Blame the Technology and Australia


Continuing my search into what happened at Whitcoulls and Borders and  generally what’s going on with New Zealand retailers I am finding no surprises, which is a real worry. Two words come up a lot. Technology and Australia. I know a little of both. I live for technology and have trained many retailers over the years (including some who were already millionaires) and while the technology has changed, the principles haven’t. More on this to come.

Australia and New Zealand

As to Australia. In the 90’s many Australasian retailers who had New Zealand operated subsidiary chains based in New Zealand, decided to do away with local country management, local buyers etc.  and to save lots of money by treating their NZ shops as Australian branches. I guess they considered New Zealand as a slightly bigger Tasmania. Not huge, but worth having, especially if they didn’t put much effort into senior staffing  resources.

When performance decreased they blamed the economy, they said that NZ was just an over inflated state and it was always going to be that way, which was how they justified reducing local resources in the first place. The fact is while we may have a lot in common, we are not the same. We are made up of different cultures and history and have subtle differences in our lifestyles. Subtle enough that you can’t treat NZ stores the same as Australian stores and expect the same result.

Similar scenarios happened in many cases with the decades of American Globalisation. It’s funny really that America wanted to change Japan and the rest of Asia Pacific while Japan wanted to change the west. I well remember having discussions with senior management of Casio in Tokyo and Hamura about improving the software on their cash registers. One of the issues was that they hadn’t allowed for people pressing buttons in the wrong sequence. Have you ever been in a retail store when the ECR (Cash Register) is bleeping loud noises no matter what buttons are pushed and the stress it caused the cashier? Their initial response was “They must use the ECR in the right way or you should find better customers”. We ended up beta testing their software in NZ and Australia first and then getting Japan to tweak their software. That was one of the initiatives that helped us get 70% market share in the ECR market in NZ and helped Casio increase theirs around the world. But then of course the company I worked for was sold and I along with my boss and several other great people were made redundant despite the fact that we were doing really well, but because they thought we were earning too much. I’d love to know what their market share is in NZ now. I know it isn’t 70%. Anyway I’m going off on a tangent.

The big thing I noticed in the NZ stores was inventory management. They were carrying a lot of books that I wouldn’t think anyone would buy other than as a joke. I went back to Borders a week ago to jot some of the names down, but it looks like they went in the $1, $2, $5 sale and were gone. They had many dated books especially computing which must have been in store for several years, technical books on how to use software that almost no one has used in the last 5 years.

From what I’ve been told, someone automated the purchasing software to replace books that had sold, so for example if a particular book sold really well, say 5,000 copies, the system would replace with another 5,000 copies. Well there goes the profit from the first lot.

One of the things that makes New Zealand different is our ethnic communities. All over New Zealand, but particularly in Auckland we have clusters of ethnic communities; Chinese, Korean, South African, Indian, Pacific Islanders and more. Brands who fail to take that into consideration waste massive levels of stock by having the wrong product in the wrong locations, which then becomes shop soiled and potentially unsaleable.

Inventory needs to be managed locally by category managers who understand and are at the leading edge of their category and who understand their local market. They need to know weekly what is going on and understand who their customers are and what they are buying. Some books date more quickly than others and need to be moved on quickly, others will hold their value longer, but will still have a rapid half life.

In my previous blog about Whitcoulls and Borders I wrote about how they could follow the example of Amazon and know what their individual repeat customers were buying and therefore their interests and could recommend books to them. Amazon continue to prove that people in NZ will buy based on recommendations along the lines of “You bought these 3 books, other people who bought the same books also enjoyed the following titles”. Not only do we often buy them, but we also pay massive freight costs to get them here, at the same time as local book retailers are discounting stock that people aren’t buying. How smart is that?

One good way of dealing with this is using Business Analytics or Business Intelligence tools such as BIonaMAP, soon to be launched by New Zealand geospatial solution provider, GeoSmart. Fortunately for retail chains, this product will support both Australia and New Zealand, so users can have visibility over both countries.

BIonaMAP

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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.