Article for Government Opportunities by Iain Dale, Managing Director, Politico’s Bookstore.
Owning and running a small business - a comparatively new small business at that - is something best done by a masochist. Why else would anyone put themselves through the torture that is part and parcel of today’s short termist business environment? It’s one hassle after another - one bad debt after another. Wouldn’t life be peaceful without those wretched things called suppliers and customers?
And now the good news! We do it because we want to be different. We do it because we think we can and above all because we want to. While we may not anticipate all the hurdles which may be put in our way we believe that they are all insurmountable and at any rate, it’s better than working for someone else.
I started a specialist political bookshop business two and a half years ago with a colleague, John Simmons. Neither of us had any experience of bookselling, let alone retailing. I was a pharmacist, he was a pharmaceutical rep. Were we mad? Some days we probably think so.
So why did I do it? Why, why, why did I forego the delights of political lobbying and a company Audi for the delights of the book industry, a minuscule income and a five year old Rover? Probably for the same reason as the rest of the industry is hooked on the trade.
The concept for Politico’s was conceived about four years ago following a trip to Washington DC, where I found a superb political themestore, which although it stocked very few books, was a place of pure delight for a political anorak like me. If it worked in Washington, I thought, why shouldn’t it work in London? My thinking progressed and the dreaded business plan was commenced. Once I had done the financial calculations, redone them, and redone them again, I decided to take the plunge and in May 1996 the world of political lobbying was left behind. And then the problems started.
Although an expert on the world of politics, my only experience of the book trade was as a customer - and not a very impressed one at that. I decided from the outset that I would run my store the way I wanted to and avoid what I perceived as some of the tired ways of the book industry in general.
I have firmly believed that the future in retailing is to specialise and build up customer loyalty. If candle shops can succeed, then why not a political bookshop? But the history of political bookshops is not a particularly happy one. This is mainly due to the fact they have almost entirely been devoted to one side (i.e., the left) of the political spectrum and thereby at a stroke offended at least 60% of their potential customers. I can remember several trips to Colletts feeling a sense of mild irritation (and sometimes not so mild) that they refused to stock anything to the left of Tony Benn - at least, that’s how it seemed. So the first decision was made - to stock the whole gamut of the political spectrum, from Marx to Thatcher.
I decided from the outset that such a shop could only work if a site could be found within a few minutes walk of the Houses of Parliament and in late August we eventually found site just off Victoria Street. It even had a mezzanine balcony level where we decided to install a coffee shop with a live cable TV link to Parliament.
Since we opened I am told we have received more media coverage than any other independent bookstore in living memory. Opening just before the election campaign obviously helped. In the first five months of our business we had been featured on 22 TV programmes and I had done 33 radio interviews as well as the features in every national newspaper. If I had known that was going to happen I could have saved a good proportion of a vastly overspent advertising budget. And they call me a media tart...
Learning about the book trade has been an illuminating experience, particularly with suppliers, i.e. publishers. My suspicions that all might not be smooth were aroused when having written to more than 100 publishers asking for their politics catalogues I received replies from only 15. A ring around drew another 15. My preconception that publishers existed to sell books to booksellers was obviously a mistake. Silly me. In the end I gave up and placed my entire stock order through a wholesaler, Gardners, whose support and patience I could not have done without. What I may have lost on discounts was more than made up for in the fact that I didn’t have to worry anymore. Two years down the line I am naturally dealing direct with the main political publishers and gradually getting the discounts right, although the words ‘blood’, ‘getting’ and ‘stone’ come to mind.
Where wholesalers like Gardners score heavily is on delivery times, although for a specialist store like Politico’s even their range of titles is not large enough to rely on them completely. One of my frustrations as a customer was the time customer orders take. If wholesalers can deliver next day, why do publishers have such difficulty with the Just In Time concept? Still no answer, although one or two I think are now beginning to address the problem.
I have to say that my experience dealing with government departments and public sector bodies has been very positive. We operate about 80 customer accounts, of which about 15-20 are public sector bodies. These include the House of Commons Library as well as most of the Government departments. To my absolute astonishment, we rarely have problems with payment, although I do find it slightly ironic that the Department of Trade & Industry, supposedly the Department for small businesses, is by far and away the worst payer. But most pay within 21 days - that’s a bet I would have lost!
Some of this business we have had to tender for, which has not always been a very productive experience in terms of time spent filling out meaningless forms which have little relevance to the contract under tender. So far we have won half of those contracts we have tendered for, which is not bad when one considers that we are up against the likes of Blackwells and Waterstones.
Our experience suggests that the key to a happy life with a public sector customer is to make sure your product is totally relevant to their business and not to waste their time with speculative calling. Once they are used to dealing with you, you will get to know each other’s little foibles and learn to accommodate them.
Like most small businesses our main worries concern excessive business rates and attempts by the local council to make our life as difficult as possible. I would love for someone to explain to me what we actually get for our £1500 a month rates apart from the local Jobsworth council representative informing us that he will prosecute us if we continue to display our sandwich board on the pavement. I gently try explaining to him that it attracts customers into the shop who in turn part with their money to enable me to pay his salary - but for some reason it doesn’t seem to do the trick. I take it in. He disappears. I put it out again. We all play the game, however ridiculous it might be. I might not mind so much if the Council even collected our rubbish for free. Oh no, that would be asking too much. 60p a bag, I ask you. I’m tempted to stand for the council myself but it would mean a humiliating climbdown, having once described local councillors as the ‘lowest form of political life’.
But what of the long term? Most independents fear the strength of the chains. Specialist stores are not immune to these fears but no one should fear fair competition. Our main concern is being able remain independent but at the same time being able to grow the business and expand without either having to either borrow huge sums or bring demanding new investors into the business. Time will tell. I’d happily settle for still being here and enjoying it in five years time. Sometimes you just know when you’ve found your niche in life.