Thought leadership

Britain’s leading bookshop, Waterstones is a fine example of customer experience best practice says Dean Biddulph, Senior Insight Executive at Nunwood. With a strong performance in the UK CEE 2014, coming in at 18th place with an overall score of 7.88, up 7 places from 2013, they have seen scores increase for five of the Six PillarsTM (Time & Effort remaining stable). The most notable improvements are on Personalisation and Integrity. Waterstones rank 8th within non-food retail and perform ahead of the sector average across all six pillars, and rank an impressive 7th across the whole study on Integrity with a score of 8.03.

Customer experience best practice – How do Waterstones achieve it?

As we see with other examples of brands providing customer experience best practice, empowering staff to deliver the customer experience is key – and this is an essential part of Waterstones’ identity. Established in 1982, with the ambition of becoming ‘a different breed of bookshop’, Waterstones place a strong emphasis on highly literate staff who themselves love reading and so can recognise and cater to its customers’ needs. This enables staff to provide the knowledge and attentiveness that form the basis of an Empathetic and Personalised customer experience.

In recent years, Waterstones has also shifted away from head office control towards greater independence for store managers to provide more ‘local’ content, ensuring products that are relevant to local customers are easily accessible at the front of the store. An easy-to-navigate (genre and author) store layout also helps to minimise Time & Effort, making it simpler in many cases to find a book in Waterstones than an item in your supermarket, and if you are unsure as to where a book may be, then helpful staff are there to lend a hand.

Integrity champions

Waterstones excel when it comes to Integrity. This is largely driven by recognition of its ethical standards; Waterstones is commended by the British Safety Council for its commitment to managing its environmental impacts, supports charities and worthy causes such as Dyslexia Action – enabling more people to enjoy books – and, as libraries close and the joy of reading becomes an increasingly rare pleasure in our changing world, is becoming recognised as a valuable cultural institution.

A key element of customer experience best practice, Integrity is also demonstrated in store through the way Waterstones treats its customers. Many have reported positive experiences when returning faulty or unwanted products, with Waterstones being happy to refund or exchange them without any questions asked, taking the time to help customers as much as needed for a happy outcome.

Overcoming the global recession and digitalisation challenges

While they have been performing well in the last couple of years in CEE, Waterstones along with other book retailers have experienced some challenging times. The industry was hit hard by the recession as consumers began spending less on non-essential items like books, with increasing competition from supermarkets, online retailers and the rise of e-books. The collapse of Borders, previously its main competitor, has left Waterstones as the only real dedicated book store on the high street. Waterstones itself has had to face up to many store closures in recent years, but have – under the direction of Daunt Books founder James Daunt since 2011 – been able to survive, and only recently regained a level financial footing. So how was it able to do this?

As well as providing an excellent customer experience, with Integrity and Personalisation being the key highlights as described, Waterstones has also had a deal with Amazon to sell Kindles and e-books since 2012, which has enabled them to keep up with the times and retain customers where competitors have not. It has also been able to provide a more complete bookshop experience through concession agreements with Costa and Starbucks as well as the launch of its own Café W in stores, while book signings and readings by authors in store also help to attract and maintain customers – and provide more than smaller independent book stores can compete with.

This ‘bookshop experience’ is crucial for Waterstones as the book industry experiences a digital transformation – posing a similar challenge to that faced by the music and film industries in recent years – as customers turn increasingly towards online channels for their entertainment, including books. It is the unique experience provided by Waterstones – a relatively quiet and warm welcoming atmosphere compared to most stores on the high street, the smell of books and coffee, the pleasure of bringing home a physical copy of the latest bestseller or work by your favourite author – that will keep readers using the traditional methods of buying its books. While Waterstones are unable to compete directly with the likes of Amazon when it comes to an easy (and often less expensive) online experience, there is plenty that Waterstones can offer with regards to its experience in store that no one else can.

While Waterstones has customer experience best practice – enabled by passionate staff, ingrained in its DNA, this is only becoming more and more important as the industry is transformed by the rise of e-books and online retailers – if the quality of the experience in stores slips, then customers may well go quicker towards the easy online alternatives. Waterstones are a fantastic example of a brand that has been able to weather the storm and keep up with changing times in its industry while remaining true to its identity and keeping the customer experience at the centre of what they do. As a result it has been able to survive where others have failed, and should hopefully continue to deliver readers a unique and enjoyable experience for years to come.

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