Working in Bookselling: Interview with Kieron Smith

Kieron Smith, Digital Director at Blackwell's

Kieron Smith is a professional bookseller with over 20 years book trade experience, including WHSmith Retail, establishing the Ottakars.co.uk website in 1999, heading up the web offering at Bertelsmann’s Book Clubs in the UK and operations at Methven’s Booksellers, followed by three years outside the industry at Europe’s leading video games website GAME.co.uk. Head of online for Waterstone’s in 2006-7 and then MD of international bookseller The Book Depository (now an Amazon company) for five years. He joined the UK’s leading Academic and Professional Bookseller, Blackwell’s, as Digital Director in 2015. Kieron is also a published author, his book The Politics of Down Syndrome (Zero Books) published in 2011.

How did the way you conduct business change due to the impact of the virus?

The Pandemic posed a number of challenges for Blackwell’s, we offer many services; for example we have High Street and campus shops, we have business to business (& institutional sales) a significant online presence – in addition to selling new, second-hand and rare books. Some of our ‘routes to market’ were significantly impeded – campus sales for example, but others came to the fore with Blackwells.co.uk and business to institutional sales (we are a supplier to the NHS for example) becoming central during lockdown.

What challenges were you already facing as a bookshop?

All booksellers are facing challenges with the changing role of the High Street and Blackwell’s is no exception, we are also increasingly under pressure on campus with the changing nature of HE. We passionately believe in the important role bookshops can play in campus life and that they can contribute much to the experience of learning. That said, Blackwell’s has also transition to become a business that sells more ‘trade’ consumer titles than academic. This reflects stronger ranges in stores, new shops, such as the family oriented Westgate shop in Oxford, and our focus on growing online sales via Blackwells.co.uk.

Describe how you found solutions or introduced new practices to help sell books

As soon as lockdown started in March we began to utilise stock in our ‘dark stores’, which had been closed to the public, to augment the book supply chain. Many suppliers were under huge pressure, or closed, so being able to access the thousands of titles we had locked in shops such as Oxford Broad Street was essential. Booksellers did a fantastic job picking stock and sending it to our Distribution Centre (DC) to be dispatched.

Our DC had to be entirely re-planned to support safe working and social distancing, luckily we had moved to a much larger facility in 2019 so had space to increase the area for packing. We also increased stock holding to ensure that we could maintain a decent range, for example books for those studying at home, and for those parents supporting home learning.

We also spend time developing new services such as delivery to our shops for collection from a range of over 18m titles, the ability to get course books to students studying at home on behalf of Universities in a straightforward and easy way, and local same day deliveries.

In addition to these practical steps to support getting books into readers hands we also launched an ambitious online events programme with an online festival, some authors attracting several hundred attendees.

How did your role as bookseller change in your community?

From the outset we focused on how we as Booksellers can help in a time of crisis, we offered help and conversations on the phone with shops, for those stuck at home, free delivery from our website, support for teachers and businesses from a dedicated team and book lists to help customers understand the Pandemic or get that much needed escape into fiction. These all cemented our role with existing customers and also helped attract many more.

What will you take forward into the ‘new normal’ and what do you hope is left in lockdown?

We very much plan to take the full multi-channel range of services forward whatever happens next, we believe that face-to-face Bookseller contact combined with online services and supporting customers however they chose to shop is essential. Virtual events will always have a place too, but we’d love to get back to the being in our stores and face-to-face! It’s much more fun.

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