Traditional retail is suffering. If you exist in the squeezed middle, you face attack from below by discounters and from above by those purveyors of luxe.
In a speciality market, and of course I mean run speciality, there are only so many suppliers. Product is relatively homogenous and brands and retailers constantly search for something to tempt the consumer through the door and towards the product on our shelves, and most importantly, bring them back next time.
Not only do we have the high street offering cheap alternatives in the form of white label products sourced directly from factories, but in a growing number of cases, branded products are available on the high street markedly cheaper than run speciality stores can offer.
And then there’s the Internet.
Where everything is available in the palm of your hand and delivered to your doorstep in an instant. For run speciality, the advantage is that our product is physical. Very physical. The consumer needs the right size, the right fit, the right category, and the right advice to make the right decision.
We can help find the answer to all these questions, from sizing to an hour’s worth of “free” gait analysis. But doesn’t the Internet have the answer to everything? Furthermore, when Amazon are selling running shoes, how on earth do traditional stores take them on?
The best place to look for inspiration is one you would never expect. A bookshop. Almost the bookshop, as just about every other competitor has succumbed to Jeff Bezos’s behemoth.
But Waterstones is not just surviving, it is thriving.
The thirty-year-old chain has just posted its first profit in years, swinging dramatically from an £18.8m loss in 2014 to a £9.8m profit in 2016.
There are lessons for our own industry in this success story. Waterstones didn’t find the answer to its problems overnight; it searched for years. It even signed a deal with the devil in the early 2000’s when its website was actually powered by Amazon!
That might sound crazy, and was ultimately short lived, but it tried. Since then and the nadir in 2014 when the chain was a hair’s breadth from administration, Waterstones has succeeded by building on its strengths.
The leadership team worked out what the brand offered which no piece of technology can (yet) compete with and used it to every advantage. Knowledge. The internet cannot compete with the knowledge and consumer empathy of Waterstones staff.
The stores have learned to use emotion and connection and consumer experience to show that a bricks and mortar store is still something to savour. Now there’s an idea. When you buy a book, you can choose the instant gratification of two clicks and a delivery through your letterbox within hours (and who doesn’t like a little instant gratification every now and then) or you can go to your local store, stroll around the plush carpeted floors, sit in an armchair, drink your favourite coffee and read the first chapter of the latest bestseller.
Waterstones made swingeing changes. They trusted their book-loving managers to control their own stock, so that product offerings were locally relevant. Waterstones stopped selling their window space to the biggest publishers to promote their biggest titles, instead it used that space to recommend little known authors and offer something different. On one hand this cost them millions of pounds, on the other it enabled the local staff to take ownership and use their knowledge to power the brand forward.
Waterstones stopped making every decision entirely commercially and trusted their team to purchase and champion the books they loved themselves, knowing that the consumer didn’t just come for the transaction, they came for the experience, the love and the knowledge.
Running shoe consumers want experience, love and knowledge too. Maybe even more so. Sport, and running in particular, is an emotional activity, you only have to watch people finish a race to know that.
For consumers who want to spend an hour trying on specialist brands, selecting from different styles, different sizes, and being gently wooed by a kindred spirit, that’s the experience run speciality can give them that no one else can.
As an industry, we must encourage consumers to drink our coffee and figuratively read the first chapter, maybe by taking the product for a quick spin. We must be attentive and demonstrate our knowledge and our love for the sport and the products that we offer to give the consumer an experience that she cannot get online or elsewhere.
If a bricks and mortar bookshop can thrive in these digital times, then so can we.