Whitcoulls and Borders


I was thrilled to learn that the remaining Whitcoulls and Borders have been sold to Anne and David Norman. Now they have some hope. They will now live in the Pascoes Group and of course this group are known as having revived the ailing Farmers chain and given them new life.

Once the essential housekeeping details are sorted, such as property leases and staff contracts, there is every reason to hope that they will breathe new life into Borders and Whitcoulls.

That can not mean BAU or Business As Usual, because even though they did OK and the biggest problems were in Australia with REDGroup. Nevertheless these stores were not run optimally and they were not run with the times.

I heard people, partly lead by local publishers, saying that if the NZ stores were run from Australia, they would probably signal the demise of the NZ author. Certainly I agree that we would have seen less Kiwi authors in store, but I think ultimately either the publishers would have to become less greedy and insular or the local authors would start to embrace the new eBook media and of course in doing so they can either self publish or join Amazon or other local eBook publishers. Neither are ideal for people who love books.

As I’ve said in many previous blogs about Whitcoulls and Borders, a few of them can be found here, the first thing is to go back to basics. For these stores to be successful they need to operate smarter and provide what the modern shopper wants. There are many good examples overseas.

With the chain expanding, here a some ideas that I would look at.

  • Macy's

    Gift Registry. Chains like Macy’s in the USA have had phenomenal success with their national gift registry programs for decades. They have kiosks in store which are linked nationally. I was so excited the first time I went through one I almost bought a gift for a young man’s Bar Mitsva in Chicago. I was in New York at the time looking for a hat in one of the coldest winters I have ever experienced. It was so well laid out, there were thousands of special events from weddings to anniversaries and being national, you could see from New York, what a person in Madison Wisconsin had their hopes on. Given that the chain owns Farmers and a number of jewellery stores, this would be a great opportunity to combine the lot.

  • I keep harping on about Jeff Jarvis’ book What Would Google Do? It’s funny in a way that in one of his first blogs about the book, he suggests that you could buy it from Borders. The thing was though that I couldn’t buy it from Borders at the time because they didn’t have it, so I bought it from Amazon.
  • So I think that Borders and Whitcoulls need to start saying, what would Amazon do. So many companies are naive and believe their own hype that web retailers (only part of what they are) are no threat, or they consider them such a threat that when things go bad, they become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Hanging a few Kobo’s on the wall is not the answer, that has been a major botch up in my humble opinion. Even on the web, sell the sizzle on the home page! But some things they could do with their ‘loyalty’ programs is monitor what each customer buys and make recommendations based on the buyer habits. I have bought at least a dozen books on Amazon’s recommendations. Amazon is also much cheaper than buying locally, but that’s a different story because it costs a lot to get books to New Zealand, so unless you buy a stack of books, you pay back what you save on freight.

Amazon has many great features that can be just asdestination events

Mobile Marketing easily applied to a bricks and mortar chain, which has the benefit of being able to hold a book, tell you what store it is in and provide you with much quicker gratification.

I don’t want to write a book, but here a some things you may find in this blog in the coming days for Whitcoulls and Borders:

  • Becoming a destination for events such as readings and signings
  • Back to basics and way beyond in inventory management
  • A major web presence with lots of ideas perhaps sparked by What Would Google Do (which should be a mandatory read for all Whitcoulls and Borders management at all levels)
  • A new way for both stores to have lots of stock available, but not necessarily on the spot. A central warehouse with the option of home delivery could cut down inventory sizes without sacrificing range and depth.
  • Embrace proximity based marketing on mobile devices. I would strongly recommend that management from Borders, Whitcoulls, Farmers and in fact all retail chains attend the Mobile Marketing Forum in Auckland this June. This Forum could be called The Retailer Strikes Back. They will learn many new ideas at this event.
  • Understand their regional customer base. There is no point in carrying the same stock range in each store. It simply won’t work and you will have aged stock going on sale. Some of the category managers need to take a long hard look at the books they have been stocking and ask themselves what on earth possessed them to make some of the decisions they made? Or was it the publishers reps that conned them?
  • They should look at products like GeoSmart’s impending Business Intelligence on a MAP. This could produce many aha moments when used to geographically view their business results in combination with consumer demographics.
I could go on but that’s plenty for now. I think with the right motivation and attitude, these two stores can be not only revived, but will rise to new heights. But only if they stop living in the past of this is the way we always did it. They need to embrace and perhaps even lead the future. It’s not hard, its just thinking outside the square and remembering that it is the customers and the books that make your business. Its about the words and the stories and people.
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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.