Interview: Blackwell's bringing personality back to online retail

Ex-Waterstones and Game Group eCommerce boss Kieron Smith started his role as digital director of Blackwell's Bookshops at the start of 2015, and he is looking forward to tapping into the 136-year-old company's collective bookselling expertise to bring personality to the business's online offering.

The former managing director of The Book Depository, which was sold to Amazon in 2011, believes the evolution of online retailing has reached the stage where it needs to be more humanised.

Blackwell's, which has around 40 high street shops and university campus stores around the UK, has been described recently by one of its suppliers as a "sleeping giant" – and Smith is keen to be part of the team that helps awaken the beast. He says it has got plenty of potential to establish its own special identity on the book retail scene, helped by an intelligent combination of traditional and modern retailing practices.

"I've got a huge number of people in the business who are enthusiastic about books and if I can expose them online and find out who the experts are in particular subjects and what it is they are reading, then I can get customers to interact," Smith commented.

"You look to certain people on Twitter and Facebook for regular updates and you get that serendipity surprisingly often, especially on Twitter. But why not be able to engage with a bookseller like that, dip into their knowledge and get other customers involved in the conversation as well?"

Smith says it is the job of professional booksellers to "choose the right books for the right people", and although algorithms work to an extent they "tend to unearth easy selections".

"If you're interested in the long tail or a specific area you need expert knowledge to help you break through that. It's an interesting challenge and something I don't think computers can do well."

Blackwell's does not currently offer this type of interactive online experience but it is the direction Smith wants the business to go because he views it as a way of improving customer engagement. His other ideas to help enthuse online customers include publishing less static imagery and, potentially, introducing more "irreverent" marketing campaigns, which he believes suits the bookselling market.

"There's a challenge for Blackwell's to have its personality out there, but I've got to be careful not to put the cart before the horse," Smith explained, who suggested some retailers have been guilty in the past of not investing in the nuts and bolts of their businesses before introducing new technology.

Since joining Blackwell's in January, Smith has been engaging with the staff to get their buy-in for some of the new digital strategies he is aiming to develop over the coming years. He says there is a "really positive atmosphere" within the business and an acknowledgement that combining the art of physical bookselling with digital platforms is an important direction for the organisation to take.  

"I see myself as a facilitator to help these booksellers get their message out there," he explained.

"If I can add expertise in terms of design and good systems that make sure the books are distributed properly and we have the right range, then we have a really powerful combination."

Much of this momentum will be supported by the company's imminent move to partnership status. The 89-year-old owner, Toby Blackwell, is in the process of replicating the John Lewis model by giving part ownership of the business to each of its members of staff, and Smith believes this structural change within the organisation will foster a greater togetherness among employees and will help ensure people are working towards common goals.

He also admits that the shift in the way Blackwell's is set to be run played a major part in his decision to join the company.

"Toby Blackwell's way of guaranteeing the future of the business is to gift it to the booksellers, as they are people with a vested interest who can protect the company and take it forward," the digital boss remarked.

"I think it's more than commendable and something I want to be part of. It's one of the reasons – if not the key reason – for joining the business. I felt that it would underline the digital involvement piece and it should be a perfect situation for me to help the booksellers reach customers through different channels."

Although Smith has assumed a facilitator role as Blackwell's evolves from a traditional bookseller to one that continues to operate specialist shops while offer a growing e-book range and new channels on which customers can purchase items, he questions the future existence of the "digital director" job title.

"A recent Computing article said there is no future for the digital director and it was absolutely right in that businesses should have a digital director for a period of time but then you become a digital business," he asserted.

"It's a transitional role – what comes after is utopia at this point. It's a catalyst to move businesses from one point to another, and take both the organisation and customers with them."

It's a notion that Dixons Carphone's eCommerce director, Jeremy Fennell, and other industry luminaries have hinted at in the past. What comes next once the digital transition has taken place?

It is clearly a question that can wait to be asked later down the line, especially as there are very few non-digital-native retailers who can claim to be close to achieving the utopia Smith references. At present, it is very much about grappling with new systems and working out how to shift from legacy infrastructure to some of the more agile, flexible ways of working that are required today.

For Blackwell's, specifically, the immediate focus is on continuing the impetus provided by last year's return to profit, which was generated off the back of a £54.1 million turnover. Smith's role is to continue to evolve recent digital innovations, such as a new e-book learning platform, and devise new strategies that will enable the business to offer a customer-friendly 21st-century retailing experience.

Although he admits the phrase is slightly overused, Smith says he would hope by this time next year that Blackwell's is much closer to offering a "joined up seamless experience".

"We'll have a different and exciting website in terms of how it interests and engages customers, while you will see booksellers on there and will be able to engage in the areas you're interested in," he added.

"We'll be able talk to you in the right way. That is everyone's dream really: being able to cut customer data in the right way. We're not putting all of our eggs in the data basket, though, as a lot of our strategy is about enabling our booksellers to have a chat in whatever form that takes."