Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Waterstones Debacle

Look. Just look at that would you? Spelled above with an apostrophe and below without one. They're deliberately trying to confuse us.

Wonder how much that's costing the marketing department?

Last week I was in Matalan looking for a winter coat, on account of driving off and leaving my other one in a closet in the Midlands. Such is the hazard of road trips, and being me.

I got a bit sidetracked and ended up taking a leather-elbowed tweed jacket (I've always wanted to be an academic) and a couple of dresses to the changing rooms. Four items in all.

"How many can I take through?" I asked the lady on guard.

"Up to six," she informed me. "But I'm afraid I can only let you take three, because all the other disks have gone."

I looked at the peg and made the following observation:

"Could you give me three plus one? That would make four."

"No. I'm afraid I'm not allowed to give you two disks."

I bit my tongue, stopping just short of saying, "Do you think, given the fact there's just you and me standing here, perhaps you could look at my face and remember the number of clothes I am taking with me? I mean, you look fairly sentient, a few years off senility at least. Perhaps you could even write it on the back of your hand? I'll only be five minutes. You can body cavity search me on the way out if you like, I might even enjoy that. After all, it's only four items. I'm not asking you to divide it, multiply it, or find the square root. Just remember the number four."

Pet peeve. I hate shops that don't wish to sell you stuff. I can't help thinking they're in the wrong line of business. I will always throw half the clothes back rather than call out to a shop assistant to swap them over halfway through my dressing room experience. I'll wager that, by treating everybody like crooks, shops have lost quite a bit of money from genuine customers who can't be bothered with the hassle.

Which brings me neatly around to Waterstones and Cheltenham Literature Festival. 

The morning of Philip Pullman, we were at the top field Watersones selecting books for the signing. I'd picked up a money-off coupon a few months back. Collect ten stamps at £10 each and get £10 off. £10 off £100 hardly seems worth the effort, but stores know the value of this type of loyalty card. It's like Pok√©mon, you gotta catch 'em all.

Given that we're a family of book lovers, it didn't take long to collect a full score card. We gave the completed card to Marilyn to put towards the full collection of His Dark Materials. Off she went to the counter.

"I'm sorry," they said. "We're not able to take vouchers here because our till is playing up. Try Imperial Square."

The Literature Festival is split between Montpellier Gardens (upper field) and Imperial Square (lower field). Both have a Waterstones bookstore. However, as we learned, these two stores operate independently during the festival.

So, down we wandered to the 'other' tent, to look for a copy of His Dark Materials.

As it transpired, they didn't have it. The book was in one tent. Our ability to use the voucher, in another.

Simple A to B solution, one might think? Send book from top tent, to bottom tent.

Instead, staff asked to see our receipts for the books we had already bought at the other tent. We must have looked shifty, and the fact we were carrying them in Waterstones bags must have come across as a real ploy. Obviously we were in a Waterstones tent asking to buy books because we were stealing them. More than a little insulting having just given them £100.

Satisfied with our receipts, they then ummed and aahed about the problem, looked at one another, radioed back and forth and, eventually, decided that if Marilyn wanted the book, she could go back and get it.

Off she went, back up to Montpellier Gardens. Meanwhile, I listened to the staff discussion over the walkie talkie. 

"Okay, the customer is on her way to the tent now."

"Has she paid for the book?"

"No, but her daughter," (I presume, referring to me?) "is here and she's left lots of stuff."

"We can't let her leave the tent with the book."

"Honestly, she's left lots of stuff here." The unspoken subtext, in front of her assumed daughter, being 'we don't think she's a criminal, low risk of running off with the merchandise.'

"Still, we can't let her leave the tent unless the book is paid for."


Long pause.

"Can you ask her daughter to pay for the book?"

"That's a good idea. How much is it?"

I interrupt to tell her that it's "sixteen ninety-nine."

"Right," she says, back into the walkie talkie, tapping a few buttons on her till. "What's that? Fourteen ninety-nine."

I know she's made a mistake, so repeat the correct price. 

She hits some more buttons. "What's the ISBN again? Fourteen ninety- Oh, wait, that's wrong." Looks at me and smiles. "That's sixteen ninety-nine, is that alright?"

Honestly, what can you say?

I nod.

"So, six ninety-nine with the discount."

I pay.

Naturally, they don't bother to tell Marilyn, so she arrives back at the tent, out of breath, fed up, and about to go to the counter to pay again.

Yes, yes, a rant, I know. But it absolutely mystifies me. This is so common of big business in Britain. A bumbling, round-the-houses approach to service. You're the country's largest bookshop, at one of the country's largest literature festivals. You have one job to do: sell books. As efficiently, one would hope, as possible.

Systems thinking it ain't.

Still, that in itself wasn't the debacle. That was a mere annoyance.

For crying out loud - which is it!?

The interesting point arose whilst standing outside the tent, explaining to Marilyn that the book had been paid for and we were free to go.

A gentleman positioned himself next to the entrance, and began handing out glossy, expensive-looking flyers for his book to people going in.

Within seconds, a member of staff came out of the bookshop and told him to cease and desist.

At which point, he threw an impressive over-armer, narrowly missing a septuagenarian, and scattering his flyers against the opposite tent. He stormed off, leaving the staff member to collect up the debris.

I'm annoyed now that I didn't pick one up. 'Vandalism' - perhaps. 'Hooliganism' - maybe. Yet I can't help feeling that such a display of passion deserves some form of recognition.

I rather feel I understand his frustration.

The problem with Cheltenham Literary Festival (and I've sung its praises enough to be allowed a moment of critical observation), is that there is precious little encouragement for local or aspiring writers. It is very much about the big, established, names. 

This isn't a bad thing in itself. This is what it has built its reputation upon, and why we return year after year.

However, it also builds an air of elitism. 

At the arts festival, there is a wall set aside where local artists can come and display their works. If Waterstones had been canny about it, they could have defused the flyering situation much more easily, and with much more grace, by explaining "Sorry, you can't flyer outside the door, but if you give us some, we'll display them on our board inside." Or "There's a board over there especially for authors to advertise." What harm does it do the festival or the book seller to promote more books and make authors feel good about themselves?

Even the Society of Authors is guilty of promoting this sense of 'worthy or not'. They sent out an invitation to their members for (I think it might have been local) authors to submit work for a potential reading at the festival. Yet even in this day and age of the automated - polite - response, they couldn't bring themselves to send out even an e-mail of recognition. It was very much along the lines of a job interview, or an agent submission: 'don't call us, we won't call you either.'

So, it wasn't that difficult to sympathise with the frustrated author. Especially when it really doesn't have to be like that. booQfest was the perfect example. As Paul Magrs said on his blog, Life on Magrs:

It's one of the best organised book festivals I've ever been to - and probably the most fun... deliberately opening [the festival] up as something that everyone can take part in, read and listen to.

I honestly don't think Cheltenham would suffer any loss of face by opening up a few extra opportunities for new, local, and independent authors to take the stage. After all, small press made up 50% of the Booker shortlist this year. Spread the love.

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