From the Guardian
For many Britons Blackwell’s is a high-street name forever associated with studentdom and campus stores laden with weighty academic tomes. But, like the students who are currently awaiting exam results, the 139-year-old retailer is keen to graduate from university with honours.
Earlier this month, Blackwell’s chief executive David Prescott hosted the famous bookshop’s first conference aimed at mainstream publishers for more than a decade, a gathering designed to trumpet a sleeper success story in the Amazon age.
In the Georgian splendour of the great room at the Royal Society of Arts, Prescott appealed to executives from publishing houses such as Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Hachette and Bloomsbury, to back what is now the UK’s fastest-growing bookseller with flexible deals and exclusive editions.
“The vast majority of people still see us first and foremost as an academic bookseller,” says Prescott. “That’s how we made our name and we are very proud of that, but we sell a lot more general books than our publishing partners probably realise.”
Now in the final week of its current financial year, Blackwell’s sales are up 17% as its high-street and campus stores, coupled with a revamped website, enjoy success shifting less highbrow reading material ranging from fiction to books on cookery and pop culture (Prescott, 46, is currently reading Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarn). Against flatlining demand for academic titles, sales in its campus stores are up 4%.
This resurgence, which builds on a strong sales performance last year, is good news for Blackwell’s 450 employees. With a turnover set to exceed £50m this financial year, it is still a minnow compared with Waterstones’s £400m takings but unlike the latter it will never be sold to a hedge fund.
Owner Toby Blackwell, whose great-grandfather founded the bookshop in 1879, has pledged to hand ownership to staff via a John Lewis-style partnership. But that handover – despite being ensured by a trust set up by the 89 year-old – is contingent on the business meeting financial milestones that have eluded it thus far, most recently when its investment in e-textbook platform Blackwell Learning did not pay off.
“We were getting close when we made the investment in the academic platform but it wasn’t the market we thought it was going to be,” said Prescott, who is five years into his tenure as chief executive.
Based in Oxford, Blackwell’s has 31 stores, 24 of which are on campuses. Last year it opened its first shopping centre store in more than a decade, in Westgate Oxford, the £440m shopping centre that replaced the city’s rundown 1970s scheme. It has also invested in its website, which offers a choice of 11m books, where sales surged 200% in 2017.
While Prescott is at pains to insist the company is not turning its back on academia, he admits students’ reading habits have changed. “We’re not closing down campus branches. The higher education business is hugely important to us and always will be.”
However he adds: “When I started at Blackwell’s in the mid-90s we would sell a lot of recommended textbooks and reading around the subject, secondary recommendations but teaching has become increasingly modular. Custom textbooks exist that have the entirety of that course which has meant we sell a lot less secondary reading [material].”
Of the £1.6bn of books sold by UK retailers last year, some £124m were student texts, according to Nielsen Book Research data. That figure compares well with £114m five years ago, but does not include the vast sums spent by universities and schools.
The decision to stock more mainstream titles has gone down well with shoppers: Blackwell’s sales of general (as opposed to academic) books were up 20% in the first five months of 2018, according to Nielsen, which puts market growth at 1.5%. Within that Blackwell’s fiction sales were up 19%, food and drink titles up 52% and children’s 25%.
Some 190m books were sold in Britain in 2017 but Zoe Mills, retail analyst at GlobalData, expects the market to stand still over the next five years. That calm will mask turmoil for booksellers because physical shop sales could fall by more than a fifth while websites grow by a similar magnitude.
“Over the next five years only the online market for books will be in growth,” says Mills. “The persistent growth in the physical online books market highlights that, like vinyl, there is a nostalgia associated with owning physical books.”
The battle with Amazon has forced high-street booksellers to raise their game with extras like coffee shops, stationery ranges and star-studded author events. The Broad Street shop in Oxford, where a subterranean floor stretches beneath neighbouring Trinity College, is so famous that it features on the itineraries of international tourists chasing the ghost of Harry Potter around college locations that doubled as Hogwarts. But Blackwell’s learned reputation means it can seem intimidating for the average shopper looking for a holiday page-turner. Prescott says he is trying to shake off that reputation for being aloof.
“We have been on the wrong side of that line,” he says. “People not going into our Broad Street store because they think it is not for them. We [in Broad Street] are seen to be gown more than town and don’t want that to be the case. We have to work to change that perception.”
When Blackwell’s accounts are filed at Companies House later this year Prescott expects them to show a substantial improvement on last year’s pre-tax loss of £3.4m. “It’s our job to be in a financial position where we take the business from Toby,” he says. “We’ve been there before with a false dawn so this is not the time to make promises. This is a time to get our heads down and sell as many books as is humanly possible.”
With thanks to Don Gilling