Once Upon a Time.

I admit to having moist eyes during a radio interview with James and Louise Ashmore who opened an independent bookshop, ‘Read.’ in Holmfirth last year and hearing them describe how their business is “definitely moving in the right direction” and that they had “a really good Christmas”.

What moved me was their description of the first stock delivery, 35 boxes of books which initially they just opened and inhaled the wonderful smell before the joy they experienced of putting them on the shelves, James said: “Books are so gorgeous to look at” – he’s a man after my own heart.

The interview was part of a radio 4 programme on the economy and highlighted the turnaround for independent bookshops, which have had three years of growth following a 20 year decline, and it made me draw some parallels with other industries and estate agency in particular.

Let me make it clear that the improvement for small bookshops comes from a low base – there’s half the number on our high streets today compared with 1995. But three years of increasing numbers, against a background of declining retail sales, (particularly bricks and mortar), increasing rents and rates, brexit and strong online competition, is very good news and caused me to wonder why? What’s made the difference?

The answer is part of what I believe to be the most important change nearly all businesses need to have right now: the redesign and reengineering of the customer experience.

On average I read two books a week. I have over 3,000 in my “library”. I can near guarantee that the state of my bedside table, which is creaking under the weight of reading materials, will cause a good moan and nag every week. Most of these come via Amazon, (the books, not the nagging!). I hear a recommendation from one of our speakers or members about a book they’ve read and I order it there and then and of course get offered other suggestions of what to read and end up buying two or three. So yes, I’m part of the problem – I like the immediacy and convenience of ordering online. However, whenever I’m out and about I’ll always go into a bookshop. Indeed, when visiting a new town or city make a beeline for one. The outcome is the same, I buy books, but the experience is totally different, and judging by the upturn in numbers, I’m not alone in enjoying it. And here’s the important thing, this experience is very different to the one of 25 years ago – bookshops have realised that to survive they have to deliver what I’m calling CX4.0, a whole new customer experience.

In Brixton, ‘Roundtable Books’ has just opened and only stocks books with BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) characters as a consequence of discovering that from 9,000 children’s books published in 2017 just 1% had BAME characters as the lead.

The White Horse, an independent bookshop in Marlborough since the 1940’s now has a room for events, exhibitions and also has an art studio. In addition to 25,000 titles in the shop it also helps browsers access over 200,000 online recommendations.

The National Trust sells secondhand books across its 185 stores and sales have trebled to £1.8m due to the increase in eco-friendly purchasing habits.

I read an article in the Guardian on this subject and an interview with Ben Moorhouse who opened ‘Our Bookshop’ in Tring last September on the back of his plans to extend his comedy preview festival by adding a book festival too. “One of the bookshops in town was closing and I couldn’t think of a reason why not to do it. So I did it,” said Moorhouse. “Business so far has been extraordinary. Now we’re entering the twilight zone of January, February and March, which I’m new to. For me, it’s going to live and die on the events – success and failure will be all about exciting the local literary community into coming out and buying books. At the moment it’s working really well.”

These and many more examples highlight that by identifying specific markets, by offering an experience on top of the transaction and by aligning yourself to the new values of the 21st century, your high street business can still thrive in a world that’s increasingly online.

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