Waterstones: the devil in disguise?

The discovery that Waterstones has opened three shops that are designed to look like independents has caused surprise. We examine what the move says about the brand’s self-image.

Rye Bookshop Waterstones

Southwold Books. The Rye Bookshop. Harpenden Books. From their innocuous names to their simple but tasteful signage, there is nothing on the surface to suggest that these three bookshops are part of a larger chain. And yet this week they were ‘outed’ as being owned by Waterstones.

The news has caused some surprise and debate in the media. James Daunt, who has been MD of Waterstones since 2011 and has brought the chain back into profit, has been on the defensive, telling the Today programme earlier this week that “we’re coming into quite sensitive high streets, ones predominantly with independent retailers on them, and we wish to behave as they do”.

Perhaps he has a point. Local high street can induce fierce loyalties. After so many were decimated by large superstores located on the edges of towns, brands that try to infiltrate them after they have made a comeback via independent stores can face fierce opposition. Yet there can be examples of hypocrisy here, with the ‘right kind of brands’ allowed in where others are shunned: pricey kids clothing store JoJo Maman Bébé is a fixture among the independents on many high streets, and locals are often more forgiving of the arrival of a M&S Food store as opposed to a Tesco.

The prejudice against Tesco in particular is such that when a series of artisan-style coffee shops, Harris + Hoole, were revealed to be part-owned by the retailer, it caused protests. Waterstones appears to have received a softer response to its own outing. This is perhaps because it is a brand loved by many, particularly since Daunt has arrived and given the stores much more personality.

Southwold Books Waterstones
Interior of Southwold Books

For this is the odd element at the heart of this story. Waterstones bookshops already feel like thoughtful, interesting spaces. As he also pointed out to Today, Daunt encourages his booksellers to have autonomy and to create stores that suit their location. “I think I have always acted and worked as an independent bookseller and I would love for everyone who works for me does so likewise,” he told the BBC.

So why hide behind a faux independent-style frontage in Southwold, Rye and Harpenden? It should be noted that the pretense does not continue online – if you Google Southwold Books, you are led straight to the wider Waterstones site (which begs the question why the media took so long to discover this story, with Southwold Books opening in 2014). The decision to make the stores appear independent smacks of a lack of confidence by Waterstones in its own image.

Daunt has also claimed that the stores are too small in size to be proper Waterstones vessels. If that is the case, it seems an opportunity to have fun with the branding – to create a kind of limited edition version of the wider brand, perhaps the equivalent of a big brewery creating a craft beer.

By hiding, it implies a nervousness about its place, and, more damningly, a concern that shoppers in independent shop communities are so out of love with big brands that they would shun the store on principle. I somehow doubt this would be the case – a good bookshop is, after all, a good bookshop and something to be cherished whoever is behind it. Waterstones should have more pride in what the brand has achieved.

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