Is Boutique Best?


Dishonest was the word many media outlets used to describe Waterstones after it was found to have opened three unbranded stores, seemingly disguised as independent book shops. With soft pastel shades, quaint typography and a village shop feel, the exterior of the stores looked like any other boutique bookstore, perhaps family run, and serving its local community.

Dishonesty may be a little harsh, but it is interesting that a company such as Waterstones would take this step. What was the reasoning behind it? Waterstones MD, James Daunt, said the company wanted the stores to establish their own identities. “The vast majority [of people] have welcomed them greatly. They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t.
“We can’t open up great big Waterstones here but we can open up small ones. We are coming into quite sensitive high streets with predominantly independent retailers on them and we wish to behave as they do.”

This got me thinking about how the size of a company can affect the way a consumer will view it, and change their expectations accordingly. By using a small independent store, consumers expect a higher level of customer service and care, with real attention to detail. With a large corporate company, prices tend to be lower, but in exchange, customers accept that less time and thought will be put into their needs.

This is a debate we see in PR. Many clients will choose to work with a niche, boutique agency, which offers them regular contact with senior account members, with more love and attention given. Other clients will look to a big agency, who have the resources to offer them a bigger, integrated campaign.

So which is best?

There are many reasons why the boutique approach is best. They know your industry inside out and have smaller account teams that you will get to know very well.

On the other hand, if you have a big budget, and require a supporting digital, SEO, social and advertising campaign to run alongside, a larger agency may be the way to go. In exchange, you may have less contact with senior staff members, and have less of that personal touch.

While these two options are perfect for some clients, there is another type of agency emerging that is bridging the gap between the two, and offering a ‘best of both worlds’ solution. These agencies are big enough to offer comprehensive PR services with the experience to back it up, and a close knit team of PR specialists dedicated to promoting and developing your business through tailored campaigns.

In PR, as well as in the retail world, consumers are after a number of different things from their service, all with differing levels of priority. It’s a matter of compromise.

For me, I love the convenience of a big branded store. But I can understand why Waterstones wanted to tap into the independent store market; there is something about that warm fuzzy feeling you get shopping there, as if you are doing good, and supporting your local area.