What I find most interesting about James Daunt’s Independent interview is the real bookshop versus internet behemoth narrative. He chose, I’m sure deliberately, to set his comments almost as if it were a morality play with Waterstones as David, Amazon as Goliath. Now of course morality doesn’t really enter into it because neither company is good or bad, they’re just economic actors trying to secure customers.
Over the past decade Amazon has quietly played its hand brilliantly and positioned itself astutely in first the bookselling and now the publishing arena. It has developed a situation (in no small degree through its own action) where the momentum of the market now lies almost overwhelmingly to its advantage. It spotted the digital zeitgeist and has exploited its insights to huge effect.
The crucial step it took was right at the beginning, it seduced its customers and delivered to them with maximum efficiency with a year in, year out consistency at a handy price. So to change the narrative, this has been more about love than morality and Amazon has been an attentive lover, who never forgets a birthday or Christmas.
Waterstone’s is now trying to re-position itself to its core market and I suspect that the purpose of Daunt’s remarks is add a little tribalism back into the Waterstones culture by clearly identifying the target of their endeavour, the ‘serious reader’. These were, of course, Waterstone’s first loves upon which was built the original brand (the romantically described ‘inner-directed heavy book buyer’ as they were known in the mid nineties). It may well be the most effective strategy on offer to them and much as Waterstone’s has tried to appeal to a wider market, it has never felt like a brand designed to do that.
I’m all for a bit of tribalism in a company, it makes you realise that it has a culture and a set of values common to the entire organisation. I also suspect that there may be a touch of the Alex Ferguson brand of gamesmanship in James Daunt, stirring the troops and the pot. He clearly knows how to use publicity to support a brand image and most of the interview demonstrates that he has an instinctive understanding of how to play to an upmarket and locally driven clientele. Creating a kind of insurgent narrative about the enterprise is probably no bad place to begin in terms of winning back a place in the hearts of your customers.
My hunch though is that Amazon successfully wooed this segment long ago and has had a decade to cement its position in Waterstone’s old heartland. It’s infinite, consistent and convenient offer will be hard to beat. So if it is to recapture its once native ground, Waterstone’s will have to re-learn the art of seducing its customers, on price, range, service and even more importantly, sheer coolness. Relying on telling them that they ‘should’ may just simply get a ‘they’re just not that into you’.
Update: Having said all that, I’m not sure that this is really cricket.