Playing by the book? Tonbridge literary retailer is upset by chain’s strategy

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Phil Holden wants diversity on the high street

Playing by the book? Tonbridge literary retailer is upset by chain’s strategy

by Andy Tong | 8th August 2019

AN INDEPENDENT bookseller on Tonbridge High Street is crying foul over the tactics of retail chain WH Smith.

Phil Holden, who owns Mr Books, has objected to a poster that the nationwide company posted in its window at Nos 35-37 High Street.

It said: “We won’t be beaten on price. If you find a book cheaper in town we’ll refund the difference and give you 10 per cent off your next book purchase.”

Mr Holden, whose shop is at No 142 High Street, responded on Twitter: “Seems like our WH Smith doesn’t like the competition in Tonbridge – basically us.

‘It’s just good business for companies to be good neighbours’

“So is this corporate responsibility and how would you recommend we respond?”

He also posted a link to a section on its website, where he quoted its ‘community engagement policy’.

It included the following: “In line with our Code of Business Conduct, we aim to make the communities in which we work better places to live and do business.”

It said it would ‘seek to be sensitive to the local community’s culture and social and economic needs and encourage our employees to be involved with local communities to their mutual benefit’.

Mr Books has been open since 2005, and was taken over by Mr Holden two years ago in August 2017.

He is an academic at the University of Brighton and teaches social marketing at a business school there.

Mr Holden, whose store was named the best bookshop in Kent in last year’s Muddy Stiletto awards, told the Times: “I have an interest in ethical and social enterprise. It’s just good business for companies to be good neighbours.

'Many of us try to avoid retailers we don’t warm to, but sometimes we don’t have any choice'

“Legally, limited companies are like persons with rights and responsibilities.

“Smiths would, I suspect, be quick to assert their rights, but they (and many other large companies) seem slower to recognise their responsibilities.”

He said: “The vast majority of businesses in the UK are SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises].

“As consumers, many of us try to avoid those we don’t warm to, but sometimes we don’t have any choice. Like if the Post Office is based there.”

The Post Office was relocated the the WH Smith premises when the old branch on Angel Walk closed in March 2017.

Mr Holden added: “I think this promotional idea from WH Smith is misguided.

“If we had a branch of Waterstones, you might think it reasonable, but there is only one bookshop – and that’s Mr Books.

“It essentially costs Smiths nothing to make this price promise but it sends out a signal that they don’t want to support diversity of local enterprise.

“Tonbridge retailers like Fuggles, Gorgeous George, The Old Fire Station, Pavilion Flowers, Ian Chatfield and Sankey’s Fishmongers are fighting hard to avoid identikit high streets.”

But he remained realistic about the competitive nature of retail. “I’ve been boosted by the positive response,” he said. “But people need to vote with their feet and their wallets if they are to keep the small and more interesting retailers in the town.”

Sarah Spence, the new chair of Tonbridge Town Team which tries to boost local businesses, said: “I guess this is a blanket policy by Smiths, not taking the local impact into account.

“We at the Tonbridge Town Team support our local independent retailers that give Tonbridge High Street its identity.

“Anything that might have a negative impact on our independent retailers is something that we at the Town Team couldn’t support.”

But she acknowledged the power of commercial giants and the various deals to entice customers.

“Mr Books has every right to feel angry but this is how large national retail chains work.

“Special offers, deals and Bogofs [buy one, get one free] are just what they do.

“To put into context, it’s all about quantity versus quality, although in the case of books and encouraging reading, Smiths can take the moral high ground as books are seen as sacrosanct.

“In the eyes of most they should be accessible price-wise – and the cheaper the better.

“This naturally is at a detrimental cost to smaller retailers.”

WH Smith were approached for a comment.

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