Waterstones’ decision to end its rolling, decade-long 3-for-2 offer is one riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, you have new managing director James Daunt making bold proclamations (in his pre-Waterstones days) like ‘We don’t despoil our books by putting stickers on them. We don’t use price as a marketing tool. As a concept, three-for-two goes completely against the grain of how I like buying books.’ On the other, you have the sole remaining outpost of the high street bookshop, which cannot rely upon such Charles Foster Kane-esque declarations of principle without a care for commercial concerns if it wants to survive in the age of Amazon.
There is much to admire in Daunt’s ethos. His commitment to the book as an art object, as something that has an innate value regardless of the contents, is to be applauded, as is his belief in staffing his shops with people who know their stuff. If the response to our own Kindle week last month is anything to go by, readers have already declared their allegiance to either brick-and-mortar or one-click buying; it seems fair to suggest that a lack of money-saving offers will do little to discourage those Waterstones regulars who could likely have bought their ‘bargains’ cheaper online already.
And yet, there is equally much about Daunt’s tone in justifying this latest decision to dissuade exactly those kinds of shoppers from continuing to give Waterstones their business. When advocating full-price sales, his priggishly snippy question ‘Whether a book is £20 or £15, where does that come in the equation of being dealt with by a responsive member of staff who knows what they are talking about and is not wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt with a spike through whatever?’ gives the impression of a man who cares less about catering to the customer than catering to ‘the right kind’ of customer.
Does Daunt seriously think that the way a person dresses or the music they listen to has a direct bearing on their ability to express a passion for books, or to communicate that to others? Does he really believe that, say, Harold Bloom’s opinions on Hamlet would suddenly become invalid if Bloom was pictured bumpin’ Watch The Throne? Does he genuinely imagine that, right now, somewhere, he hasn’t lost himself the business of a true bibliophile who just happens to cling for dear life to a copy of Hysteria?
Regardless, Daunt has a business to run, so whatever orderly, hair metal-less, full-price utopias he envisions in his dreams must ultimately fall at the feet of commerce. Word is that the 3-for-2 will be replaced with either a £5 flat rate for campaign paperbacks or a tiered pricing system running the gamut from £3-£7. In other words, the average Waterstones shopper can go in and buy three paperbacks together for more or less the same price as they’ve been able to do for the past ten years. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?