In my hometown, no one ever went to Jessops. An unspoken consensus, enforced by middle class conformity, meant that everyone frequented its independent rival instead. When I bought my SLR, the assistant, stunned at my lack of expertise, proceeded to teach me everything I needed to know right there in the shop. Amazon can’t tell you how to take portraits in low light, or politely inform you that your framing needs some work. Jessop’s, on the other hand, could have done. But testimony from people who defected to ‘the other side’ was inevitably dissatisfied. Staff were grumpy, service was grudging and inexpert, and everything seemed to entail an extra charge. Needless to say, both shops are now out of business.
Similarly, when Waterstones arrived ten years ago, causing the closure of two independent bookshops, I, in my ten-year-old wisdom, joined the clamour of voices at the school gates competing to express disapproval of this new-fangled, big-business takeover. It didn’t stop me, six years later, from bouncing into my job interview full of enthusiasm for the brand. Secretly I always felt like a traitor to my childhood bookshops, but I was still proud of where I worked. I now dread the demise of Waterstones, my first employer and, for all its flaws, an important part of the British high street. Staffed well, a good bookshop, whoever it is owned by, is an unmatchable pleasure. If high street shops like Waterstones can be saved, what will do it is brand loyalty and commitment to good service.
Unfortunately, entering HMV invariably entailed being grunted at by scowling staff who didn’t know the sections of their own shop and seemed unable to answer the simplest questions. Dingy shop fittings, unnavigable floor plans and chaotic shelf organisation didn’t help. Waterstones is better, but they could improve. High street stores can’t hope to match the internet on price and diversity of product, but what they can do is provide great service. I return to Waterstones because the staff are interesting, and knowledgeable, and happy to give recommendations. Perhaps it is blind optimism, but part of me still hopes this will save them from collapse.
However faceless and corporate these shops are, they are still shops, staffed by actual human beings. They have the potential to engender loyalty Amazon can only dream of. Today we agonise over HMV, because it’s somehow always nicer to buy things from a person, as opposed to a machine. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years we’re all worrying about Tesco being under threat from an online supermarket juggernaut. As Qui-Gon Jin would say, there’s always a bigger fish.