Friday, September 16, 2011

Hopes for Whitcoulls fade as owners put book industry off-side

Back when I was a youngster growing up in Nelson, 15 to 20 years ago, the Whitcoulls on Trafalgar Street was my favourite bookstore. I used to look forward to heading in there on a weekend or holiday to browse the shelves, and pick up a few new books. The staff seemed friendly, there was lots of choice, the prices were reasonable. So it was with great sadness that as I've moved into adulthood, and reconnected with my lifelong love of reading in recent years, that I've come to realise that Whitcoulls, once a beloved retailer, had fallen so far.

As I discovered during my 'bookstore review' series when I first began Crime Watch more than two years ago, the selection of New Zealand crime novels (and often, New Zealand novels in general, or crime novels in general) was pretty poor at many Whitcoulls - a real shame for what had been the leading bookstore in New Zealand for so many decades. I heard the stories of Whitcoulls around the country not stocking books from authors who even lived in that city - perhaps not the fault of frontline staff as much as corporate decisions made by faceless, unknowing people at head office.

Having worked for a nationwide retailer myself while at high school and University, I'm certainly sympathetic to some of the ill-informed decisions that can be foisted upon local stores by 'head office'. Just because things might work one way for a 'model store' in one location, doesn't mean that's the best, most efficient, or most profitable one for a similarly branded store in a different location, and with different customers.

As I became more aware of the goings-on in the local books industry, and talked to more authors, publicists, booksellers, reviewers, and others, I came to realise that Whitcoulls had fallen far off the wagon. There were many, many problems - which was quite a scary situation given Whitcoulls' market share (even though that was diminishing) and influence. I won't list all the specifics here, but I will say that many of the issues seemed to boil down to what seemed like a complete lack of passion and knowledge about what they were selling. They just wanted to sell as much as possible.

The funny thing is, most truly successful people, organisations, and businesses are so because they are passionate about what they're involved in, think about it regularly, and do all the little things that can make a difference, small or large, over time. Because they love what they are doing, and are willing to invest the time, and willing to back themselves and try things. You can be 'okay' when you plunk down a generic one- size-fits-all plan and try to follow it, regardless of the unique nature of what you're doing - but you'll never be great. Any success will eventually wither on the vine, strangled by a lack of passion.

In terms of Whitcoulls (and to be fair, it's not just them - it can be a problem with many large and unwieldy organisations), where were the knowledgeable staff to guide browsing book buyers, or hand-sell lesser-known authors on the rise who weren't household names yet (a path that many of our modern day big names, such as McDermid, Connelly, Rankin etc had to forge)? Where was the support for the coming generation of local and international authors, rather than just the generic retailing 'stack them high and watching them fly' approach. There is so much passion amongst so many in the books industry, but a big market player was seemingly sucking the life out of the local books world - not through malice, but neglect. It was a real shame.

I was recently in a Whitcoulls in Auckland, and during my 15 minutes in-store I probably sold more books than all their staff combined (in terms of actually encouranging someone to buy something, rather than just waiting at a checkout), just by chatting to people in the crime fiction section, and giving them some recommendations when they told me which authors they were looking for, or which authors they liked.

Not picking on the staff - because I'm sure their hands were tied by many decisions and policies, but it often seemed like many are just 'checkout operators', not booksellers. Even the ones wandering the store don't seem to engage customers, or know much when asked anything. As I say, not their fault - it's more to do with the way they're chosen, trained, and encouraged to act by superiors. And that's where the failings lie.

Given all the issues bubbling away in the background, it didn't surprise many here when the Whitcoulls chain got into serious financial trouble - although it seems that was more to do with the mis-management of its Australian parent company than the many issues with its local stores. Unfortunately this exacerbated the issues for publishers and authors for many months.

A ray of hope arrived with the news that many of the stores had been purchased by the Norman family, who owned several other successful retailers (the Pascoe Group).

Books-loving people in New Zealand crossed their fingers, daring to hope that this would be a renaissance for a once iconic brand, and that Whitcoulls would reconnect with its former passion for and focus on books, rather than just a generic retail model and approach that seemed to have little regard for the unique nature of what it was selling. Hopefully the new owners would let the company, led by returning boss Ian Draper, interact with the industry, support the industry, and help promote all the great things about books.

Surely that would be great for everyone - booksellers, publishers, authors, customers - rather than just solely striving to get a bigger slice of a shrinking pie, grow the pie people!

But no. I am very saddened to say that it seems Whitcoulls isn't bouncing back from its trouble in a positive way for the books industry. Instead it is putting up the barricades and trying to go it alone - a route that may give it some initial success, but I can't imagine will work for them, or anyone else, long-term. It is putting ill-founded concerns about commercial sensitivity ahead of reality. Once again, it is falling into the trap of trying to treat its books business just like any other retail industry, not realising that books are quite different.

Yesterday, leading New Zealand book industry commentator Graham Beattie reported that the new owners of Whitcoulls had decided to withdraw from the New Zealand Neilsen Bookscan Panel, thereby undercutting the information available to the entire industry. Valuable information that can help everyone move forward. This would also render the weekly bestseller lists in New Zealand far less meaningful, with a bookstore chain that represents about 25-35% of the market (down from 50% in its better-run heydey) no longer letting Nielsen know which books have sold well. Pretty gutting for authors and publishers, I would imagine. Making a bestseller list can be an important milestone for an author, a great kudos, and having the list undercut in such a way by a retailer whose owners had made all the right noises earlier - well, it's a shame.

Beattie has called the decision "hugely irresponsible", and has sworn never to buy a book at Whitcoulls again. I would hasten to add that Beattie is not some Internet hothead who gets easily wound up and mouths off about issues. He's an icon in the New Zealand books industry, is insightful and passionate about books , and is always measured and well-thought-out in his comments (even when I may disagree with him, now and then).

In all honesty, I can't remember when I've 'seen' him this fired up.

Many others in the industry are incredibly disappointed by what clearly seems a short-sighted decision - like those ones made by faceless bureacrats and businesspeople that make sense in theory or 'on paper', but have no real understanding of the flow-on effects in reality. I'm sure all of us have seen many examples of such moronic decisions, across the board in many industries (and other things like politics etc). Although the people involved always defend them, and always have reasons which 'sound good'.

As it turns out, the Norman family have come out today, talking to the Dominion Post newspaper, offering their reasoning for the decision. As predicted, it 'sounds good', and I'm sure they honestly believe it themselves, even though many others outside their cadre will realise it will backfire in the long-run, and could diminish both their business, and the wider industry. For some reason a saying from childhood is knocking about in my head - "cutting off your nose to spite your face".

You can read the Norman's defence here. Basically, they see sales data as sensitive to their business, and don't want to share. It's a decision made across their numerous companies, and Draper, who at least has been involved in the books industry before, hasn't really had much say, in terms of the Whitcoulls business.

As I said, you can kind of understand the reasoning, on the surface. Until you start thinking about it more broadly. Then it starts to seem a little silly. Basically it's the equivalent of a movie theatre chain refusing to tell Hollywood movie studios how many tickets they sold to a movie, thereby rendering the box office numbers somewhat meaningless. It's the equivalent of those who sell music not letting the public know what is selling well, and who has the number 1 single, album, etc. The Normans are basically comparing book sales to how many fridges or electronics they sell at Farmers, or how many necklaces they sell at Pascoes, rather than realising books are unique - and that in almost all other countries around the world such data is shared. Just as it is when it comes to other artistic media, such as film, music, etc. That's the bit that really disappoints, and concerns, me - as annoying as the decision is, it's the underlying lack of understanding or regard for the unique nature of the books industry that worries me more. Because that could lead to even more bad decisions, which would not be a good thing for the world of books here at all. How can you participate, or even lead the way, in a rapidly changing industry, if you don't actually respect it, or realise it's not the same as selling widgets?

As I said, the Normans briefly brought hope to a fallen icon of New Zealand retail. Unfortunately, this week they seem to have taken a path that aligns them more with the failed owners of recent years (who similarly tried to operate with a generic retail mindset), more than the booklovers that made the business so successful in days gone by. It's a shame, a real shame.


  1. The whole book scene is changing rapidly and while I now use my Kindle, more and more - I really appreciate that I have a very good independent bookshop'Dear Reader'where staff know the stock just around the corner. The day of the bookshop isn't quite dead yet.

  2. That really is bad news for the local literary scene. I had dared to hope that the new owners of Whitcoulls would open their minds to doing things differently, and would embrace local authors to give themselves a point of difference over the faceless multinational booksellers. But apparently not, so their customers will be denied access to the wealth of great books currently being published locally by mainstream and numerous independent publishers. A shame indeed.

  3. It is just as we had feared, they were going to run it as a business not a bookshop. The other thing they are doing is having on going per the Farmers stores. This is really annoying for the Independent bookstores, especially when you have gone all out to promote a book with displays etc, special discount to the reader, then find that the Whitcoulls in you Mall, who bought maybe 5 copies of said title are practically selling it at cost. AND the customers are quick to notice. Without this big Chains input and foresight into books and marketing, it is indeed the demise of bookstores. Without a player getting behind the publishers, NZ will be seen as not worth the cost to supply good quality books at a reasonable price. Next few years will be very interesting.


  4. I find myself inspired by the little things: a fresh sheet of paper does me wonders. But what really intrigues me is nature. Have you ever just stopped and listened? I mean really listen and looked at your surroundings! There is inspiration all around us. The freshly cut blades of grass, the weary smells, airplanes, the wind, moon, and stars. My inspiration is life and just having the ability to geer my mind to whatever ends I desire.