Waterstones defiant in independent shops controversy
This week, the importance of brand authenticity and transparency was again brought into the mainstream, when it was revealed that seemingly independent bookstores in the English towns of Southwold, Rye and Harpenden, were in fact unbranded Waterstones stores – one of the UK’s biggest book retailers.
In truth, the revelation wasn’t new. A BBC News article reported on the Southwold opening as far back as 2014, prompting a backlash from anti-chain store campaigners who were concerned about the deception for residents and tourists alike, as well as the potential damage to genuinely independent, local retailers.
"It's dishonest, because it's a national chain pretending not to be a national chain, but trying to look like a local shop”.
– John Perkins, Southwold Preservation Society
With the repeat revelation this week came more public frustration at the trojan horse approach the brand was taking. Commentators from the world of branding and beyond suggested similarities to the understated ‘indie’ branding of Harris + Hoole. Launched in 2012, the coffee shop was in fact 49% owned by Britain’s biggest retailer, Tesco. The company bought the remaining 51% of the business in 2016, before selling the chain to Caffè Nero at the end of last year.
However, the Waterstones approach is arguably more controversial. Rather than part funding a chain of coffee shops, it would be the equivalent of Tesco opening 'independent' corner shops in sensitive high street locations, in a bid to ‘blend in’ with the values, attitude and identity of a particular location.
Waterstones Chief Executive James Daunt, whose background is in independent bookstores, stated:
“We're coming into quite sensitive High Streets, ones predominantly with independent retailers on them, and we wish to behave as they do”.
In reality, what they have achieved could be seen as the complete opposite. The town’s independent retailers present their brands with authenticity and transparency, while customers entering Southwold Books are reliant on nothing more than a handwritten note in the shop window to discover the true owners of the site. It's a bold move – and a risky one too, which could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of its customers.
“To call themselves Southwold Books is a bit naughty. Locals know what the shop is, but visitors don’t”.
– John Wells, Owner of Wells of Southwold
The adaptation of storefronts to better reflect a local environment is, in itself, nothing new. Back in 2015, Pret-A-Manger opened a store on Brick Lane, complete with traditional glass fascia and gold leaf detailing on the stone work and timber panelling. But it’s the extent to which Waterstones chose to disguise its stores which suggests a lack of confidence in its own self image – and more crucially, a realisation that the values of the towns they are opening, don’t align with that of the chain.
So how can brands get it right? The simple answer is with transparency.
Not often touted as a beacon of brand excellence, Wetherspoon’s approach to naming its pubs is one that Waterstones could have learnt from. Each location has its own name, often linked to a local story. Take The Lord John in Stroud, Gloucestershire. This free house, in a town fiercely proud of its independent stores, is named after Lord John Russell, MP for Stroud and architect of the 1832 Great Reform Act. Alongside the local backstory, the pub’s frontage clearly displays the Wetherspoon name. It's an approach replicated at free houses across the country, with the masterbrand taking a gentle back seat.
An alternative approach is that taken by Waitrose. Their ‘Little Waitrose’ stores bring a cutesy warmth to these smaller sub-branded convenience stores, softening the potential for any backlash in a small town invasion.
Daunt’s ambition is to ensure all Waterstones behave like independent stores, and there’s nothing wrong with that in principle:
“If you want to enhance a high street you need to act as an independent ... and part of the reason we did it is to convince our own booksellers that they have the autonomy that they do have”
It’s a strong belief – and one which many other high street brands could learn from – offering staff greater responsibility and autonomy. It should just be approached with authenticity and transparency. The opportunity to create a sub-brand for the business, that can sensitively slip into proudly independent high streets offers a great opportunity to expand and evolve the Waterstones brand – and it’s a brief that any agency would give their right arm for.