Unashamedly retail: a new Vic Books

The day I visited the new Vic Books in Kelburn was the day the drought broke in Wellington. I came in from the rain with streams of students to a space that was light, bright and full of energy.

Elvis played on the sound system at a level that could boost your mood but not break your concentration, staff served lines of students, the shop was full of people browsing for books, cards and snacks and down one side customers queued for morning coffees then sat drinking them at high and low tables surrounding the central, white-tiled kitchen area.

There’s a hum and a buzz to the new Vic Books that lets you know something’s happening here but it’s all okay, they’ve got everything under control.

IMAGE: Vic Cafe.

Four years in the planning
Four years ago Victoria University began planning for the creation of a vibrant, central heart for its Kelburn Campus. A new three level building and outdoor area would offer students lively social spaces, comfortable study areas and food outlets.

It would also bring the retail outlets together giving staff and students plenty of reasons to stick around on campus between classes.

Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association Trust who own Vic Books were partners in the hub project too; it seemed a no-brainer to include the campus bookshop in the redevelopment.

Measure twice, cut once
The redevelopment of Vic Books was a calculated risk - a chance to redevelop and focus on the future, rather than on the potential ‘end of the bookshop’ model.  

As the building was being developed the Board of Vic Books set about working on the structure, shape and strategy of their business. They focused their goals, researched the market through bookshop visits to Australia and the US and hired help in areas where they lacked specialist skills.

Hiring a consultant to help with business development was a great decision, says Juliet Blyth, General Manager of Vic Books, because it meant the Board was supported in setting goals and objectives for the business and directed in making some key decisions that would shape Vic Books now, and in the future.

Pockets of discoverability
Part of the charm – and business success – in Vic Books is in the level of discoverability in-store. Browsing the store customers are met with unexpected gift items, stationery and other attractive products to drive customer desirability.

The next part of Juliet’s plan is to add ‘layers’ to the shop with a greater gift range, an events programme and book reviews.

“I see myself unashamedly as a bookseller and a retailer; I think it’s possible to be both” says Juliet.

IMAGE: Pockets of stationery, cards and other desirable items fill in walkways through the store and slow down traffic.

The key to selling books is not selling books…
A focus on business longevity and the changing face of bookstores meant diversifying what was sold. Like any good bookshop Vic Books is stacked with books but there’s also things you wouldn’t expect to see like a dedicated section (called The Food Store) for great drinks, fair-trade chocolate and locally-sourced ‘real food’ options.
Selling a changing range of quality food creates habits in customers – they know if they pop in each day there’s always a great, inexpensive purchase to find and often something new to try.

“We’ve done a heck of a lot of Snapper (bus card) top-ups since opening” but bringing customers in-store is half the battle. The store is also set up with display units in the main walkway to slow down traffic and encourage browsing and discovery.

“Most of all we’re trying to create a space where people feel they belong,” says Juliet.

Plans are afoot for regular events and Vic Books hopes to develop partnerships with other areas of the university. That might include story time for children in the university crèche’s (with over 2000 staff on campus children’s books are a big-seller for Vic Books) or babysitting some of the Adam Art Gallery’s art collection by hanging it on Vic Books’ large, white walls.

“I know the word community is over-used but that’s what we are. As a bricks and mortar store we can’t just be in it for price – we need customers who are loyal to us for love, because they like what we do and because they feel like this bookshop is a place they want to be part of.”


Here’s to working smarter
“Opening the new store isn’t the end of the Vic Books project for me, it’s just the beginning,” says Juliet who has found herself with a more strategic role in the business.

Alongside the Board she’s set ambitious sales targets and has percentage sales goals to achieve for the areas of the store: text books, food store, the cafe, books, gifts and stationery.

A flexibility in display furniture can help there – much of the furniture in the central areas are mobile shelving meaning units can be shifted and rearranged for maximum impact, or pushed back to create central events spaces.

Category markers are written in chalk on a blackboard ribbon that runs along much of one wall – an approach that softens the structure of the store, keeps it contemporary and adds an air of homeliness.

The staff structure has transformed too from a workplace staffed with a lot of part-timers to a crew of more full-time staff with support from students and part-timers. New hires have greater retail and sales skills and staff spend more time upskilling.
“We worked really hard to ensure everything was sorted for the staff when they turned up on the first day so that right from the start things were running as smoothly as they could and they were confident in the new space.”

“While we don’t spend a lot of money on training, we do talk a lot amongst ourselves about what’s happening, which keeps everyone informed about the business.
“We’re also investing more in our junior staff,” says Juliet,

“They’re a strong core of our business now and I hope really feel like they belong, which helps them take ownership of their work and the achievements of the store.”
A person has to eat

For the first time Vic Books Kelburn is open Saturdays, which means ample opportunity for the locals to walk down the hill for brunch and mid-morning book browsing.  Basic breakfasts will be added to the Vic Café menu Juliet says, and again it will be good, wholesome real food at a reasonable price.

When time permits Juliet has plans to pick up her wooden spoon and bake from their extensive cookbook collection for café customers, first on her list will be Love Bake Nourish by Amber Rose and Short and Sweet by Dan Lepard.

IMAGE: Tables of books full the store.

The future
One of the next jobs on the list is the redevelopment of the Vic Books website, which long-term will help develop a better-rounded textbook offer for students. That will line up nicely with changes in higher education books, with are increasingly available digitally.

“In ten years time I hope we’ll be similar to what we are now,” says Juliet.

“We’ll always be a work in progress. Sure, the mix might have changed but more and more people want a place they can come and feel part of and we will be that place.”
Nobody can make great things without great friends

Vic Books would like to give a special shout out to People’s Coffee who supply fair-trade organic coffee and support to the Vic Books Café and graphic artist Sarah Maxey who developed a new brand for Vic Books that now sits proudly on tote bags, bookmarks and university branded merchandise and more.

Written by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ.

Thanks to Juliet Blyth and for interview. Hub research from here.

Images from the Vic Books blog.