Paul Currie of Foyles Discusses Innovation at Wi12 Featured Talk

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In the featured talk “Retail of the Future” on Sunday, January 29, at Winter Institute, Foyles Bookshop CEO Paul Currie gave booksellers a look at the some of the recent innovations in customer service and digital integration strategy at the 114-year-old U.K. book retailer.

Paul CurrieTo start, Currie, who joined the company as CEO in April 2015, praised the company’s legacy of free thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship, charting the store’s history from its founding in 1903 by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle, to the numerous successful (and not as successful) projects, initiatives, and business models the store has tried over the years, including a mail order business, music sales, a chain of libraries, and a travel agency.

In the 1950s, when the London-based company passed to William Foyle’s daughter, Christina, the company began putting on a series of literary luncheons that featured famous authors, writers, and celebrities, which, while they lost Foyles a lot of money, were trendsetting cultural events, Currie said. Foyles experienced a slower period beginning in the 1970s, experiencing financial losses and labor disputes, but the 2000s were the beginning of Foyles’ successful attempt to modernize its business and add more stores. In 2014, Foyles moved its flagship location to 107 Charing Cross Road, into a larger building with 37,000 square feet of retail space just a few blocks down. Since the start of Currie’s tenure in 2015, Foyles has gone on to realize financial success by focusing on customer service and integrating digital and in-store operations.

In his presentation on Sunday, Currie discussed some of his ideas on customer service in the context of recent changes at Foyles, which has seven stores including its flagship location. Foyles has renewed its commitment to customer service through a new program called Project Barnum, which operates on the idea of investing in employees, both in terms of their personal development and in keeping them working for the company, Currie said.

“The team at Foyles are passionate about what they do. What I have done is help them unlock that passion and form it into a strategy that will help us grow the business and take us to the future. I’m really excited by the fact that they have developed all of the concepts [of Barnum]. They have created them and they are now delivering them,” he said. “[Foyles employees] created, through a team of people, the whole concept that has become the compass and the value base of what our business is about.”

Through Barnum, Foyles employees have helped narrow down and define the store’s four core values: to be considerate in all things, to be eager to share, to be mindful, and to be current. Barnum involves a full one-day session of sharing ideas, which everyone within the company, including those who work in the corporate office, goes through, followed by a series of weekly training sessions. The program, which is overseen by Foyles Head of Customer Experience Janette Cross, helps employees learn how to put those values into practice in every aspect of their work. For example, on the sales floor, this might involve putting the value of mindfulness into action by using your eyes and ears to gauge how the customer responds to you and to then predict what they might need.

When it comes to being eager to share, Currie said that booksellers have an amazing amount of knowledge but since many tend to be introverts, some have a hard time sharing it.

“But customers want to know, and we have techniques to help us do that,” said Currie, who also showed a video with bookseller testimonials about the program. “I’ve seen people who are quite introverted, quite shy, suddenly find their place to feel confident with the customer and break down barriers by going through this program.”

Barnum is not about changing an employee’s personality, said Currie, but it succeeds in helping them be the best bookseller that they can be by making customer service a bit easier. Through the program, Foyles employees have also collaborated to identify the four specific types of customers that they regularly see— the “leave me alone to browse” customer; the “help me” customer; the “connect with me” customer; and the “let me immerse myself” customer. This identification system helps Foyles booksellers come up with ways to identify and best serve each type.

Another important element, Currie said, is making sure that Foyles can compete as an omnichannel business, since people shop in lots of different ways, from online to in-store. This initiative has included making the Foyles website more accessible and easier to use as well as ensuring that online discounts are in line with those offered in the physical store. Foyles reformatted its website from a visually noisy model to one that is easier to navigate and full of rich content, including videos, bookseller recommendations, guest blogs, and author interviews, and the change has led to an uptick in both transactional activity and traffic.

“It’s really important that people have choice today, and we want customers to have a rich relationship with us in terms of using our website,” said Currie. “Instead of trying to be a mass market discounting value-oriented business, we want to, through our website, give a much richer experience so the journey continues not just in the store but out of the store.”

Currie has also utilized digital technology to implement a new customer service system that booksellers can use to better serve and connect with customers.

“We’re taking our website into a much more relevant position. We had a system sitting in the background that engaged with millions of ISBNs of product, so we created the Foyles Lite system, which is an iPad-based ordering system that every bookseller who works for Foyles carries as part of their store workwear,” he said. “What this does is, it enables the members of the staff to be able to engage with a much richer and broader range of product.”

Foyles Lite also helps booksellers in the store create a more intimate relationship with customers by engaging with them on multiple levels. In terms of other technological advances, Currie said Foyles now also uses video screens on its store walls to feature information about books, announcements, and broadcasts of events from all of its stores, as well as bookseller-generated content including video recommendations.

Currie said that Foyles is currently focusing on growing their business by adding more stores in a logical and profitable way to provide more points of access to the customer. He said his hopes for the company are to open new stores in regions beyond London and its environs; each regional location would be about 4,000 square feet, he said.

“We really want to become that local bookseller, so we’re engaging with the community. We’re becoming part of the community and we are talking and learning from our customers,” he said, adding that this initiative of community engagement has led to valuable demographic insights, like the decision to expand Foyles’ children’s department.

Like indie bookstores, Foyles operates under the concept of bookstores as a third space, incorporating cafés, entertainment, and events as a way to attract new customers and give them a rich and rewarding experience. Events are key to Foyles and always have been, said Currie; recent successful events have included a building event with Lego as well as the start of the company’s new Storybox children’s festival.

Foyles stores are making a financial effort to invest in their communities as well, by sponsoring local sports teams and instituting local charity drives at certain store cafés. Foyles is also working to develop local social media so that each store has its own Facebook and its own Twitter account. That way, Currie said, “we can be relevant, quick, and responsive to local needs.”

Going forward, Currie said that Foyles is looking to become even more of an experiential retailer, a direction that will lead the company closer to its desired role as a community destination, rather than just a place to buy books.

“It’s not good enough today to just have books on the shelves — that’s what Amazon does. Amazon is what booksellers were 30 or 40 years ago,” Currie said. “Experiential retailing is all about creating events and creating a reason to come to the physical bookstore.”