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CASE STUDY: Mobile technology boosts Blackwell’s

By Retail Technology | Wednesday January 24 2018

Academic books retailer Blackwell’s has seen a significant rise in sales after introducing a raft of new technologies including tablet computers and mobile POS devices

The new technologies have helped to improve customer service and reduce queuing times in stores as well as improve customer experience and operations in over 400 off-site book-selling events a year. 

Mobile point of sale (POS) technology through retail software provider itim has contributed to increased sales of physical books and cut administrative tasks by almost forty hours a week in the busiest weeks for many outlets. 

The retailer has supported half a million pounds of sales in the last year on the new mobile devices at off-site events.

University campuses

It operates around 40 permanent stores across Britain and another 40 pop-up stores that open temporarily – some on university campuses for a few weeks at the start of each term and others at book festivals and conferences across the UK. 

Some pop-up shops might open for a few days or a week, for instance, during university Freshers’ Week. 

Others typically operate for around six weeks or sometimes up to three months, depending on demand.

“We wanted to use mobile technology to improve customer experience and extend our services across multiple channels,” said Kate Stilborn, customer service and operations director at Blackwells Bookshops. “Mobile technology will also give our customers access to not just the stock in our bookshops, but also across eight million titles available online for free home delivery or collection.”

Personal service

The move to more personalised service via mobile devices comes at a time when traditional booksellers are under growing pressure from online retail goliaths and supermarkets, not to mention new forms of reading online on tablets and e-readers.

Nonetheless, Blackwell’s hasn’t seen a fall in demand for physical books. Indeed, sales have actually increased for the retailer.

Extending the store

Thanks in part to new mobile technology and being able to sell more books at universities and at regional or seasonal events throughout the year, the retailer has seen a return to profit on sales of around £60 million a year.

“During a six-week trial period, we were able to take an extra £100,000 by being able to use tablets off-site and by being at events where thousands of extra books can be sold,” explained Stilborn. “This has now escalated to around £500,000 when we started to use them more.”

During the first three months of using itim’s mobile technology off-site, Blackwell’s recorded over a quarter of a million pounds in sales processed using the tablets. However, time savings, simplicity and offering much better customer service is really how mobile retailing has benefited the independent bookseller.

Moving on from manual processes

Previously, going to a literary book fair would entail printing off endless lists of books and laboriously referencing and ticking off each one sold, then spending hours back at the store manually inputting into the central stock system(BookSolve, which is also used by other independents and Foyles). Clearly, this often led to a number of discrepancies and inaccuracies, so stock losses were an issue.

“When you go back to store you can spend hours re-keying and trying to reconcile your stock and your takings,” explained Stilborn. “So we needed a system that was not just about taking money, but one that would integrate across other IT platforms, updating exactly what we’ve just sold and providing pertinent information to our staff and customers.”

Blackwell’s uses itim’s Chameleon point of sale solution on 122 fixed tills across 37 stores, as well as on tablets for queue-busting and at off-site events. The software is able to manage promotions and quickly process book tokens and rewards via its loyalty scheme (GiveX), whether in-store or off-site. Blackwell’s even offers a buy-back facility for its customers, exchanging used books (often at the beginning or end of each university year) and recording them in the system for selling second-hand in stores and online.

Mobile operations

Now, transactions can be swiftly processed using mobile devices – whether directly on the shop floor, to reduce queues at the checkout during busy periods; or off-site at university campuses, popup stores and even in marquees at events where there might not be any mains electricity or wifi. 

Blackwell’s uses mobile peripherals, including battery-powered scanners to swipe barcodes on the back of books, as well as Bluetooth receipt printers.

For every thousand pounds that they’ve taken using mobile tills, the company has estimated that it has saved an hour or two in time.

And the time savings on a week of peak trading in a flagship can be around forty hours a week - the equivalent of a full-time bookseller - which frees up a lot of time for its 700 employees to do other more meaningful tasks, like serving customers. 

Other benefits cited include improved data accuracy for more consistent stock levels across the business and reduced shrinkage (stock losses). The new mobile technology has also been well received by staff and customers alike.