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Book Trade: Retailing as we know it – is it finished?

March 16, 2014 2 comments

There has been a slew of bad retail news of late. Legacy retail versus on-line resellers continues to make headlines. As I write this (mid-January), HMV have announced the relocation of their flagship Oxford Street store after 30 years of trading, to a much smaller London pitch. Shop closures persist. Retail – even Christian retailing – can, at times, take on the appearance of a soap opera. This last Christmas was no exception with what had the makings of a good game of snakes and ladders!  Christmas 2013 was far from easy for some on the High street, although December sales overall rose more than 5% year-on-year.

HMV in Birmingham

Clearly major societal changes are gathering speed. I guess we will look back and see that we have lived through quite a revolution; one of those extraordinary times when a significant step change occurs. Newspapers too continue to be caught up in the ‘old media, new media’ debate. This past Christmas saw the annual winners and losers emerging across the wider retail sector. John Lewis, Asos, Next and discounters Aldi and Lidl triumphed, whilst grocer Morrisons and department store Debenhams slipped further, at least in the eyes of the City.  Waterstones, whilst not having a storming Christmas, turned in a credible sales performance ‘slightly down on last year’. This is an unsurprising outcome with Nielsen BookScan reporting that total printed book sales in the UK fell by £98m during 2013.

In the Christian market, Koorong-owned Wesley Owen has now migrated fully on-line. This January, Wesley Owen ceased to exist as a physical brand having made such a notable contribution to Christian retailing over the past two decades. The independent UK Christian Bookshops Blog carried an in-depth piece on the winding up of Wesley Owen.  Birmingham and York were the last two stores to close, completing the demise of the once ubiquitous chain.  A number of high profile Christian bookshops including the Horsham Christian Centre and CLC’s Kingston-on-Thames branch (previously Chapter and Verse) also shut their doors for the final time.

I have long held the view that the failure of IBS-STL in 2009 and its terrible impact on Wesley Owen was entirely preventable; the result of an ill-judged overseas expansion from which it was unable to recover. Without this chain of events, the national chain may well still be trading today. Having been close to the creation of the brand in 1992/93, I obviously lament this outcome, but recognise that the clock cannot be turned back. The SPCK Bookshops chain went through a similar trauma over a comparable period and this too is cause for enormous regret. Many fine, committed retail staff were displaced as a result of these two catastrophic events; a major loss of skills, spirituality and calling to the wider ministry.

And yet – ministry through print and through bookshops continues on a daily basis, often-times unseen and unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how it should be? A verse from the Psalms speaks to this, ‘The Lord will not let you stumble. The One who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord Himself watches over you’ (121:3 NLT). There remain many fine exemplars of Christian bookselling in this country; a good example of which is Faith Mission Glasgow.

Our calling is not primarily to run bookshops or publishing houses but to disseminate the Christian message in such a way as to reach as many people in this country and around the world as possible. As a colleague put it recently,

Lives changed, hearts changed, through the power of God’s word’.

Our ministry is all about distributing gospel content, however that is packaged. Once we understand this, then criticism of those who choose to package truth digitally should cease. Personally, I’m relaxed about digital, as it seems to fit St Paul’s dictum ‘by all means, to save some’. If we keep these aspects of our trade in balance, we will be far less stressed by any seeming unfairness. There has been an irreversible way to how people consume content. No one can change that. Does this reality negate ministry through bricks and mortar? Of course not. In fact in some ways it strengthens it. We are certainly not going to see the complete disappearance of either physical shops or on-street shopping. I remain optimistic. Justin King, the well respected CEO of Sainsbury’s said in a December interview in relation to on-line competition:

On-line is more than a decade old. The truth remains that 96p in every pound is spent by real customers in real shops doing their own shopping’.

Many people and groups remain committed to maintaining a physical High street presence. Don’t believe all you read about digital. Statistics in this area are wildly variable. Independent physical bookshops, run well, with a eye on costs and in partnership with their local community can and do succeed, especially where they are equipped with space in which to provide local services such as debt counselling, childcare etc. New and imaginative ways of providing spiritual care and counselling can be found which, when allied to a good bookshop, can and does make a real difference to that community.

The new Foyles Bookshop at London's Waterloo Station

Together magazine exists to celebrate all that is best about this trade. There is so much that is good. An unbalanced but persistent tidal wave of bad news can knock us off our feet but Scripture exhorts us to ‘stand firm’, ‘to take heart’ and ‘to work whilst it is still night’. These are encouragements to not let circumstances dictate our feelings and deflect us from the joy of serving God through this ministry.

God give me strength’ should be our exclamation, but in a prayerful and positive way!

This article was written in mid January for publication in Together Magazine (March to April 2014).

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Christian Bookshops – Use them or (probably) lose them

November 22, 2010 5 comments

It’s not only pubs that are going out of business in the UK – recent figures show that the quintessential English Public House is closing down at the rate of 30 per week (source: BBPA/MT).  Retailing is now hard graft for many professions. Shopping habits are changing fast and there is much less time available for those trips to the High Street. When time is found, then competition for both time and money is increasingly fierce.

Christian bookshops are not immune – and many are having a difficult time. There have been some major shake-ups in the past couple of years, with a lot of shops going and, thankfully, a few coming. Accurate figures are hard to come by but there have been many closures in recent months. I doubt that there are more than 250 shops across the whole of the UK now capable of a viable future?

The IBS-STL debacle at the end of 2009 and the SPCK meltdown in 2008 badly destabilised Christian retail in this country. Any recovery – if it even proves possible – remains uncertain. There are shops that some would say deserve to go under (those that are poorly run, badly stocked and outdated) but there are many fine shops that would be a massive loss to their communities if they were to disappear. Good examples are GLO Motherwell;Scotland’s Leading Independent Christian Resource Centre’ and Faith Mission Portadown, which jointly won the Industry award this year for ‘Large Christian Retailer 2010’.

This Christmas is the time, for those of us who care about the future, mission and ministry of Christian retailers, to ensure that we go out of our way to support these shops. The final quarter of the year is THE time when retailers look to achieve a financial surplus to help them make it through the following year.

It seems to me that we have a choice – to help keep these shops on the High Street or by our often passive inaction push more of them out of business year-by-year. For me it’s more than just a trade; it’s about maintaining a Christian presence on our High Streets. Time is running out – fewer and fewer specialist Christian shops remain as each year goes by.

Demographics also conspire against these specialist shops. Church attendance in the traditional denominations is largely declining and newer Churches with their younger audiences, such as Hillsong and 3C, tend to be pretty self-contained in terms of their resource requirements.

As I listen to people, I am increasingly of the opinion that many simply do not understand that if these shops go, then they will almost certainly not re-appear. The economics of Christian bookselling do not stack up without a high degree of subsidy or self-sacrifice. These shops are in danger of becoming a cultural and religious anachronism. Their future lies in the hands of us, the customer; but we are increasingly voting with our feet and our keyboards.

I fully recognise that not everyone has a Christian retailer close by. In these cases, the immediate temptation is to shop for Christian resources on Amazon, the all-conquering online retailer. I am uneasy with its growing power and supremacy in so many areas of retailing life. Personally, for Christian material, I would suggest using www.eden.co.uk/, the excellent Chester-based online specialist ‘etailer’ with its high standards of customer service and a wide ranging stock selection.

I contend that anyone interested in the survival of the Christian literature ministry should, this Christmas, and whenever possible, buy something at their local Christian bookshop. Where this proves impractical, then by all means use Eden, where some money from each order goes to support children in Malawi via the auspices of the Christian charity, World Vision.  

Don’t know what to buy this Christmas? You could do worse than start with Operation World and give someone a really challenging and inspiring present. Read my review here.

One last thought. Maybe, during 2011, this trade should work together on a wide-ranging PR and marketing initiative; ‘Christian bookshops; use them, don’t not lose them’.

You can locate your local Christian retailer here.

Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 3

April 28, 2010 4 comments

The growth of the two largest Christian bookselling chains was not to last. Sadly, SPCK Bookshops failed in 2008, having been taken over by the USA based entity St Stephen the Great (SSG) in 2006. That acquisition was mired in controversy almost from day one and the takeover foundered due to the single issue of mismanagement. The assets of SSG today remain under the interim management of the Charity Commission.

Melanie Carroll (ex. SPCK Bookseller) confirmed;

SPCK Bookshops reached their peak in 2000 when there were 33 shops. In 2001, SPCK Brighton closed down so it was 32 but later that year SPCK Online opened. From 2002 onwards there was a slow decline and by the beginning of 2007 only 23 plus SPCK Online remained, and it was these 23 outlets which were acquired by SSG.

The shops that have opened / re-opened (since the failure) are not all on the same site as before but were opened either by SPCK team members or by supporters/space owners of the old shops. As far as I know, these (eight shops) are; Lincoln, Leicester, Cardiff, Chichester, Norwich, Truro, Hereford and Birmingham”.

Wesley Owen failed as a result of the parent company IBS-STL running into serious financial difficulty brought about by a failed IT system installation and the effects of the worldwide recession. The Wesley Owen chain of 41 shops went into administration in December 2009 and was disposed of in various lots in January 2010.

The fallout on the High Street from this undoubted disaster continues.

CLC in the UK has stepped in and acquired six of the Wesley Owen shops, Koorong (a respected Australian Christian retailer, founded in 1978, with 18 stores and 60% of its home market) took over the eight largest (and most profitable) shops and Living Oasis (part of the Nationwide Christian Trust) have so far reopened 17 shops.  Some shops will inevitably remain closed.

In my view, Koorong has the potential to be the ultimate winner. They have the management capability and financial capacity to truly shake up the current UK marketplace. They are most definitely the ‘ones to watch’.  Koorong have a reputation of not taking any prisoners! The out-turn for Christian bookselling over the next few years is likely to be very interesting indeed as a result of the entry of Koorong into the UK.

However, although I sincerely wish CLC and Koorong well in their endeavours, I am no longer convinced of the chain model when it comes to running Christian bookshops. For a variety of reasons, so many major book chains have simply failed over the years. It would appear that, in many cases, their high central costs have acted as the drag on the business and this, in a crisis, then hinders rather than helps the business.

In a centralised operation, flexibility can be very limited, hampering the ability to react quickly to any change in market conditions. It’s one thing to read the winds of change; it’s quite another to alter course in time to bring about the required changes. Once I would have argued strongly for the efficiencies of scale and the need for the central buying of stock that the chain model provides. Now I am no longer so sure. 

There is still a lot to be said for a very good independent shop operating solely at the local level. Perhaps we’ve just gone full circle? Regardless of the unique external pressures in retailing, I remain convinced of the need for good quality bookshops sited in the local community. I find myself agreeing with Nick Page in his recent blog of the need for ‘really good’ local bookshops with knowledgeable staff who in turn are passionate about selling books.

I am equally convinced that people still want a ‘shopping experience’. In turn, to survive, bookshops have no option but to provide the very best of experience; to stand out from the rest of the retail crowd and to remain totally focused on the customer.

I’ll let Melanie Carroll, an experienced bookseller from Lincoln and, in my view, one of the most original and inspirational trade bloggers, have this final word; ‘Think Local, Buy Local, Be Local – Don’t let our local businesses become a thing of the past’!

The final part will follow shortly.

This brief history of the ‘Christian book trade in the UK’ is extracted from a lecture given by the author to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) Annual Conference in London on Saturday 24 April 2010. For further information see www.librarianscf.org.uk.

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