It’s the knowledge and commitment that make Blackwell’s what it is. It’s the
shop’s specialists, the company’s relationships with authors, the numerous cultural events and so on that make it unique.
And then there’s the history. The company was founded in 1879, as a mini bookshop for used textbooks. However, the business rapidly grew and in the 1920s it set up its own publishing house, which has become worldfamous. Luminaries such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy L Sayers were first published by Blackwell’s.
The shop remains on the same site, but has now taken over the whole building. With its oak panels, fitted carpets and creaking floorboards, it’s the epitome of the classic British bookshop. But don’t let yourself be fooled – Blackwell’s is a modern company that’s been extremely focused in adapting to the changing world around it. The company has grown into a national chain with around 60 stores around the UK.
Blackwell’s has been extremely quick off the mark in making the necessary
changes. It was, for example, the first bookshop chain in the UK to start selling books on the internet and has consistently strengthened its position in the digital world. The company’s blog is a well-known meeting place for book lovers and Blackwell’s has a highly visible profile on Twitter, Facebook and so on.
Online business is growing, but Blackwell’s is careful not to lose its soul. It is therefore just as committed to developing the traditional bookshop.
“Oxford is an affluent city with a world-class university and a vibrant tourist market, so purchasing power is good. Due to our range, we have a local, national and international customer base,” explains Euan Hirst, sales manager at Blackwell’s in Oxford.
Blackwell’s ambition is to be more than ‘just a bookshop’. In the spring, for example, Blackwell’s put on a fullblown play, Dr. Faustus, in the basement of the shop. Over a run of two months, the performance was seen by over 9 000 people. Such projects are exceptional, of course, but differentiating themselves from the competition is part of the strategy. However, the ‘personality’ that the shop builds up like this also has to appeal to tomorrow’s book consumers. Here, the key is to listen carefully to its younger customers, not least via social media.
“And we’re doing just that, but I like to think of ‘fans’ rather than ‘customers’ – we want them to love us, not just shop with us,” says Euan Hirst.
UK book trade under pressure
The UK book trade is seeing unprecedented change at the moment. The three main factors affecting the traditional bookshop are:
– A growth in online sales, which is affecting perception of price.
– Supermarkets taking an increasing slice of bestseller sales.
– The continuing transition from paper to ebook.
Compounding these challenges has been the economic climate that is squeezing the disposable income of British consumers. The starting point in ensuring survival has been to become more cost-efficient. Companies have tried to renegotiate their rents or have moved from city centres to cheaper locations. Staff have been made redundant or reduced to part-time, and so on.
The bookshop chains have also explored new business models, such as setting up temporary bookshops at certain times of the year such as Christmas, or establishing specialist shops at university campuses. Others have diversified their range and given over more space to stationery, DVDs, board games, toys, etc.
Despite these measures, a large number of bookshops have been forced to close, and most commentators see that trend continuing. Euan Hirst at Blackwell’s agrees, but remains confident that ‘real books’ will form the basis for the book trade for a long time to come.
“I started working in the book trade in 1987 and there has not been a single year go by without some proclamation on the death of the book. In fact, the paper book is a very robust piece of technology – it’s portable, easy to use and has a value as an object beyond its content. The challenge of the ebook is very real and will alter the media landscape to a significant extent. But it will not kill the paper book,” concludes Euan Hirst.
Text: Strateg Marknadsföring Anders Thorén
Photo: Rob Judges