Case Study – Waterstones

Retail: Waterstones

The reputation of Waterstones is built upon the knowledge and enthusiasm of their 4,500 booksellers who love great books and are dedicated to finding the titles that their customers want. They strive to create places where people can go to browse, encourages new readers and is home to booksellers that are passionate about the books they sell.


The Challenge

In 2013 Waterstones began a company-wide consultation with around 560 management-level staff, as it prepared for a restructure set to emphasise traditional shop floor bookselling, creating a new Bookshop Manager role, which would, in the words of James Daunt, Managing Director, “call on different skills.”

“It is particularly important that we do this because more than ever before our managers will be central to our ability to deliver effective bookshops: the decisions that define the character of our bookshops will fall to them in the new role. The future of Waterstones ultimately rests on the skill and effort of the bookselling teams in our shops and the leadership given to them.”

– James Daunt, Managing Director

He also added, “The context, however, is the current unforgiving bookselling environment. We may be running better bookshops, and running these in a very different manner to before, but we have yet to recognise this in our management structure. If we are to secure the future of Waterstones, we must take the difficult step to do so.”

With a strong track record in the retail sector and extensive experience of delivering similar processes for other clients undertaking restructuring activities, we were chosen by Waterstones to partner in the implementation of a highly objective assessment process designed to provide managers with the opportunity to demonstrate their capability against the new requirements of the Bookshop Manager position.

The Solution

It was clear from the outset that the process had to meet a number of aims, namely:

  • Objectivity – The assessment had to provide each candidate with a fair and equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities relative to the new Bookshop Manager position whilst ensuring robust measurement of the agreed criteria.
  • Sensitivity – As the process would impact on those involved and the business as a whole. Effective communication of the approach was paramount.
  • Efficiency – With circa 500 managers in scope, the process had to be implemented quickly in order to minimise the operational impact.

Our consultants spoke to subject matter experts to gain a thorough understanding of the new role, the Waterstones environment and the requirements and expectations of Bookshop Managers in the future.

We then designed a series of bespoke exercises set in the organisational context, replicating a Waterstones shop environment and providing candidates with a realistic preview of the responsibilities and challenges of the new role. Various methods, including a webinar, were used to communicate the process to candidates prior to the assessment centres taking place.

Centres were then delivered on a regional basis across a two-week period with two centres running in each location per day. Selected Waterstones assessors were fully trained in the behavioural assessment process and, by working alongside our consultants; we ensured a combination of high quality assessment combined with relevant business context. At the end of each day, a final scoring matrix with key strengths and development needs was created for each candidate.

The Results

  • An analysis of the assessment centre outputs allowed Waterstones to see that the right people had been selected.
  • In a two-week period, we assessed 341 candidates across 6 regional locations using over 50 consultants.
  • 82% of the appointed candidates showed an awareness of their local community and core customers, working to ensure that the bookshop was aligned with the local demographic.