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Comment: Is Waterstones being romantic with its unbranded stores asks Nigel Collett of RPA: Group

Britain's biggest book retailer, Waterstones, has been attacked, both by press and local pressure groups, over unbranded store openings in the rural communities of Rye, Southwold and Harpenden. The retailer’s independent-style stores are perceived by some as a flagrant attempt to camouflage the 280 strong chain’s presence on smaller high streets, where bigger retailers are often not often welcome due to the threat they pose to smaller traders. 

However, Waterstone’s Managing Director James Daunt points out that the move is reversing a dire situation where over 600 independent bookshops, mostly in small towns, have closed  in the last 10 years. Daunt appears determined to foster the smaller, more boutique-like offering, empowering managers to curate and merchandise shops as they see fit. He has recently criticised WH Smith, former owner of Waterstone’s, for its “godawful uniformity” and “crushing consistency”, arguably the worst aspects of a chain.

In the case of the three stores mentioned only a discreet handwritten sign in the window reveals that they are owned and operated by Waterstones. Each has a retro overall feel and their  appearance - from the typography used on the fascias to the colourschemes inside and out - is that of a small independent. All of which has led critics say that stores like Rye Books are little more than a giant bookseller acting like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by doing so  showing a lack of the all important transparency expected from brands in today’s retail landscape. 

Personally, I don’t feel that the brand can be accused of anything other than being quixotic in its intention to replace some or all of the UK’s 600 missing small town bookshops, many of which will have ceased trading because the competition with the major players as just too fierce. However, when behind the small shop in fact lies a major player, perhaps that ceases to be an issue?

Other brands, such as Starbucks and Adidas, have also adopted a design strategy in recent years that creates stores appropriate to their locality. It’s possible to argue that Waterstone’s move puts them firmly in the vanguard of current retail strategy. The question is how much of your identifiable branding can you jetison and still be recognised as a Starbucks, an Adidas or a Waterstones? 

Adidas and Starbucks still want to be recognised as such whereas Waterstone’s intention is that its small town shops should look nothing like other links in the brand chain. Only time will tell if this visual divorce from the prominent logo, corporate colourways and store layout is workable. I think that the worse that can happen as a result of the Waterstones experiment is that the ‘one offs’ will themselves create a mini chain or a sub brand;  they already share the same blue fascia and their naming policy is very similar, ‘Rye Books’, ‘Harpenden Bookstore’ and so on. 

And to the noisiest critics of big brands on small high streets I would say this: does it really matter who owns a shop if it delivers engagement, customer satisfaction and has earned a place in the community? Ultimately, the brand has a right to execute its own design strategy and it is the customer who will decide whether the different look is honest or underhand, a success or a failure.

Nigel Collett is CEO of RPA: Group.