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How Blackwell's is responding to the coronavirus pandemic

Traditional bookshop chain Blackwell’s talked about adaptations to its business model, trends and IT operation during the coronavirus crisis

The retail sector has been suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with businesses such as bookshops under pressure as consumers default to websites such as Amazon as their main buying option.

However, booksellers have seen a kind of resurgence during the Covid-19 outbreak and have been finding ways to adapt their operations to serve customers stuck in self-isolation.

Blackwell's Bookshops has weathered a number of crises in its time, having been around since 1879. However, the current situation introduced a number of novel complexities around keeping the chain’s catalogue of 18 million books updated, including logistics and supply issues as publishers took their warehouses offline.

“The first thing we did was access all the books we had in the shops and get them to our distribution centre,” said Kieron Smith, digital director at Blackwell’s, during a webinar at Retail Expo.

He noted that the move was important for shops as a means to liquidate stock and generate cash, but also to maintain customer satisfaction online.

Books can be quite counter-recessionary, he added. Though it is early to make any assessments about the current situation, this appears to be the case at Blackwell’s, as there has been a “huge upsurge in demand” for books during the pandemic, especially regarding educational and professional development and escape-type titles. 

“You might buy a book for entertainment and escape as it is another form of leisure activity, but there is also lots of retraining going on as people think about how they might get back into the workforce,” he said.

Blackwell’s also sells e-books, but they still represent a “pretty small” amount of the company’s business, said Smith, and that hasn’t changed during the Covid-19 outbreak. “Physical books [sell] much more,” he said, with drivers for this including the current need for homeschooling. 

Another aspect of the business that had to change drastically as a response to the pandemic is events. Blackwell’s does approximately 6,000 events a year, which are now taking place virtually.

“We have been doing lots of Twitter events, which are not very technically challenging and allow us to get conversations going between customers and authors, and introduce that kind of social feeling online, even if its never going to be the same [as face-to-face] events,” he said.

When it comes to how the pandemic has changed the way the IT department operates, Smith said retailers have had to adopt a much more agile approach to respond to the crisis, and this will likely continue beyond the current situation. “There has been nowhere to hide,” he added.

He said that some retailers have found themselves in a situation where their websites have not been scalable or adaptable enough and are now seeing the impact of having a website that cannot help them navigate the current way of operating. “There will be a lot of people thinking about [e-commerce] quite hard,” he said.

Not relying so much on outsourcing has also been helpful in weathering the pandemic, Smith said. “I was so glad we have built [the Blackwell’s website] in-house. Even if it is only a small thing that goes wrong at this point when orders go through the roof – and we are getting that quite a lot of times – being able to fix those things very quickly, and having software engineers to hand has been crucial,” he said. 

The collaborative and creative nature of the book trade has been noticeable during the pandemic, Smith said, noting that smaller booksellers that are currently closed during the pandemic have been producing content in their closed shops and sharing it on social media as a way to keep in touch with their audience, for example.

“This is a very interesting and innovative way to approach e-commerce, as for many of them having a sophisticated website would have been too much of an investment,” he said, noting that these smaller businesses have been finding alternative means to establish some form of distance selling and enable customers to browse the shop that way, which has always been a challenge in the digital setting.

According to the digital director, the post-pandemic consumer is going to be cautious. Businesses such as Blackwell’s will need to have a phased transition back to a situation where consumers will be happy to come out to the high street again, so activities such as events can resume.

However, Smith does not think this will happen any time soon after the situation is under control. “It is going to take a while before people are comfortable to come back in through the door,” he said.

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