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I should say from the start here that I am biased in some ways about Waterstone's. As an employee in a Scottish branch both full time and part-time for five years, I gained some unusual insights about this chain of bookshops. I finally left two years to pursue another career, but have often been back as a customer. Hopefully my experiences can provide some helpful information to those wanting to know more about Waterstone's as well as the book trade as a whole.
When Tim Waterstone opened the first Scottish branch of Waterstone's in a dingy shopspace in George Street, Edinburgh things were different. Very, very different. Member of staff (several of whom still remain with the company) recall those days with fond nostalgia. Books piled everywhere, including the floor and propping up the table, a huge range of obscure titles, regular author readings, staff treated with respect, parties with abundant champagne, and a good time being had by all. There was no computer system. If you wanted abook, you dug around the shelf or under a table until you found it. There was very little organisation, but the shop did well at first. But the sad truth is that Tim Waterstone's vision for his shops was not matched by any sense of financial reality, and that in the end, some controls had to be brought in to make the chain into a going concern.
Enter W.H. Smith. This uneasy partnership worked OK for a time, but there were huge teething troubles related to supply and ordering. Waterstone's has always had a problem with stock control, and to this day struggles to get it right. The problem is that it can be very difficult to predict the market, and often titles which are supposed to be the next big thing wind up in crates in a loading bay waiting to get shipped back to the publisher. There were problems to as W.H. Smith reduced staffing levels, restricted stock budgets, and generally seemed to give everybody a hard time.
Not long before I left, Waterstone's was taken over by the HMV Media Group, and the changes brought in included a whole new computerised database and point-of-sale system. Again there were problems with getting hundreds of bookshops changed over to a whole new regime while maintaining an acceptable level of customer service. There was unease as Dillons branches all over the country were sacrificed to maintain Waterstone's dominance, and even more muttering in the ranks as staff budgets were cut even further. The demands were becoming impossible, with the quality of customer service suffering as a result.
Since I left, I have heard horror stories about the company imposing draconian measures to control stock. As a result, the range of titles has suffered. One Waterstone's manager was reportedly fired for stocking too many obscure titles. The emphasis over the years became to cut out the small publishers and to focus on pushing the big sellers, to get better margins on the sales, and to somehow keep this image of a grand old shop with depth and character. It hasn't always worked. The competition is fierce in the book trade, and Waterstone's has undoubtedly sacrificed some of its character in pursuit of profit.
Like one other reviewer pointed out, the Waterstone's brand relies greatly on its image as a classy British institution. This is reflected in the shop fittings, furniture and branding. Black and gold carrier bags, big leather sofas in the store, classical music, a stylish website. Each branch varies in character, and admittedly some of the shops have more than others. Over the years some of the older branches have become decidedly tatty and in need of an overhaul, but this has been glossed over as the emphasis has been to open more and more new branches.
The quality of staff also varies greatly depending on what branch you are in. It is here that Waterstone's have made one of their biggest errors- not valuing and developing their employees skills. While it may appear to be a "fun job being around books all day", it actually is very, very hard work. It is not glamorous, and the pay is shockingly bad. As a bookseller, I was expected to manage a very large and profitable children's section including doing all the ordering of titles, shelving of incoming books, marketing, co-ordinate events, returning old stock in addition to answering the phone and covering three tills at once. I was also expected to be able to read customers minds while making sure no enquiry lasted more than five minutes. The staff at my shop were incredibly bright, well-educated- and undervalued -people. Customers started wallking out of the shop because they could not be served promptly, and shoplifters had a field day. One day somebody stole the entire till from the children's section. And it is the same story company-wide.
I don't excuse staff who are openly rude to customers, or those who really should take their job frustrations elsewhere. But in my opinion one of the main changes Waterstones should make is to sort out low morale and employee dissatisfaction. It's hard to cheerfully deal with 10 difficult enquiries in a row when you have had no tea break or a chance to go to the loo for the last 8 hours because there simply aren't enough people to serve.
Despite its problems, Waterstone's can and does excel at bookselling sometimes. Certain branches, such as Edinburgh George Street, have outstanding fiction and art sections. The range of titles, while perhaps not as good as used to be, is still impressive, particularly at some of the bigger branches where the stock is abundant and varied. It can be a very pleasing atmosphere in which to shop, and as a company does a good job of at least paying lip service to promoting literature.
The customer order service tends to be reasonably good, although there are occasionally problems with supply from publishers. It perhaps a little known fact that booksellers and publisher have an uneasy alliance- they need each other, but operate on very different- and opposing agendas. Virtually every problem I ever had with obtaining a customer order stemmed from difficulties with the publisher. Unfortunately I was in the firing line for the brunt of the customer's aggravation.
Ultimately, Waterstone's tries to balance the need to appeal to the "literati" while at the same time get bookbuying punters into the shop. It tries to cut corners and hopes the public won't notice. The result is a big chain of bookshops that tend to provide hit-or-miss service, and will disappoint some who are looking for the substance behind the style.
Take the sentiment and nostalgia from your shopping, and remove your expectations. Behind the image, Waterstone's just another big retail organisation which tries to make a profit. It just so happens it sells books, sometimes well and sometimes very badly indeed.
Great review. Such a shame about what goes on "behind the scenes". I've always fancied working at a place like Waterstones as I do have a passion for books (though I'd be a bit naive to think it's as heavenly as I'd like to imagine). Still, it is a good place to shop and the one near me (Wolverhampton town centre) is directly opposite my fabourite pub. So that's win-win :)
mr_christa 19.04.2005 12:41
Great review, I work in the airport branch at Manchester and have just handed in my notice after nine months. Pretty much for the reasons you've described! Everything is horribly profit motivated now!
nictastic 27.01.2003 13:36
great interpretation for an op, nice to get some inside info. nic