Future of Foyles: Shelving the Bookstore?

I recently had the pleasure of attending Foyles’ ‘bookshop of the future’ workshop. The iconic Charing Cross bookstore is about to relocate and, in so doing, create a new bookstore designed for success in the modern book-selling landscape. The workshop served to gather insight from a cross-section of the industry, to help them achieve this ambitious goal in what they hoped would be potentially disruptive ways.

Even though my own career in publishing has focused on digital media, my natural affinity for physical books and stores has remained. So much so that, on the day of the workshop, I found myself not an ambassador for Foyles’ digital frontiers, but a reactionary for digital restraint. In the no-holds-barred atmosphere that ensued, the integrity of the physical bookstore was at stake.

Of course, the traditional bookstore as we know it is certainly failing. More readers are flocking to Amazon for lower pricing, larger range, and arguably a better search experience. I admit that I haven’t bought a book from a physical bookshop in years. (Although, irreverently, I have used my phone to buy books from the Big A at least once while on bookshop premises.) If we assume that Foyles cannot compete on pricing and range, the situation is looking pretty dismal for people like me.

This is why I was not surprised that many opinions in the workshop centred around making Foyles a cultural destination: a groovy ‘place to be’, full of events, courses and cafés. After all, these are things you can’t get on Amazon. But as fun as all this would be, to me it suggests giving up altogether. It says a bookstore that’s simply a bookstore can’t work anymore.

By some measurements, these peripheral features may even make more money than books, so why shouldn’t we focus on them? But herein lies the problem, not the solution. The question is not what would make Foyles more profitable, for then Foyles should just quit and become a casino. The interesting question is, how can Foyles be more profitable as a bookstore?

The answer lies, I think, not in ‘groovifying’ Foyles (think “touchscreens everywhere, even on the walls outside the store”) – which is at most a finishing touch – but in the positive aspects of the experience of buying a book that Amazon can’t capture. Foyles has something Amazon can never have: physical depth. It is much nicer to browse through a book collection you can see and touch. This may be a good candidate for a focal point on which to reconstruct the bookshop experience.

So with that in mind, my first thought is to accept that bookstores are a browsing experience, not a searching experience. This may mean getting rid of A-Z arrangements, because they serve a purpose that Amazon serves far better. Books could instead be organised by collections, based on genre, interests, topics, current issues and ideas. Rather than collecting together ‘bestsellers’, Foyles could curate a standing collection of ‘Top 100 All-Time Must-Reads’. These could be presented in beautiful bound editions at the front, enticing you in like a perfume section, and giving new or unlikely readers an easy way in.

If the physical bookstore is the focal point, we should see the books more prominently rather than stacked up spine-to-spine. Perhaps we don’t need to see fives copies of every book, for that only serves to bloat shelves and separate individual titles. Anything that solves a practical issue for staff at the expense of making shopping less easy for customers surely deserves a rethink.

And while we’re trying to build a better browsing experience, let’s also not forget to limit the negatives that usually come with it. It may sound dull but browsing needs to be a logistical possibility too: there’s no point in beautiful shelves and reading zones if you are carrying supermarket shopping in both hands and are bursting for the loo. A bag drop and toilet facilities should go without saying.

Above all, what Amazon can’t compete with is the feeling of being in a bookstore, and the aspiration to be the kind of person who visits book shops. Adding a disco or selling stationery wouldn’t address this aspiration, but book-related accessories (why aren’t there posters for books like films?) could, with a distinctive Foyles bag in which to carry away your purchases. Even a café isn’t totally relevant, but a café where you can read the books from the shelves around you could be.

As a leader in the bookshop industry, Foyles’ success is exciting for everyone who is a lover of real bookstores and real books. But let’s remember to measure their success in relevant ways, rather than just on profit. After all, it won’t count if Foyles turn their bookstore into something that isn’t really about books.


Hopefully Foyles reads your blog...

VirgilThinks's picture

...because I'm glad someone talks sense in this debate!

A big problem for the book-selling industry is that the product is the same wherever you buy it, so price can easily become the main decision-point - and everyone knows Amazon is cheaper. Buying experience is therefore everything in swaying that decision. And it's easy to focus your answer to that on "curation this, curation that", but your point about the periphery of the buying experience is possibly more important: bag drops, nice facilities, excellent presentation, etc.

The mundane must not be overlooked in improving the buying experience. Has Foyles inspected every last minutiae of its checkout process to make it as smooth as physically possible? Because Amazon has.

Re: Good Ideas

Thanks! I agree with your points about better displays, and like your ideas about getting partners involved in this.

The thing that worries me about the staff comment is that realistically getting the right calibre of people and training them is expensive. We don't want to have to rely on face-to-face selling of books to make our margins. However in an ideal world, yes, it would be fantastic if the staff were both knowledgeable and passionate about different sections of the store.

Author missed the point

"Of course, the traditional bookstore as we know it is certainly failing."

"I admit that I haven’t bought a book from a physical bookshop in years."

"I have used my phone to buy books from the Big A at least once while on bookshop premises."

And yet the problem is that the problem is that you don't want bookstores to change in a way that would make them more profitable? You want the booklstores to "build a better browsing experience" for you? Why, so more people like you can inspect the books in the bookstore and then buy them on Amazon? If the bookstores are going to survive, they're going to HAVE TO change. I'm sorry that messes with your idea of what a bookstore "ought" to be, but you're going to have to a)learn to live with the changes, b)actually patronize them in a tangible way instead of treating them like glorified warehouses. Or else you can c)kiss them good bye.

In the mean time, stop advocating for stupid things. Seriously, "a better browsing experience"?


Curation is key

From the ground up, the new bookshop strategy should be built on one key concept - curation - and that should touch every aspect of the business from buying strategies to marketing strategies, from signage to staffing. People want to be told what the next big thing is, they want to be shown the classics they might have missed, they want knowledgeable staff to recommend them books - it's why staff picks in stores always work so well. Visiting a bookstore has to become a personal experience where you don't have to do what you do when you browse online - wade through interminable amounts of dross  to find something decent. Less will be more and moments of aspiration will convert to sales. Of course strategic promotions and disconts will be key, but these will need to also be themed and curated. The genre 3 for 2 is dead - the themed 3 for 2 will rule.

Re: Curation is key

Rushda Khan's picture

Exactly right, nickatkinson7, I do believe careful curation is at the heart of it. Amazon collections can end up being impersonal and indiscriminate, and when you have a whole world of books to browse, everyone could do with some help. I get a little nervous about staff picks though - I'm sure I even heard someone at the workshop tell me that sometimes they are written quickly by the same single person in the store. Not sure if that is true! I'd be much more interested by the expert reviewers in the industry rather than staff who may or may not be real experts.

Good Ideas

I too was at the Foyles workshop, and I think your angle of approach is a good one. The biggest downside of better displays is less shelf space. That is not to say that better, more flexible displays are not needed, just that it will be interesting to see what the balance is.

The an importnat measure here is turnover. Face-outs aid turnover certainly, but so does selection. Perhaps more flexible shelving options (in conjunction with a design school perhaps?) would aid here, esp. in children's picture book sections.

I also think window displays need to remain the purview of the seller, not the publisher. A dozen copies of a single book in a window passed by hundreds of people is fine and may look nice, but if 6 of those copies were a centerpeice, and single copies of 8 other related titles surrounded them, more books would move certainly.

The book-related accessories you note are a point I argued for in our group as well. Book cover posters, book stands, book snakes, new and classic book-themed art prints (remember the picture of a guy standing on a tall ladder in front of an even taller bookshelf, his face buried in a book?), even small funky bookshelves. Local art/craft groups woudl bve excellent partners in this.

But staff is truly key. They have to have ownership of their sections, be able to have time to sell, and not just do maintenance. They will turn a good section into an outstanding one, a book that is a good seller into a great seller. Perhaps the old time distinction of stocker vs salesman needs a revisit.

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