Waterstones e-commerce boss: ‘Fix the basics before showboating’

The e-commerce director at Waterstones has a firm stance when it comes to what the high street will look like in 10 years (“probably not much different”) but claimed that those retailers likely to thrive between now and then are channeling their immediate efforts into the unsexy task of fixing the basics of the on and offline experience.

It comes amid a surge in tech companies promising retailers a myriad of solutions and innovations to help woo more customers through their doors. As Mobile World Congress draws to a close, it’s clear such conversations around things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality are only going to gather pace.

Indeed, many of Waterstone’s fellow high street giants have tried to “future-proof” themselves by investing swathes of cash into start-up incubators (like John Lewis),digital showrooms (see Argos) or testing things like beacons in store (as Ted Baker and House of Fraser have done). Recently, The Drum spoke to New Look’s digital boss Jack Smith who outlined its plans for how approaching things like virtual reality.

“The tech is there – it’s so far ahead,” said Waterstone's Ed Armitage at BIO Agency’s ‘Future of the High Street event this week.

“But I’m a big believer in fixing the basics first. Like getting the store opening hours right. A lot of people talk about innovation now and it’s a big agenda driven by the agencies. But in the digital world people forget to fix the basics and like to showboat.”

Armitage has instead focused heavily on cleaning up the digital experience and harnessing the data coming through its customer loyalty card. The book seller is also benefitting from the rise of click and collect shoppers with almost half of all online orders now collected in store.

It’s a perhaps surprising, some might argue brave, argument from the bookseller as the threat of Amazon looms larger. The online-giant has launched bricks and mortar stores in the US and the industry is waiting to see if it will make similar moves in the UK and Europe.