The end of Whitcoulls and Borders in New Zealand


If you have a Borders or Whitcoulls voucher, even if you hate the idea of spending double to be allowed to spend your voucher, I recommend you do it quickly, because within a couple of weeks it will be worthless. It was interesting to see that there is no mention of the current situation on the Borders website which talks about eBooks coming soon, although Whitcoulls have been a bit more responsible with a home page announcement.

The demise of these companies isn’t about eBooks, it is largely around debt as pointed out by Liam Dann in this morning’s Business Section of the NZ Herald.  and the business models. I’m not going to discuss the debt because that doesn’t reflect on the industry itself, it reflects on higher level financial decisions and the economy, not on the book trade.

Book stores and music stores are in industries that are steeped in history of “this is how we’ve done it for the last 50 years and why change it if it aint broke”.

As was mentioned in today’s NZ Herald story by Isaac Davison, “In 2010, 9.67 million books were sold, an increase of 1.2 per cent in volume but 0.1 per cent down in value against 2009. This was despite the mark-up on books in New Zealand, which saw paperbacks sold for as much as $20 more than online, even after shipping costs.”

So much for Amazon (of course there were a huge number of Kiwis including myself who purchased from Amazon as well) being the cause of the demise of our local stores.

I also appreciated the comment in the same story from Jo McColl of Unity Books that many people bought hard copy books as a consequence of having purchased eBooks. I’ve done that too. I read eBooks, listen to Audio Books and still have a personal library of around 2,000 print books. The same with music, I listen to lots of music online but have still purchased at least 10 CD’s so far this year.

I might have to go to a separate blog about how Whitcoulls and Borders business model needed to change in order to stay viable and vibrant (ignoring REDGroup‘s debt which doesn’t reflect on the book trade business model itself) because for these guys its too late unless they get a savvy new owner (who will not purchase the chains’ debt) who is ready to adopt a new business model.

REDGroup have called in Administrators. I don’t care who the administrators are. Their role is a short term one and it isn’t about changing the business model or trading back into profit. It is about the creditors.

They will try to negotiate with the book publishers and wholesalers and other suppliers who are desperate to get paid for their product and worried about their future viability in NZ. Inland Revenue want their taxes and will be first in the queue.

They will need to negotiate with the 1,000 staff who will have to have new short term contracts and will be justifiably worried about whether they will get paid at all, let alone have a future with the chain, but at the same time, will be essential should they find a new buyer for the chains.

Based on the outcome of their negotiations a decision will need to be made on whether to go into receivership which is next most likely step. If that happens, enjoy the book sale, because there will be many bargains up for grabs.

The shame of it is that (outside of the decisions that got REDGroup into this financial position) the problem in the trade is that the business model needed to change and like the music industry and other industries, the people running them don’t get it. They should have learned from the music industry, which still doesn’t get it. Other industries who don’t get it include banking, telecommunications and consumer electronics to name a few.

What should they have done and what can other retail businesses do in order to not follow Borders and Whitcoulls into the mire? Subscribe to my blog and I’ll give you a few pointers for free. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a fundamental shift in thinking, whilst also remembering the fundamental simple principles of retail and distributon.

We live in a new world, its exciting and there is a lot of money to be made, but the fatal flaw is thinking that if you do the same thing you have always done, that you will get a different result.

There is an RSS feed to this blog. Come back and read some of my ideas on how companies like Whitcoulls and Borders can thrive and prosper.

Here are a few things I would look at:

  • Understanding your business
  • Communication with customers
  • Communication with staff
  • Distribution methods
  • Stock turn and inventory management
  • Engagement
  • In Store Events
  • Proximity based marketing
  • Shelf Management
  • Relationships with community
  • Relationships with education
  • Location Based Business Analytics
  • The Internet
  • Gift Registry

I could and probably will go on. The answers are a mixture of the old and the new, neither of which these chains have effectively managed. Borders started in the right direction in the US, but didn’t continue the evolution. International chains like Borders and WH Smith focussed more on the  era of globalization than evolution of the business model. Something that would have made short term heroes who have probably made their money and moved on, but was only ever going to be short term.

3D Bioprinting


3D Printing is no longer news although I suspect most people haven’t heard of it yet. In fact there is a company within a couple of km of my office in Albany already successfully offering a variety of 3D printing services, incidentally called 3D Print. Another Aucklander, well known internationally in the  3D printing with RepRap is Vik Oliver, seen here with one of his machines.

When I heard that Richie McCaw was injured and after surgery was going to miss around 6 matches after having a titanium screw in his foot, my first reaction was, as most Kiwis, just what we need in Rugby World Cup year as he is such an amazing skipper and we want him there leading the All Blacks. Then I thought about so many other sports people who suffer injuries all the time given that they are putting their bodies on the line professionally.

Imagine a technology that rebuilds or repairs body tissue, bones, ligaments, even organs in vivo, using micro surgery techniques that mean people recover far more quickly, naturally and potentially therefore stronger than before.

Using the same types of technologies as conventional 3D printing, it will soon be possible to pattern and assemble, layer by layer, functioning living tissue, as well as non living substitutes such as ceramic and titanium according to Vladimir Mironov, an associate professor and director of the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center at the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology, Medical University of South Carolina. He is also currently making waves about growing in vitro meat, something I have previously blogged about.

So this is a relatively new technology and I don’t know that it has been tested on humans yet, but the technology is already commercially available from companies such as envisionTEC.

Imagine the good this technology could do for people with problems from injuries, burns, through to the huge numbers of people who die for lack of organs for transplant.

The following video shows how bioprinters will be used in the long term. The technology will also be used to create human tissues which can be used for drug testing instead of using animals.

Of course if tissues and organs are made using material from the host, we can eliminate problems such as donor organ rejection.

Air NZ Customer Service


I was going to blog about 3D Bio-Plotting today and if this is of interest to you, bookmark or subscribe to the RSS feed. This is going to be a very exciting disruptive technology that has the potential to have a huge impact on our life expectancy and the health industry.

In my last blog I wrote about how John Donahoe, CEO of eBay has a good understanding of what business eBay is in and it isn’t helping people buy and sell things online, or about their recent purchase of Red Laser for comparison shopping.

I wonder if Air New Zealand really understand what their business is at times. If you read their Vision Statement and Guiding Principles, it doesn’t say anything about the travel experience, or about the social relationship with customers or being the facilitator of people’s dreams. In fact a lot that Air New Zealand does is about that, but at times they seem to lose track of that and of course their major focus is on delivering a dividend to their share holders. The bottom line is people do business with people, like me. Individuals who have feelings, not just bums on seats as they say in the hospitality business.

In What Would Google Do, by Jeff Jarvis, still one of my favorite books, this is what he says about airlines:

Air travel’s business model today is based on overselling seats, billing us for checking bags, charging us for pillows and pretzels and just about everything they can think of but air………………. Does that sound familiar. I know it is hard to run an airline profitably, but as someone who has traveled around the world at least a dozen times, there have been many years where I spent 4 months of the year travelling, I understand that traveling is stressful and tiring and little things like being stuck in transit at San Francisco Airport for 8 hours because the Air NZ counter doesn’t open till 90 minutes before the flight and they don’t have an interconnect deal with their partner Lufthansa can be frustrating. They don’t engender loyalty, which I can assure you cost them a lot of money from me from time to time. I have also declined the two invitations to take out an Air NZ Platinum American Express Card. Why would I support an organisation like that, which doesn’t put me first?

Anyway, I started this blog because of frustration over my latest experience with Air New Zealand. Now I have to say that all the people I have spoken to at their service center have been friendly and polite and helpful to a point. But they fall down on some simple things like detail.

So here’s what happened. Last year my wife an I booked flights to Sydney to attend a wedding in Hunter Valley. Prior to the wedding, we were told that my father in law had weeks to live as he had a recurrence of cancer that he was not going to beat. We had to cancel the flight for which we paid $944.20 including taxes and Air NZ said that due to compassionate grounds they would hang on to our money and allow us to rebook at a later date within 12 months, which we thought was reasonable.

I re-booked in January for a trip at the end of this month (I have flown with Air NZ a number of times since then including a trip to Rarotonga in October). I gave my credit card details for the $150 re-booking fee (for 2 of us). Yesterday I went to print off the tickets and organize travel insurance and there was no email. I rang the call centre to find out why and after being transferred and disconnected and waiting a while to speak to someone again, I was told that the flights had been cancelled because they hadn’t been paid for. I was flabbergasted. I gave her my credit card details on the spot, but on checking yesterday, my card account had not been debited. I have already paid in advance for accommodation and we had both applied for leave etc and made arrangements to meet friends over there etc.

Anyway, the nice friendly chap I spoke to went and spoke to his supervisor and apparently, they can still get us on the same flights, but it would now be more expensive for the transfer fee of the tickets. They wanted to talk to the call center person who arranged the booking for us and she is not back until Monday, so they will get back to me on Monday or Tuesday.

So here’s the thing. I have no certainty for one or two more days that I will in fact get those flights and I may have to pay more for my tickets than the extra $150 which in itself would mean that we are paying $1,094.20 for 2 return flights to Sydney from Auckland, at the same time that Flight Center is offering one way tickets for $79 plus taxes (including one bag) at their travel expo.

I can’t believe that the supervisor couldn’t have just authorized the deal on the spot and taken my credit card details once again. What does it cost them for their time to document the discussions, chase the previous consultant who I believed had booked my flights, confirm back to the consultant who I spoke to yesterday and then have him ring me on my mobile to hopefully tell me they will honor the arrangement we had made in the first place. My cost is of course stress for myself and my wife as to whether we will be on the flights booked, that we won’t lose the money we prepaid for accommodation and so on, and it certainly sours our anticipation of a nice little holiday.

On top of that Air New Zealand have had the use of just under a thousand dollars of our money for free for a year. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more expedient to just say, sorry, something has gone wrong here, we can’t explain it, but if you will give us your credit card details again, we will send you a confirmation email in around 15 minutes. We hope you enjoy your trip with Air New Zealand. Then I would be writing a blog saying how wonderful and caring Air NZ was, even after they had clearly slipped up. It’s been my experience that often its not the problem but the way it is dealt with that makes all the difference. Frequently when a company has a problem and deal with it well, they will end up with more loyal clients than they would have had if the problem had not occurred in the first place.

OK, I’ve had my vent and will let you know if Air NZ fix things for me or not.

In the meantime, what about your experiences with airlines. What do you think of their visions and their customer service? Do you feel they have a good balance between customer service and shareholder satisfaction? Are you loyal to a particular airline? Why?

Comparison Shopping


Comparison shopping on mobile devices has been around for a long time. I first saw apps pop up for Palm many years ago even before I had Bluetooth connectivity. Today things are even easier because of devices like iPhone and Android.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a Harvard Business Review Ideacast podcast with John Donahoe , which was refreshing  in itself because John had a refreshingly clear vision and understanding of what eBay is as a business, which is not about selling stuff on eBay. Have a listen for yourself. Any business should understand what it really does in order to be able to do it well. For example if you think a grocery store is there to sell groceries, or a car lot is there to sell cars, then you need to listen to this interview.

Anyway, he was explaining why eBay bought the company Red Laser, which reads bar codes through the camera on your iPhone or Android and lets you see information about the product and compare pricing at both other retailers and websites, such as Amazon and of course their new owner eBay.

This is really exciting, especially in countries like New Zealand where items such as books, which I buy a lot of, are really expensive, so shopping around makes a lot of sense. In that area, I have to say that locally I buy on impulse, when I see something I really want or when its on special. They are just too expensive otherwise. Of course if I had an iPhone or an Android, I could check in real time and see if it is worth buying now or paying the postage from the US.

It was really sad to hear that Borders is likely to file for Bankruptcy this month. They really are my favorite bookstore by far, even though I have complained that in NZ since Whitcoulls bought the local franchise, they are slowly turning them into bigger versions of Whitcoulls which pretty much defeats the purpose, although this situation may vindicate them.

One of the arguments sited for Borders’ woes is their failure to prepare for the growth of the eBook market. This may be true to some degree and it is inevitable that print media will follow the music industry. I’ve blogged about this before, which you can find if you dig into my tags. Print is expensive but there are lots of things that you can do. eBook readers is one, but for Borders I would have thought a great opportunity would be Print On Demand, because this can still  be done via the store and allow access to massive stocks without worrying about the costs of shelf space and aged stock.

Whoops, off on a tangent again. I was talking about comparison shopping. Yes there are loads of applications available, I’ve only picked on one. Mashable has a huge number of blogs on this topic if you want to find more.

So have a look at the Red Laser site, to see what what they are all about and watch the short video below from DizzyDougTV to see how cool this is. You don’t need a bar code reader, just the camera on your SmartPhone. Damn I do have to get an iPhone or an Android soon! Maybe I should set up a website with a PayPal (another eBay subsidiary) link called by Luigi a Smartphone:) Would you donate?

Footnote, a lot of people think of Smartphone apps as being the domain of men, but for women who love sales and special deals, this is one for you. I’ll leave the last word to CHIP Chick.