookstore.

As Roberts says: “Even adding juice bars, internet access and staff reviews now seems a little out of touch with today’s consumer.” The best of the large chains are still good places to visit, but the book sector seems to have stagnated for rather too long. Tesco’s diversification into non-food and the effect of the internet are greater in this sector than in any other part of the retail panorama, because books are small, easily distributed and have been subject to a savage amount of discounting.

There is a glimmer of light in the independent book-selling sector, where the lowest common design denominator does not prevail. It is, however, an area that is getting no benefit from the constant price-cutting that all of the big chains are embracing to attract shoppers, and indie booksellers continue to disappear apace.