Waterstones chief executive Daunt said the retailer was ramping up its online offer to compete with “the slippery monster” that is Amazon.
Daunt said he was “relishing the challenge” of competing with Amazon online at Retail Week’s Customer Experience conference today.
Since taking the helm at Waterstones in 2011, Daunt said his priority had been in enhancing and personalising the in-store experience for shoppers across the retailer’s estate.
“What our shoppers in Middlesbrough want to buy is completely different to what they want to buy in Hampstead, and we couldn’t mandate that from our head office – it was down to the staff on our shopfloor,” stressed Daunt.
The retail boss took measures to give Waterstones shopfloor staff more autonomy – scrapping a rule that said shop employees could only do one thing at a time and encouraging them to stop wearing uniforms.
It’s a strategy that Daunt said has borne fruit as demonstrated by book returns falling from 20% to 3% over the past three years and the staff-picked ‘Book of the Month’ tripling in sales over the same period.
Waterstones narrowed its pre-tax loss from £18.8m to £4.5m in its full-year results in February and Daunt said the retailer was “in a good position to return to profitability” this year.
He stressed that he has had to make “unpleasant choices” to deliver this rise in profitability. “We assessed and sacked half of our managers”, he said, and has cut the number of jobs in head office by two thirds.
“It is a reflection of why your customers come into your shops – do they come in for value or experience? We were dead on the value line so we had to improve our experience”
James Daunt, Waterstones
“Our head office now operates out of one floor, rather than a standalone building,” said Daunt.
Despite these difficulties, Daunt said the bookseller was now confident in its in-store experience, demonstrated by the fact that it “thumped the competition” last Christmas, when its books cost 40% more than competitor WHSmith.
“It is a reflection of why your customers come into your shops – do they come in for value or experience? We were dead on the value line so we had to improve our experience,” said Daunt.
The retailer has also started running in-store events throughout its estate, which Daunt said has made it “a much more fun place to work and shop”.
Having “turned his back on online” since he took the helm at Waterstones, Daunt said the retailer is now gearing up to “create the same experience online as we offer in store” and leverage insights on its 4 million loyalty card holders.
When asked if he thought Waterstones could compete with Amazon, Daunt said: “We’re dealing with a slippery monster that is very good at what it does.
“I think we’ll give it a bloody good go. I’m relishing the challenge without going so far as to say I’m confident.”