The bookseller is tackling etail competition with store overhauls, but will it be enough? John Ryan assesses the Twickenham branch.

News that Waterstones is to spend tens of millions of pounds on over 100 of its stores, with the aim of making them somewhere you’d like to spend time must surely be a positive for high streets across the UK.

But a problem that confronts anyone in the business of selling books in shops is how to achieve this when faced with the relentless downward pressure on prices that the internet exerts upon the sector?

As revealed a couple of weeks ago, you can bring the internet bookshop in-house by teaming up with Amazon and offering in-store downloads – a road that Waterstones is now headed down.

Keeping your enemy close might seem to be the maxim that is being applied in this instance. But this still leaves the matter of store updating and refurbishment. That costs money and returns on investment are increasingly hard to come by, as is the justification for the expenditure in the first place. 

Now couple this with the fact that most living rooms and a laptop are generally more pleasant environments than the average bookshop and it’s not too hard to see why running a chain whose raison d’être is shifting volumes might be an uphill struggle. The task facing Waterstones therefore is straightforwardly stated: revamp the store interiors and do so at a price that won’t preclude a profit ever being made.

A new leaf

Three Waterstones pilot stores with refreshed merchandising and coffee shops are due to open this month in Brighton, Glasgow and Norwich, but for those who can’t wait, there is Twickenham. The half pint-sized branch in this select part of southwest London has had a makeover and has been up and running in its new form for a little over a month now.

That Twickenham has been chosen is probably related to the store’s proximity to the head office in nearby Brentford – it’s a branch that can be revamped at minimal cost and then kept a close eye on. And it is certainly different from what might be expected ii a standard Waterstones. But there’s the rub. What constitutes a standard Waterstones?

Philip Downer, former chief executive of Borders UK and currently director of retail consultancy Front of Store, says: “This is a chain with stores that have multiple floors, some of them have escalators, some are in shopping malls. It’s therefore very difficult to apply any kind of model.” To a great extent, this is the outcome of a bookselling fiefdom that has come about by the aggressive acquisition of chains, ranging from Dillons to Ottakers – all of them, over time, swallowed up by Waterstones.

This means that it really is difficult to specify the original Waterstones branch, but Twickenham is as good a place to start as any. As Waterstones managing director James Daunt remarks: “It’s a tiny little shop, but it is an indication of some of the things that we are playing with.” 

Ready for business

Standing outside this store, it does look pretty much like any other of the retailer’s storefronts. There are two windows, either side of the door, with one containing a display of new fiction, while the other is filled with children’s books. Both displays have eye-catching graphics as backdrops and both have a black surround with Waterstones picked out in white and a bus stop-style sign so that the shop can be seen from a distance. So far, so standard.

Stand on the threshold, however, and things do look like a substantial variation from the norm. The majority of Waterstones stores are fairly traditional in the way in which they take library shelves and run them through the length of the space. And to an extent, this store is little different. The library ambience is in place, insofar as there are bookshelves, but unlike many such emporia, you can see from front to back.

The books are in fact housed entirely around the perimeter and as this is a long and narrow space it is essential that views deep into the interior are not obscured if shoppers are to find what they want. Downer says that the store, which is a former Ottakar’s branch, “smartens up what was already there, but if you were saying I want to visit a game-changing bookshop, it wouldn’t be there”. He adds: “It was always a claustrophobic store.”

That sense of claustrophobia has been alleviated in its new form, however, and what Waterstones has done is to open up the interior and make it more accessible. It has also invested in a single feature: the floor. This is unfinished oak and is a thing of beauty when set against most of its bookselling rivals. A member of staff said: “At first we weren’t sure if we liked it because the planks were of different lengths, but now we think it is really good.” The other noteworthy thing is the large circular pendant lights that strike a designerly note to the whole interior and that may not actually do much in the way of illuminating the space, but succeed in lifting the mood. 

The store’s geography works against it, to an extent. The last third of the interior space is raised and accessed by three stairs. This does interrupt the view and means that a decision has had to be taken about what to put into what is, in effect, a secondary area. In the event, it turns out to be simple: non-fiction, from military history to travel, but at least the nature of the offer is such that this division can be made without it jarring – the rear third is, in effect, almost like a separate shop.

Stacking up

What has been done therefore is to take an old-style Waterstones, widen it, lose the mid-shop shelving which created corridors and warm it up through the use of perimeter equipment cladding and a new floor. For Downer, the positives are there: “It would be a straightforward format to roll out – the challenge is the diverse nature of the estate.”

Now add a cafe, if there’s a little more space, and it is likely to be close to what will be on view in the three larger pilot stores. With up so many stores to be revamped before Christmas, there is the matter of cost. Downer says that the only thing that will have cost money in Twickenham is underfoot and that the rest is about making space and making the offer clear in terms of the visual merchandising.

A low-cost, largely cosmetic makeover then that – in spite of Downer’s caveats about the variety of shapes and sizes in the Waterstones estate – does carry within it the possibility of being applied on a general basis. And as to cost, a revamp of the kind carried out in Twickenham, involving a little structural work and a lot of tinkering would be a few thousand pounds for a store on this scale, meaning that a return on investment might be a realistic possibility.  This is more than might be said for many bookshop revamps. “We want to spend as little as we can for the maximum impact,” as Daunt puts it.

The real question is whether any initiative of this kind would be sufficient to stem the seemingly inexorable flow of money into the online arena, even if online capacity is available in the store? Those who like physical books  may find this to their liking, but on the other hand, it would appear that those who do so may be a dwindling pool.

A quick trip across the road to WHSmith, however, should be enough to convince doubters that Waterstones may be on to something and that endless bars of chocolate and a very narrow book range may be less appetising in bookselling terms. 

Waterstones, Twickenham

Address 19 King Street, Twickenham, TW1 3SD

Revamp completed April

Conversion time Four days

Major feature The floor

Ambience Warm library style