Promoting Ant & Dec in Hampstead and the England football team in Glasgow was a recipe for disaster for Waterstones

Delighted to enjoy a bit of Peckham nostalgia with blog reader Malcolm Wicks, who remembered not just the counter service Sainsbury’s (which I’ve confirmed was its last counter service branch, closing in 1982) but also Peckham’s distinguished Jones & Higgins department store, where I was bought my first bike. If I sound a little nostalgic it’s because Peckham’s Rye Lane, once the Oxford Street of south London, is now an utterly depressing place that feels a bit like a third world bazaar.

Today I went along to the press element of HMV’s strategy day, and it was good to see Simon Fox and meet the new Waterstones MD Dominic Myers. I hope Dominic wouldn’t mind me saying he doesn’t look the bookish type - he actually looks as hard as nails - but when you hear him speak its clear he has a passion for the product which his predecessor Gerry Johnson lacked, which explains why the always vocal booksellers in the business have welcomed his appointment with an enthusiasm they rarely have for anything except books.

Lots of detail in the presentation but one of the key planks was that Myers plans to give power back to the booksellers. The business had suffered from over-centralisation which meant that store managers lost all discretion when it came to what they promoted in stores. This led to some absurd situations, like books about the England football team being promoted at the front of the Glasgow store, or the Ant & Dec autobiography being pushed hard in Hampstead. Yet when the Hampstead branch was allowed to use its initiative to run a promotion which it called ‘Clever books for clever people’, apparently it went like a train. That tells you a lot about Hampstead.

Bookselling is all about horses for courses - apparently the Bluewater store is full of academic books which it sells barely any of - and Waterstone’s staff are among the brightest in retail, so empowering them to sell what they know works in their local market makes a lot of sense. My concern about the plans outlined today is whether they are radical enough. Myers is banking on the traditional experience of knowledgeable and consultative bookselling winning shoppers back from Amazon and the supermarkets, but that was what Ottakars did and as I posted last week, its co-founder turned MP Philip Dunne told our high streets conference that he’d never try to build a traditional book chain again in today’s very changed market.

It all depends on Myers firstly restablishing those traditional strengths, and secondly, whether enough shoppers still care enough about them. I’ve no doubt about his ability to achieve the first point - the big challenge will be the second.