News & Insight

Unbranded Waterstones stores a new chapter for retail?

Max White

Independent looking stores owned by big brands could be the future

Leading bookshop chain Waterstones has made headlines this week, but not the ones it would have hoped for on World Book Day. The retailer is defending its decision to open smaller, unbranded stores which masquerade as independents.

The three shops in Suffolk, East Sussex and Hertfordshire bear no resemblance to Waterstones’ black and white fronted stores, inside or out. One of the disguised stores, Southwold Books in Suffolk, is a mere 700 sqft. By comparison, the smallest Waterstones store is 2,500 sqft.

Critics say it’s yet another big brand retailer turning the screw on small businesses. A Trojan horse tactic in a siege of the high street. But are the naysayers right, or is Waterstones simply trying to keep the nation reading?

A comeback story

Not so long ago the sector was dog-eared and in decline. In 2014 the number of independents in the UK had fallen to below 1,000 as consumers opted for their Kindle counterparts, Amazon, and other online retailers.

In the last two years though, something has changed. Print sales have risen and sales of downloadable books have dropped off.

So if book worms are returning to indie bookshops in their droves, is Waterstones the early bird poised to scoop them up? Some aren’t so sure.

Robbert Topping, an independent bookseller, told the Guardian that Waterstones ought to be wary of pulling wool over readers’ eyes. “Independent bookshops and their readers are, in essence, independent-minded people,” he says. “That is why readers shop with us and not chains.”

Are pseudo shops the future?

Whilst sceptics are accusing Waterstones of not playing by the book, it says it has simply rewritten the rules inside it.

Managing Director James Daunt said, “If you want to enhance a high street you need to act as an independent…and part of the reason we did it is to convince our own booksellers that they have the autonomy that they do have.”

Whatever your opinion on the squabble, you can bet that retailers in other sectors will be thinking about plucking a leaf from Waterstones' book.