Innovative Retailer – Library of Things

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Brought to you by Retail Insider and PCMS Group

Name: The Library of Things

The Place: So far one outlet based in Norwood – which is sarf London to you. And all neatly enclosed in one shipping container.

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The Story: You know those weekends when you wake up and say to yourself: “This weekend I am going to learn how to play the ukulele?”

Not really: Or that morning when you jump out of bed and announce: “Today’s the day we finally clean the carpets?”

Again, not massively feeling it: Or the summer’s day when you open your eyes and just know you have to sleep in a tent that evening.

OK enough, what exactly does this business do? It is a Library. Of Things. Just like it says. And it’s very new but no one else is doing it so even though they are not technically selling, it’s definitely on-trend and retailers will be paying attention if it really takes off.

Alright, they’re in. Whose baby is this? Three young founders largely from a community entrepreneurial background. Alongside these three directors are six librarians who have up until now been a volunteer team. However, funding is now in place for a paid employee.

Huzza: In 2014 they ran a pilot scheme for three months in West Norwood Library with help from Lambeth Council, which was very popular. The intrepid trio then crowd-funded the £15,000 necessary to take the next step.

Which was? Finding premises. Not so easy when, according to one co-founder Emma Shaw, some landlords were asking for a rent of £50,000. Anyway after trawling every rentable broom cupboard and shed in the area, they finally got a break in 2016 from another local community project, Community Shop.

My cockles are warming as we speak: Community Shop (a social supermarket for low income residents) said The Library of Things could set up in their back yard so the idea of a shipping container full of rentable stuff was born. There’s a lot of activism about apparently in this bit of London.

Yes, but why do we need a library of things? Imagine you live in a small flat in London, space is at a premium, and you don’t own your own house and then suddenly you need to put up a shelf with a drill. What do you do?

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Call the landlord: They’re not helpful and don’t like to be disturbed.

Call a tradesman: OK, add to the above list – money is an issue.

Um… in that case I think shelves are overrated: Well, now you can go to the Library of Things and rent a drill for the day for 50p. Put up shelf, learn a new skill, interact with your borrowing neighbours, and then work on world peace in the evening.

Brilliant: What the founders have cunningly noticed is that there is a whole sector and generation of people who would like, say, to cut the grass in their garden but have no intention/ability/space to make the capital expenditure necessary for a lawn mower for their rented accommodation, which they will use maybe twice in the summer.

Not going to make a fortune on 50p rentals though: Oh hush, it’s not about the money. Retailers have actually bent over backwards to help out – all the camping stuff came from Berghaus and Patagonia, while B&Q alone donated a lawn mower, a pressure washer, and a hand sander.

It’s just like the Generation Game: A soldering iron, a wallpaper steamer…

Crystal decanter? No.

Cuddly toy: Stop that. B&Q very much used the donations as a chance to engage with the local community and also for staff well-being. The five B&Q employees involved had a launch party at the Library of Things for example. It’s not seen as cannibalising B&Q’s own business at all.

What other sectors is the Library offering goods in? Loads. Sports equipment, camping equipment, DIY stuff, general household, kitchen appliances, and gardening tools.

And how does the whole thing work? Free to join, and once you’re in then you can borrow anything on the three days that the library is open in the week. Customers can either borrow for a day or a week with cheaper rates for the day. (e.g. if the drill is £5 for a whole week, it is 50% less for a single day). The cheapest items are 50p (for hand tools) while the most expensive is £10 (for the likes of a gazebo).

I’m going to be the voice of doom and gloom now: Is this a query about stealing?

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Yes, I’m afraid it is: Shaw is at pains to stress that the checks are not onerous, proof of address etcetera and that the tone for what is expected is very much set at registration. But for very expensive items a card payment will be taken. The Library of Things does not take deposits because this increases the cost for customers. As at the time of speaking there had been no issues.

And can anyone give things in for borrowing? About a fifth of stock is from householders donating, with another big chunk coming from the large retailers. And the rest they buy themselves.

But how do they decide what to stock? There is a wish-list up in the container all the time, which people add to. For some of the more technical items you might need help in how to use it, but they have thought of that. There are plans afoot for demonstrations days, master-classes in certain skills, ‘maker days’ for things like furniture making, and make-and-mend cafes.

Dare I ask what the most popular items are? Absolute star borrow is the carpet cleaner. But the camping stuff was never in the shipping container all summer, according to Shaw, and slightly bizarrely the ukulele seemed to tickle Norwood’s fancy too. Other items in the top six are the waffle maker, the sewing machine, and the drills.

Crazy. Who are these waffle-consuming, ukulele-loving locals? There are around 250 members of the library with a core who come and borrow something every fortnight or so. Ninety per cent of members live within walking distance but absolutely anyone can sign up.

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B&Q donations

Can we talk ABC’s please: Not really, that’s so last century. However, Shaw does say that around a third are tech-savvy Millennials who are totally at one with the sharing economy, ethically concerned about producing more stuff than we need and are likely to be living in a rented smaller space with the desire for polished wooden flooring but no room for a sander, thank-you very much.

And the others? A third will be non-tech savvy people – those for whom the sharing economy of Uber and Airbnb has not really got a function, possibly without bank accounts, and probably also using the social supermarket nearby.

And the others? Just local families who like waffles, for goodness sake. Peak borrowing times are the weekend, fairly obviously, when borrows will often get into double figures. A target of 20 daily transactions is about the optimum they are aiming for.

Surely though, this is largely a seasonal thing. Who goes camping in November? According to Shaw, there is clearly a change in borrowing over the seasons but it is more to do with the mix of items rather than people’s propensity to borrow. Christmas brings out people who are suddenly cooking for 15 people and need the big cooking pans, or the large cake mould tins.

You know, I am surprised there is only one of these things around: It’s still an incredibly young venture but surprisingly you do make a good point. A lot of people are banging on Ms Shaw’s door to ask her advice. And to this end, the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has provided funding for another five satellite libraries around the UK. Enrol now for the boot-camp.

Pardon: In the early months of this year Shaw et al will be holding three boot-camp weekends when one can learn how to set up your own Library of Things, understanding regulations, getting insurance and all of that. Stipulations are that interested parties must already have a space and funding. Successful teams will then be chosen and the official Library of Things UK roll out will begin.

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Any other future plans to mention? Oh goodness yes. Shaw is interested in other sectors too – a Library of Things for children (although she concedes that this might be tricky – stair gates for example would be needed for years rather than weeks). However, a toy library could certainly work. And possibly an office version.

Love that: In these days of increasingly shared office space and working from home providing laminators, printers, scanners could well be a winner. And they are also interested in working on the delivery/access points for items.

Yes! Bringing the carpet cleaner to me: Or using click & collect-style lockers, at railway stations, and in the high street. Anything in fact to make it easier for the end-user.

Aha, can I look forward to the Library of Things actually making the waffles for me? Nope.

PCMS is a global provider of IT software and services for the retail industry. PCMS offers a full-range of integrated commerce solutions across selling touch points and also provides turnkey managed services and cloud hosting. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe.

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