Retail Species – The Changing Man

The Person: Chris Powell
The Company: Stanfords
The Job Title:  Chief Executive

The Story: Say Stanfords to most people and they say ‘Ah yes, the best travel bookshop in the world.’ Which is all well and good unless you say it to Chris Powell when it is definitely not the right answer. The correct answer here is ‘Ah yes, the best internet-led travel information group in the world.’

A man on a mission of change then: Absolutely. This year he went to Vietnam. He bought the guide book at Stanfords and booked the rest of the trip at home on the internet. What he wants to be able to do one day is to do the whole thing at Stanfords but his retail challenge lies in bringing both customers and staff along with him.

Unwilling? You could say that. Powell, who has been in the job around three years, knows bookshops are dying on their feet even venerable ones opened in 1853, but people like what they know. He thinks that Stanfords needs to be a more experiential place – something that women especially value. The whole customer journey needs to be covered in one shop. He wants more pictures, emotion, posters, deals – a ‘feminisation’ you could say. What he also wants is an emporium, but the customers who want serious rows of serious maps still need persuading.

Hmm. What are his retail reference points? Well, the Stanfords vision is to create something that combines what we have now with the National Geographic shop, the Royal Geographic Society, and the London Transport Museum – both its shop and the museum that make it a must-visit place in the Covent Garden area.

What’s wrong with it? Well, there has always been a website but it has just had a revamp. Powell’s vision for this is for Stanfords to be unique in offering the whole range of guides, maps etc which will free people from the plethora of sites offering bits and pieces of the whole. Sales are already 20% up on what they were previously.

It’ll be injections next!  Funny that you should mention it. An innoculation/travel centre is entirely within Powell’s thinking. He is running a big old shop here – three vast floors in the middle of Covent Garden. Space is not an issue. So up-selling and cross-selling accessories like map covers, Stanfords own-brand walking poles, and pen knives are now being sold – so little by little he is pulling everyone his way. His ‘themed area’ in the basement is just about to get into action.

What’s the theme? Constantly changing. He rents it out to travel companies who take it over, run events, pay for the privilege of association and bring in their customers to his shop, and share their database. And it’s already booked out till March. Nice.

So what is the background of this person creating shockwaves through the bookshelves? It’s a private equity story. Powell was a director at Charterhouse where he had a portfolio of SME companies. So he has the finance experience and the strategic thinking to turn the shop about face. He has plenty of different roles at Stanfords, you can add company secretary and finance director to his list of job titles for a start. And of course ‘hand-holder through change manager’.

Is it really that bad? Think Foyles, think very long term staff with two degrees selling books for the love of it. And then tell them they have to rearrange the shop. Put best-selling literature sections on France, Italy and Spain upstairs so that people have to go through the rest of the shop first. It’s not romantic but it sells stuff. Book signings likewise. They used to be held on street level – people walk in and walk straight out again with their book. No, said Powell. Do them downstairs and people will buy on their way down. Eeek said the staff. Where are the impulse buy stands? said Powell. Get some door counters too, install iPads!

Crikey, I begin to see his problem: He is very excited about kiosks. These could be in tiny outlets operating in airports or in a small part of larger stores, with a small range of core stock but offering the ability to buy the whole range online in the kiosk. Minimal costs are involved and it makes overseas expansion possible.

The internet is key then I see: It certainly is. Powell has made enormous changes in the IT systems to allow for a much larger internet business in due course. 20% of sales come from around the world already and this will be bigger. But the stand-out online (and in-store) category is maps where Stanfords has such a uniquely wide range. They have always done B2B business with property developers and housing associations providing them with OS maps, but Powell is now seeking to drag some of that over into B2C. Imagine having your own personalised map done for you in-store while you wait. It can be done and it’s yours starting at £24.

I’ll have one: He is also thinking of an online loyalty card and perhaps even a Travel Club offering discounted deals for members. And if you are still determined for Stanfords to be a bookshop, then check out the entrance display where, shock horror, your light beach reading is now also available.

Whoa there. I’m getting ideas overload: There are plenty of ‘em but very little money to spend on marketing them, which means the chief executive is going to need all his retail nous to generate free publicity. But judging by what he has already persuaded the public and staff to do that shouldn’t be a problem.